The Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin has been green-lit for an expansion of gas production and fracking after the Territory Government said it was happy that environmental concerns could be addressed.
After years of campaigning and the recent input of nearly 100 scientists against the move, the NT’s Chief Minister, Natasha Fyles, said on Wednesday that gas production could begin in the region between Katherine and Tennant Creek, 500kms south of Darwin.
In 2018, a report chaired by Judge Rachel Pepper lifted a ban on fracking and gas exploration in the territory if the NT government could implement 135 recommendations which they have been racing to complete. Key to these was the guarantee that emissions would not increase by undertaking the project. The NT government has yet to say whether they have met this obligation, however, the CSIRO released a contentious report that suggested emissions from gas projects in the region could be offset.
“We have strengthened government agencies, we have strengthened legislation to rigorously assess environmental management plans. We have put in place the plans to develop a strong compliance program and we have also got the measures to provide education and guidance to industry,” Fyles said.
“The Territory government will move carefully to manage the onshore gas industry through our strengthened regulatory framework, ensuring greater transparency and accountability and ensuring that traditional owners, Aboriginal people, have a seat at the table”.
Environmental groups, activists, and climate scientists have long opposed plans to open up this commercially lucrative area of the country for fossil fuel extraction. The Beetaloo Basin contains roughly 70% of the NT’s shale gas resources and is thought to hold enough gas to power the country for 500 years. Gas industry groups have been circling the area for nearly two decades, hoping to crack it open ever since exploratory drilling in 2005 revealed the extent of the natural gas within.
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However, this is precisely where things get tricky as much of the gas is not going to be used to benefit Australians. Although Australia’s leading science body has given the project the thumbs up, the report was savaged by whistleblowers who claim the calculations made by the CSIRO are “wildly unrealistic.”
Emissions caused by burning gas produced in Beetaloo overseas, of which 50-75% is expected to be exported, do not factor into the calculations. Estimates for the amount of emissions that can be offset have also been “grossly inflated,” according to one Professor who worked on the report.
In addition, the development of new gas projects is clearly at odds with international commitments Australia has made at COP gatherings and elsewhere to limit emissions and with IPCC statements that no new fossil fuel projects can be built if the world is to keep below 2 degrees of warming.
UNSW Professor Matthew England, one of the 96 scientists who published an open letter in national papers on Wednesday calling on the NT government to halt the plans, has said that Australia will see a steep rise in emissions if the fracking went ahead.
The letter states that a Beetaloo Basin gas industry could add 89 million tonnes of emissions to the atmosphere each year, four times what the NT currently produces.
“Australia has been suffering severe bushfire seasons, intense flooding rains, we’re seeing our coral reefs die off before our eyes — all of these events are costing the Australian economy hugely,” Professor England told the ABC.
“Making a quick buck out of some fossil fuel extraction, to the detriment of Australian society and future generations, just makes no sense whatsoever.”
Australia passed landmark legislation last year that aims to reduce our emissions by 43% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. While it was hailed as a victory at the time by some groups, it’s clear that the government is going to push those numbers to the absolute limit.
Energy Minister Chris Bowen recently made the announcement that Australia would be well within its carbon budget to open up new oil and gas projects, revealing some strange calculations over how he arrived at that conclusion which have been refuted by think tanks.
The announcement on Wednesday from the NT government will enable gas companies to apply for production licences in the region as long as they meet environmental impact assessment criteria.
Hydraulic fracturing, the kind that will be needed to extract gas deposits from the shale beneath Beetaloo, has been linked to earthquakes, flammable water, and contamination around the world. It is banned in France and Germany.
Fyles has insisted that Indigenous owners of the Beetaloo Basin will have veto power over projects in the region while Deputy Chief Minister Nicole Mansion has said that “there is an incredible amount of gas in the Beetaloo.”
The head of one of the gas companies vying for drilling rights, Tamboran Resources, recently told an inquiry that the Beetaloo Basion was “Australia’s greatest emissions reduction opportunity.” The idea here is that Australia can sell slightly lower carbon-emitting gas to coal-reliant nations across Asia, a line often touted during the Morrison administration.
The Director of the Australia Insitute’s climate and energy programme has said that all fossil fuel extraction will lead to higher emissions in the atmosphere and an exacerbation of global warming.
“Gas is a high-emitting fuel that exacerbates climate change and no amount of greenwashing will change that,” they said.