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Gas fracking, dirty politics and the fight for a clean energy future

Lauren Mellor

Drinks stop: Birds wing their way over the remote Territory water body of Lake Woods. Photo: Lauren Mellor

As gas rigs roll into the Beetaloo, tensions over plans to turn the Territory into the next gas fracking frontier are coming to a head.

ABOUT 600 KILOMETRES SOUTH-EAST of Darwin is the permanent wetland of Lake Woods, the largest freshwater lake in the Territory. Not far from Elliott in the Barkly Tablelands, the wetland is an internationally significant breeding ground for flocks of migrating birds, including threatened species such as the Gouldian Finch, Grey Falcon and Painted Honeyeater. During the monsoon more than 100,000 waterbirds find refuge there. For millennia, Lake Woods, known as Jurrkulu by its traditional custodians, the Mudburra and Jingili people, has been a reliable and celebrated source of water. But this year, as an unprecedented drought grips the region, water levels in the lake have dropped so low that surrounding pastoral stations are producing hay for cattle feed on its dry bed.

Lake Woods is at the southernmost tip of the Beetaloo Basin, a formation covering roughly 28,000 square kilometres stretching from Mataranka thermal springs in the north to Elliott in the south and the Gulf of Carpentaria in the east. On the surface, the region is a remote tropical savannah with a network of floodplains, springs and rivers connected for months of the year by floodwaters, and year-round by a vast underground water system. The Tindall limestone aquifer beneath is ancient water, and the source of drinking water for tens of thousands living in the Top End’s regional and remote communities, cattle stations and Indigenous homelands.

It is estimated that the Beetaloo is also one of the largest gas reserves on the planet, holding over a hundred trillion cubic feet of gas. Tapping the Beetaloo’s gas would require thousands of wells to be drilled through the underground water table and an extensive network of pipelines, roads and gas processing infrastructure to be built. Companies eager to exploit the region’s rich reserves have recently begun drilling new water extraction bores to feed a thirsty exploration program taking place upstream of Lake Woods. Their ultimate intention is to extract the gas using a controversial method called hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as ‘fracking’.

Fracking uses a highly pressurised mix of water, sand and chemicals forced down each drill hole to shatter the shale rock below and release oil and gas, which can then flow to the surface. It’s a water-intensive process, with one UN report suggesting a single frack on a shale gas well will use, and pollute, between 11 and 34 million litres of water. In the Northern Territory, figures are estimated to be higher again, with gas company Origin Energy suggesting they will require 50 – 60 million litres of water per well in the Beetaloo basin. 

What to do with the toxic wastewater produced through fracking is a challenge that has dogged the industry since its inception.[1] Fracking flowback water requires complex treatment to remove a cocktail of chemicals, radionuclides and other heavy metals that are returned to the surface during drilling. In the Beetaloo, where low-lying areas flood for months of the year, the Northern Territory Government succumbed to intense industry lobbying to allow open evaporative ponds to be used to store large volumes of contaminated wastewater, and save on expensive treatment options. But the open ponds risk flooding or leaking to become a rare and attractive source of water for animals and birdlife in semi-arid regions of the NT.[2]

‘The use of these ponds is a danger to downstream waterways and wildlife,’ concludes Katherine-based  veterinarian Dr Samantha Phelan, who regularly travels regions earmarked for fracking. 

Toxic for animals: Veterinarian Sam Phelan, at her home in Katherine’s rural area. Photo: Lauren Mellor, July 2019.

‘In these regions, great murmurations of budgies create tornado patterns on the skyline and native bees cling to any water holding tank or dripping line. Frogs, lizards, bats, a myriad of insects seek water daily. It is unimaginably irresponsible to leave large evaporation ponds full of toxic fracking water open to these creatures whose lives are dictated by the search for water.’

The Northern Territory has become the latest target in the global oil and gas industry’s relentless expansion. But as scientific knowledge grows about the risks fracking poses to groundwater, and the experiences of communities living inside a gasfield expand, fracking operations have begun to attract controversy wherever and whenever they are undertaken. US studies implicating shale gas in the contamination of groundwater with heavy metals, chemicals and gas have underwritten widespread concern about the industry’s impacts, along with broader concerns over drinking water contamination and well failure

From her veranda in the tiny outback town of Elliott in the heart of the Beetaloo basin, Jingulu elder Janet Gregory watches long rolling clouds on the horizon that haven’t produced rain since the Wet officially began months ago. She wonders how gas companies with no history or experience operating in the Territory will navigate the unfamiliar conditions.

‘They’re drilling up there,’ she says, pointing northeast where the catchment for Lake Woods begins. ‘But any mistakes, and us living down here, we’re the ones who will cop it.’

Complicating fracking’s arrival in the Northern Territory is a prolonged drought affecting communities from Alice Springs in the Red Centre to Katherine in the north, where white-gold Tallgrass, Cockatoo, and Tippera grassplains and near-empty dams line the red dust highways. Even Darwin’s populous rural area, reliant on groundwater bores, is suffering record-low recharge of its aquifers, while remote Aboriginal outstations have been left without drinking water for weeks at a time. This Dry season many rural residents have been forced to truck in their own drinking water. For a region almost entirely reliant on groundwater for its survival, water, who gets it, and how we manage it as we enter a drier, less certain climate future has become the talk of the Territory.

ON 27 AUGUST 2016, TERRITORIANS VOTED OUT a chaotic conservative government largely for the promise of a moratorium on fracking and a scientific inquiry into its likely effects from the NT Labor Party’s proposed Chief Minister, Michael Gunner. The new government commissioned what ended up a 15-month Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory, chaired by Hon. Justice Rachel Pepper and commonly called the Fracking Inquiry. 

Going, going gone: Lake Mary-Anne Dam near Tennant Creek is at its lowest level ever recorded, as drought bites the Barkly region. Photo: Lauren Mellor, June 2019.

The Inquiry attracted unprecedented participation in its community consultations and formal hearings from a diverse cross-section of the Territory’s population, including farmers, pastoralists, traditional owners, tourism operators, recreational fishers and concerned families. All reported widespread concern over the fracking industry’s social, environmental and economic impacts, alongside strong evidence from engineering, public health, climate and environmental science experts.

While the science regarding the impacts of shale gas fracking has only recently caught up with the scale of the industry’s rapid expansion, evidence of harm is unequivocal. In 2019, out of 685 published scientific papers on the impacts of unconventional gas development, ‘84% of public health studies show risks to human health, 69% of water studies show actual or potential water contamination, and 87% of air quality studies show elevated air pollution’. Spontaneous votes from the floor of many of the consultation meetings held during the Fracking Inquiry revealed that a significant majority supported an outright ban on fracking. Participants rejected the NT Government’s Terms of Reference, which restricted the Inquiry to recommending regulatory improvements to ‘reduce the risks of fracking to acceptable levels’ as a foregone conclusion to allow fracking. The report ultimately recommended 135 costly and complex regulatory and legislative reforms to manage fracking risks, from an overhaul of petroleum and water laws to a host of new groundwater, methane and social impact studies to address significant gaps in scientific understanding.

Gas rigs began rolling into Beetaloo communities in August, despite many of the Inquiry’s ‘strict’ recommendations remaining outstanding.

When the Gunner Government lifted the moratorium on fracking in April 2018, it did so in spite of the report’s critical finding that ‘for a significant majority … the overwhelming consensus was that hydraulic fracturing for onshore shale gas in the NT is not safe, is not trusted and is not wanted.’ For Indigenous communities across the Gulf, Roper and Barkly regions, where invasive resource extraction has been a feature of the Territory’s colonisation since its earliest days, the Inquiry found that opposition was ‘almost universal.’ Nonetheless, by June, maps had been issued that divided the Territory into land where fracking was permitted and where it was not. As a result, voting population centres were off limits, while gas companies had the right to operate over fifty-one percent of the Territory’s landmass. Exploration was given the greenlight on farms and cattle stations, Indigenous homelands, ecologically and culturally significant areas and the outskirts of regional centres like Katherine, Mataranka, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek.

Gas rigs began rolling into Beetaloo communities in August this year, despite the fact that many of the Fracking Inquiry’s ‘strict’ recommendations remain outstanding. This includes critical land access legislation that could offer some redress to the current power imbalance between communities and the resource companies seeking entry to their land to explore for oil and gas.

Rod Dunbar owns a family-operated cattle station at Nutwood Downs, 405,000 hectares on the Stuart Highway some 550km south of Darwin and overlying the Beetaloo gas reserve. Since 2015, the Dunbars have resisted signing a land access agreement being insisted on by one of Australia’s largest gas retailers, Origin Energy. The family is concerned that the hundreds of gas wells being proposed for the region would devastate the productivity of their business and risk contaminating or depleting groundwater critical to the station’s operation. Dunbar is also concerned over who would compensate for any environmental damage after gas projects conclude, a question which has not yet been resolved. The family argues it should not be forced to grant access when petroleum companies are not even required to hold insurance to protect the family business in the event of a contamination incident.

It’s a reasonable argument, but there is little in NT law to protect landholders like the Dunbars from invasive fracking. Under the Petroleum Act, a gas company with a permit has almost unfettered access to enter rural properties, Native Title areas, farms or cattle stations for exploration, regardless of consent or the environmental, social and economic costs.

Holding ground: Rod Dunbar is one of over 70 Northern Territory cattle station owners calling for a ban on fracking to protect water supplies and the pastoral industry. Photo: Lauren Mellor, April 2018.

‘These companies plan to drill through the same water table that supplies drinking and stock water to tens of thousands of Territorians and our pastoral industry,’ says Mr Dunbar.

‘One significant fracking accident, and our entire region would be in dire straits.’

The impacts fracking would have on scarce water supplies are a key driver in the opposition from rural communities. Under the NT’s Water Act, a gas company responsible for a pollution incident enjoys a statutory defence, while landholders could be held liable for any compensation that arises from the incident. In 2017, Origin’s own environmental management report rated the risk posed to freshwater aquifers by fracking as ’medium to high, and likely’ with ‘serious consequences’. 

The highly pressurised Moroak Aquifer, four times saltier than sea water, lies atop the Beetaloo basin. Cattle producers are nervous that a drilling accident could cause irreversible contamination from the inter-mingling of potable and salty water sources. Despite this, government approval for the first of several test wells across the Barkly and Carpentaria regions was granted in August and September 2019. It is the trampling of these fundamental tenets of fairness, exposing communities to risk while robbing them of a say in the future development of their own regions, that has been the catalyst for the formation of unusual alliances between environmental groups, pastoral landholders, farming and Indigenous communities. All are finding common ground over the shared threats to water, and the limited rights afforded to those determined to protect it. Some cattle stations and whole communities have vowed to lock their gates to unwanted exploration, declaring their regions ‘frack-free’ following a process of grassroots neighbour-to-neighbour surveys. Others are taking their fight to the courts to protect land and livelihoods. Deep battle lines have been drawn in the bush, and as gas rigs roll into the Beetaloo, tensions over plans to turn the Territory into the next gas fracking frontier are coming to a head.

WHEN THE GUNNER GOVERNMENT SAYS it is committed to a ‘robust’ regulatory regime that can protect communities from fracking risks, Territorians, more than most, have cause to be sceptical. The Northern Territory is a place where resource extraction and water contamination go hand in hand, and where ordinary citizens are often forced to become whistle blowers when governments fail to act.

In 2016, Katherine residents were devastated when revelations of widespread water contamination broke, and shocked  that many rural bores and even the town drinking water was considered unsafe. Over decades, the nearby Department of Defence base has used firefighting foam containing toxic perfluorinated chemicals, commonly known as PFAS, which has leached into underground water supplies with government knowledge, and without intervention.

A bridge too far: The regional town of Katherine, 300kms south of Darwin, has long opposed fracking plans because of a history of government and industry regulatory failure to protect water. Photo: Charmaine Roth, 2016.

Petrena Ariston, a Katherine tourism operator and member of the PFAS community reference group, is concerned that fracking permits which surround the town and its drinking water catchment will risk what’s left of the region’s precious water supplies.

‘How can we trust the government to keep our water safe when we’re presented with such clear evidence of failure,’ Ms Ariston asks. ‘People come here for the quiet rural lifestyle, but we’ve now been told home-grown eggs and veggies aren’t safe to eat.’

Katherine’s town water supply now requires expensive treatment, and despite restrictions on water use, there’s not enough of it to go around.

‘The government knew for years before residents were told; it’s criminal.

‘The backbone of our local economy is tourism, agriculture and cattle; all three rely on healthy water, but given over to the fracking industry, all that could be in jeopardy.’

Promises by the NT Government to improve regulatory standards around fracking have failed to convince many who took part in the Fracking Inquiry. Few believe the government is capable, or willing, to enforce the types of strict regulation the Inquiry’s scientific panel has recommended.

Ray Dimakarri Dixon is an artist, water bore runner and Traditional Owner from Marlinja, a small family outstation at the centre of the Beetaloo Basin, about 720kms south of Darwin. Mr Dixon gave evidence to the Fracking Inquiry about the social divisions that fracking companies are causing in his home community, locking old people into exploration agreements without explaining the risks. He has since become a vocal critic of the narrow protections available to those communities being targeted. Chief Minister Michael Gunner insists Aboriginal people can veto fracking access to their land, but Mr Dixon says that for a majority of Indigenous landholders this isn’t the case.

‘The Chief Minister is being dishonest,’ says Mr Dixon. ‘Most land in the NT [that is] targeted for fracking occurs on pastoral leases where only limited Native Title rights apply.

‘Many don’t realise that for the majority of our people, when it comes to fracking or mining, we don’t have any say over what happens on our traditional lands.

The big dry: Ray Dixon at Longreach Waterhole near Elliott, where water levels are the lowest in living memory. Photo: Lauren Mellor, July 2019

‘We need to fix the power imbalance between our communities and the fracking companies, who right now can walk in, drill, frack and contaminate our land or water without our consent.

‘The survival of our people and our culture relies on keeping that water healthy. We may not have much in the way of legal protections, but my people cherish this country, it’s like a diamond to them. We’ll do whatever it takes to protect it.’

DRIVING THE NARROW AND TWISTING Carpentaria Highway from remote Borroloola to Darwin, signs of the restart to fracking exploration are already plainly evident. I’m driving with Rob Woods, a tourism operator who takes visitors to some of the Territory’s most remote locations. We round a bend on the single lane bitumen, where visibility can be less than 20 meters. At one point, we’re forced to swerve to avoid an oncoming truck weighted down with the now familiar sight of oversized equipment used for deep earth drilling. The Territory’s road toll is already the highest in the country per capita and near misses between heavy vehicles and cars are common.

‘Imagine another few hundred trucks like this on the road in peak tourist season’, warns Mr Woods.

The Fracking Inquiry found heavy vehicles from the fracking industry would be a significant risk on Territory roads and likely to result in increased accidents. It estimated 3,300 individual truck movements would be required to construct a single frack well, each truck transporting chemicals, clean and polluted water, or waste by-products to and from remote sites, tearing up already potholed, dangerous roads. Mr Woods is concerned about the impact gasfields will have on visitors’ experiences of the Territory and the tourism industry.

In Queensland’s Darling Downs, which now hosts over 6000 gas wells, the gas industry has displaced jobs in other sectors like farming and tourism. Studies have found that gasfields create minimal spill-over employment, but cause major disruption to regional economies. Businesses and residents in the region report being left worse off after a short construction boom resulted in an economic crash that has left towns like Miles and Chinchilla economically devastated. Last year, Mr Woods hosted a fact-finding tour of the Queensland gasfields for Territory landholders; the experience left him with a lasting impression that fracking was ‘all risk and little reward’.

‘With thousands of gas wells eventually planned for regions that host some of our most popular tourist destinations, like the Roper River and Mataranka thermal springs, it’s not hard to imagine the cumulative impact on our visitor experience and regional economies.

Road risk: A rig being transported on the Stuart Highway south of Katherine, September 2019. Photo: Carmen Brown, 2019.

It’s a lot to risk on an industry that the NT Government’s own Fracking Inquiry considered unlikely to be commercially viable in the long run. The Inquiry report found that due to the high costs of remote extraction and gas transport, Beetaloo Basin shale gas would struggle to compete with an oversupply of gas being produced globally at a fraction of the cost. The report also disputed the over-sold employment claims from the industry of 6500 jobs, with its ‘best case’ development scenario finding that fracking would employ just 524 mostly fly-in fly-out workers over 25 years.

Former energy market regulator and energy finance expert Bruce Robertson echoes these sentiments, and warns that despite promises from the industry, the Territory’s high-cost shale gas will do nothing to reduce domestic gas prices. Mr Robertson says pinning hopes of budget recovery on a fledgling fracking industry would be a costly mistake for the cash-strapped NT Government.

‘Northern Territory shale gas would be some of the most expensive gas ever produced, at around $9 a gigajoule (GJ) just to get out of the ground. Then you’ve got to factor in transmission and liquefaction costs on top.

‘With gas being bought on the spot market at around $6 a GJ, investing in new fracking gasfields in the Northern Territory would be a loss-making exercise.

‘In fact, as we’ve seen, the industry would require significant public subsidies just to get off the ground.’

Over the past decade, and since the construction of three new LNG export plants in Gladstone, gas prices in eastern Australia have skyrocketed by up to 500 per cent, a rise that has little to do with ‘gas shortages’. The price shocks are causing significant hardship for Australian households and businesses and are forcing the closure of gas-reliant manufacturers. The reason is that the Gladstone export plants linked the Australian gas market to higher priced export markets, thereby redirecting domestic gas resources overseas. The Queensland gas development experience shows increased supply does not necessarily mean lower prices. In fact, a 2017 report revealed that Queensland residential gas prices are the highest in the nation at more than twice the national average.

Despite this, the Federal Government has been relentless in pressuring the Northern Territory Government to open new gasfields as a way to ‘ease East Coast prices.’ Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and then Treasurer Scott Morrison used a myriad of tactics including  financial blackmail, and even threats to involve the army to force the Gunner Government’s hand on fracking. Freedom of Information documents have since revealed that the Federal Government’s decision to grant $260 million in GST ‘top-up’ payments was  linked to the Territory lifting its fracking moratorium in 2018. The connection paints a troubling picture of a democracy bought out by special interests, with potentially ruinous consequences for the Territory’s fragile environment and economy.

SHOCK AND ANGER among Territory communities at their betrayal by the Gunner Government is steadily being replaced by a firm resolve to defy and disrupt the gas industry’s planned roll-out. On the first anniversary of the lifting of the moratorium in April, Traditional Owners from Barkly-region communities drove a bobcat to Parliament House in Darwin. Dressed in high-vis and mining helmets, the group staged a ‘fracking operation’ of their own, by drilling into the parliamentary lawns and erecting a mock gas rig to bring attention to the lack of consent for invasive fracking in remote areas. Within hours, footage of the protest went viral.[3]

Showstopper: Traditional Owners Nancy McDinny and Conrad Rory stage a drilling protest on NT Parliament lawns to focus government attention on a lack of consent for drilling. Photo: Lauren Mellor, April 2019.

Companies engaged in the roll-out have also been the subject of a growing protest movement, with tactics including a corporate switch campaign to get energy retailers out of gas and into renewable energy, as well as a host of legal and regulatory challenges and direct action to slow and stop fracking activity. In July, the NT Government received an unprecedented 6000 submissions objecting to Origin Energy’s proposal to frack within the catchment area for rivers and springs feeding Lake Woods conservation reserve. Nonetheless, in September the first well since the lifting of the moratorium was drilled on Hayfield cattle station just north of Elliott. However, just weeks after drilling commenced, , the company’s conduct on a neighbouring cattle station was challenged in the Supreme Court. The owners of Amungee Mungee cattle station accused Origin Energy of breaching its land access agreement, and failing to consult over critical project risks. Neighbours have issued warnings to gas companies that they would refuse access for gas exploration in an effort to protect their land, water and livelihoods. One pastoralist suggests resistance is so entrenched, gas companies would need to use force to carry out their operations or abandon exploration programs entirely.

Native Title holders, whose rights co-exist with pastoral leases in the Beetaloo Basin, are also challenging Origin’s claims of consent for fracking. In September, traditional owners were denied entry to an Origin Energy community engagement forum in Tennant Creek after the group sought to present a complaint signed by over 200 Native Title holders accusing the company of failing to consult over its Beetaloo region fracking plans.

As drilling starts, tensions between the company and traditional owners are boiling over. In October, a delegation of 25 traditional owners from across Origin’s NT permit acreage travelled a 7500km round trip to bring a resolution to the company’s Sydney AGM. The group, representing the communities of Elliott, Marlinja and Minyerri, challenged Origin’s Board to demonstrate how its fracking agreements met the company’s stated commitment to ‘free, prior and informed consent’ for landholders affected by its projects. Principles of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) are recognised in international law as the highest standard possible for the involvement of Indigenous Peoples in decision-making processes about large projects like resource extraction. Yet, a review conducted by University of Technology Sydney’s Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning found that most – if not all – exploration permits issued in the Northern Territory for unconventional gas were issued in the absence of free, prior and informed consent.

The Native Title groups argue that when the agreements were made, (some as far back as 2003 and 2004), many of the risks around fracking were either unknown, or were not disclosed to traditional owners, and that proper consent could not have been given under such a cloud. A heated debate during shareholder question time forced Origin’s usually composed Chair Gordon Cairns to respond defensively by claiming, ‘We are not the bad guys,’ a view that is being increasingly contested as the company’s drilling activity rolls out.

Lockout: Native Title holders from Origin’s gas tenements in the Barkly region are locked outside a company meeting in September 2019, holding hundreds of complaints about the company’s consultation conduct. Photo: Lauren Mellor, September 2019.

WITH JUST ONE WELL DRILLED ahead of Wet season rains, and challenges being mounted by traditional owners and pastoralists, Origin and other gas companies are in a race against time. Those in the fracking industry may well have believed  their biggest battles were behind them once the moratorium was lifted. But tectonic shifts in global climate politics and energy economics since that time could spell the end of the fossil fuel era and make extreme forms of extraction like oil and gas fracking obsolete. Questions about community consent, calls for strong climate action, and the shifting economics of clean energy alternatives could yet dash the chances of a fledgling fracking industry gaining a foothold in the Northern Territory.

In 2019, Northern Territory communities joined the growing global movement for climate action, with several thousand turning out across urban, regional and remote centres including Tennant Creek, Katherine and Maningrida. Traditional owners and regional communities targeted for new fracking projects, backed by the youth-led strike movement, have succeeded in putting the climate risks of new gas projects firmly on the national radar. With a single gasfield in  the Beetaloo predicted to spike Australia’s carbon emissions by up to 6% every year, Australia’s ability to reach its Paris Climate goals depends on NT shale gas remaining firmly underground.

On the march: Katherine students go on strike from school to protest fracking and inaction on climate change threatening their future. Photo: Sam Phelan, September 2019.

Demands for strong climate action are ratcheting up pressure on big polluters like the fracking industry. And the pressure has arrived just as advances in the technology and economics of renewable energy are making a transition to clean energy imminently possible. A new report provides a timely blueprint for the Territory’s transition to a low carbon economy based on clean energy. It’s a move that promises thousands of new jobs in solar energy and manufacturing, while providing access to clean, cheap energy for communitieswhere energy poverty and deep inequality have stifled local development.. In response, the NT Government has shifted from talking about unpopular fracking projects to embracing the potential to repower the Territory’s economy with solar. The NT Chief Minister recently hailed a proposal for a 10 gigawatt solar export farm to send power produced in the Barkly region to Singapore, as evidence that his government was on board with the solar revolution.

‘The Northern Territory has an incredible opportunity to lead the world as a renewable energy hub and seizing this opportunity will deliver thousands of local jobs,’ says Chief Minister Gunner. ‘We have the guaranteed cloud-free days, the land and a government with the vision to make it happen.’

 But private projects like SunCable are still many years away from obtaining financing, yet alone construction. And the benefits will be enjoyed largely by the project’s shareholders, not local communities crippled by expensive and unreliable power, who are increasingly experiencing the impacts of climate change. Making the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy can’t be left to the uncertainty of private energy markets. Public ownership, control and planning is essential to ensure that the transition happens in the time the climate science demands, and in a way that serves those communities most in need. Still, challenges remain.

While the favourable economics and huge social licence for solar may seem like the energy transition is inevitable, the opportunities can only be realised if the Northern Territory Government puts workers, communities and the climate first. Recently, the NT Government’s own electricity distributor Territory Generation, issued a warning that solar power presents an ‘existential threat’ to the utility’s reliance on expensive gas. It was an unprecedented wake-up call for government to make a decisive break with support for the gas industry’s monopoly, and an end to the expansive public subsidies that prop it up.[4]

Some communities can no longer afford to wait for the government to provide the required leadership.

While the Gunner Government says it is committed to climate action and clean energy, to replace sentiments with meaningful action will require the same level of government support enjoyed by the gas and fracking industry in recent years – at a political, policy and public investment priority level. Over the last decade, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and NT Government funding has gone to the development of an unconventional gas industry in the Territory, with costs spread across exploration, infrastructure, regulatory reform, project assessment and promotion. In one stark example under the former-NT Giles Government, while critical frontline services were being cut and power prices hiked, gas companies unsuccessful in their bids to build the Northern Gas Pipeline were collectively awarded over $2 million just for tendering. Much more will be spent if the Gunner Government is to realise its vision of turning the Territory into a gas manufacturing hub.

Meanwhile, some communities can no longer afford to wait for the government to provide the required leadership. In Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria, a region on the frontlines of the new fracking expansion, the community is fighting back against the gas giants by demonstrating the benefits of a clean energy revolution instead. They’re building a community power cooperative to convert outstations and homes from diesel and gas, to solar. For project leaders like Garrwa Traditional Owner Gadrian Hoosan, the creation of new solar opportunities is a way for younger generations to stay living and working on country, while building resilience to the impacts of climate change.

‘We want to see the future of our region powered by the sun,’ says Mr Hoosan, ‘not by dirty and dangerous gas fracking that puts our communities, culture and country at risk for the profits of a few billionaires.

‘Clean energy gives us hope, and that’s worth fighting for.’

FOR MILLENIA, LAKE WOODS has been a place of abundance for local Aboriginal communities, a keeper of stories, ceremonies and cultural heritage key to their survival, a place where the waters have never stopped flowing. To allow it to be sacrificed to the last gasp of the fossil fuel era would be an unimaginable loss. Compared to the high-risk, low-return prospects of a shale fracking industry, it is difficult to imagine a clearer choice for the NT Government; to safeguard our future it must wholly embrace the opportunities offered by a clean energy and low-carbon economy.

Solar projects in public hands can create thousands of new ‘climate’ jobs, while replacing diesel and gas-fired generators with cheaper, more efficient energy infrastructure. It can revitalise regional economies and buffer against  the climate chaos ahead. By choosing a solar-powered future for the NT, the Gunner Government can remake our economies to reduce inequality, protect our water, and bring voters along with them. The future of our communities, and our climate are counting on that choice.


[1] The NT Fracking Inquiry found ‘significant potential for accidental releases, leaks and spills of hydraulic fracturing chemicals and fluids, flowback and produced water’ (See pages 18-19 of report). Based on experience elsewhere such waters may well be laced with a combination of chemicals that can be toxic to plants, animals and people, as well as heavy metals and radionuclides which can be brought to the surface to be left in open evaporation ponds.

[2] See Chapter 7 ‘Water’, from the NT Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing report, p152-3: “However, there is still the very real possibility of overtopping of storage ponds during the wet season.”

[3] Two participants of the twenty who took part in the action have since been charged with ‘criminal damage’ for disturbance to NT parliament lawn and will face court in December 2019.

[4] Territory Generation estimates that the amount of solar generation in the grid will rise four-fold in coming years – growing from around 30MW now to more than 140MW by 2022/23 (not including the 10GW SunCable solar project proposed for exports to Indonesia). See Power Generation Corporation (Trading as Territory Generation) 2019-20 Statement of Corporate Intent.

Lauren is a regional and remote community organiser for Protect Country AllianceTerritory-wide network of communities, civil-society groups and landholders advocating for the protection of water, country and climate from the risks of fracking gasfields. For over a decade, she has worked with Territory communities impacted by resource extraction to achieve industry and government reform through improvements to policy, law and practice.

She is currently working on the development of Indigenous community-owned solar projects, and is a regular contributor to policy journals and public discourse on resource extraction, human rights and climate justice.