Beetaloo Madness: protestors, farmers, First Nations unite to fight US gas frackers

by Dominic Geiger | Dec 27, 2023 | Energy & Environment, Latest Posts

“A carbon bomb” which can blow out Australia’s emissions by 20%, is how plans to fracking the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin are described by climate activists. As Federal subsidies for Darwin’s petro-port mount, Dominic Geiger tours the north to check out the damage so far and protest at a court case involving American-backed gas fracker Tamboran Resources.

The bush on either side of the highway is black and smouldering as we begin our three-day, 1500 km journey from Mparntwe Alice Springs to Garramilla/Gulmerrogin Darwin. Fires, some that have been burning for months, create huge plumes of smoke on the horizon that, at a distance, look like storm clouds. We’re headed north for a court case and a protest to mark the event.

The Central Australian Frack Free Alliance (CAFFA) is challenging the NT Government’s approval of Tamboran Resources’ 12 exploratory fracking gas wells, arguing the Environment Minister should have considered the climate impacts of not just this project, but the many thousands of fracking wells that would likely spread across the Barkly-Roper region like a rash, should Tamboran proceed to full-scale production. 

CAFFA member Hannah Ekin says, “There is clearly no justification for opening new oil and gas basins at this time, and I think it’s absolutely insane that the NT Government and the Federal Government are considering doing so. Going to court, particularly when the NT Government is doubling down behind fracking, is an important way to hold the government to account, to raise the community’s concerns, and to bring the conversation back to the bigger issue at hand which is full-scale fracking and all of the impacts it will cause.”

Reputex analysis shows how, under a high development scenario – that is, petroleum companies ripping out as much gas from the Beetaloo Basin as they can get – many thousands of wells would be drilled, leading to the release of 1.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse pollution over a 20-year period.

It’s a cruel irony that governments are eager to let fracking companies exploit an entirely new shale gas basin in a region that is already among the worst hit by climate change. In 2019, Katherine, at the northern edge of the Beetaloo, recorded 54 days above 40 degrees. The long-term average is nine.

There are six CAFFA members making the journey in a minibus, and three Traditional Owners from throughout the region will join us along the way to Darwin. We only have two CDs – a mix of old country songs and Bunna Lawrie’s Best of Coloured Stone – and with no reception for streaming and very few radio stations between Alice and Darwin, they’re put on heavy rotation.

Our first stop is to pick up Peltherre Chris Tomlins, an Arrernte and Warlpiri Elder who lives on an outstation about 50km north of Alice. Since there’s no reception, we agree to meet at a distinct round white letterbox on the other side of the Tropic of Capricorn. Like many who oppose fracking in the NT, Chris is worried about the impact it will have on the region’s scarce water resources. In the USA, completing a single hydraulic fracture can require between seven and 38 million litres of water.

Surprise! CSIRO gas funded research lowballs emissions from Darwin’s Middle Arm petro-port and Beetaloo fracking

“My concerns about fracking is it’s underground, our water, we don’t have big rivers and streams here, we have a limited amount of water. It’s about time Territorians take this government to court over fracking because that water runs all the way through the basin and towards Alice, and my fear is once the water is poisoned, the wildlife, nature, and everything will be destroyed.”

We break for lunch at Karlu Karlu, better known as the Devil’s Marbles. The temperature difference compared with Alice Springs, with its 600m altitude, is stark. The NT Government has helpfully installed free wifi in the day-use area, and I check the temperature on a weather app. It’s 41 degrees.

It’s not much cooler when we pull into Renner Springs on Warlmanpa Country, home to one of the Stuart Highway’s ubiquitous roadhouses, where the CAFFA team camps for the night.

As the sun sets, a peacock struts across the top of the pub’s roof. Jikaya/Lake Woods shimmers in the distance as we begin our journey north the following day. Sacred to the Jingili and Mudburra people, it’s the largest body of freshwater in the entire Territory and is an internationally significant breeding site for tens of thousands of water birds. It also sits at the southern end of the Beetaloo.

There are grave fears the fracking industry will drain and contaminate the lake as rigs, capable of drilling four kilometres beneath the earth, plunge through the Tindall Aquifer – the source of drinking water for thousands of residents from the Northern Territory’s regional and remote communities, cattle stations and Indigenous homelands.

The contamination risk is real – in Queensland, corrosive bacteria is already eating through the casing that surrounds gas wells.

We stop at nearby Elliott, where we meet Jingili Elder Heather Wilson. Heather’s son, now referred to as Mr Wilson, was chairperson of Nurrdalinji Corporation and one of the NT’s strongest voices calling for the protection of Country from fracking until his recent death.

Heather tells us that only days before, Tamboran held an information meeting in the town. It’s not surprising. The company was recently fined for using untreated wastewater for dust suppression at one of its existing exploratory wells, a penalty that only came to light after ABC’s 7.30 program aired a story. 

“The young ones and some of the older people are saying, if they’re going to damage our Country, where we gonna go, y’know? We’ll be leaving our Country then,” Heather says. “Some of our Elders are wondering, where they’re going to do fracking… it’s going to damage our Songlines, our dreaming places won’t be there any more.

They’re thinking about where we’re going to live. Whether we’re going to go live in another country like Darwin or Tennant Creek, you know it’s a different country to us. Or Katherine!”

Because Traditional Owners agreed to allow Origin Energy, whose tenements Tamboran acquired, to explore for gas many years ago, under Territory law they are now unable to refuse any production licence applications from Tamboran. Before we leave Elliott, we take a large banner that reads “From the Desert to the sea, for a frack free NT” from the car. It’s covered in painted handprints of supporters from Alice Springs, and Heather’s grandchildren are eager to add theirs. 

From Elliott, we travel to the internationally and increasingly Insta-famous Bitter Springs at Mataranka, where we meet Mangarrayi man Adam Gaston and his aunt, Mangarrayi Elder Jocelyn James. While he’s only 35, Adam says the impacts he has seen due to climate change on his country have been devastating.

He talks about a place known as The Jungle – part of the same river system as the springs, and once similarly lush. Adam says the Jungle is now “a dust bowl”, and important food plants no longer grow as large as they once did. “To be honest, I reckon fracking’s quite fucked,” he says.

Fracking hell: gas grants to fight farmers, muzzle critics

“Our environment is teetering on a razor’s edge now and our government is planning on letting companies in and polluting our waters, just raping and pillaging the land and leaving it for everyone else to deal with later.”

That night, we stayed at the home of Katherine veterinarian and Protect Big Rivers founder Dr Sam Phelan. In the heady humidity of the build-up, Sam’s property is teeming with wildlife. Small flocks of brolgas honk overhead, hundreds of whistling ducks and magpie geese huddle by a severely depleted dam, and large green frogs perform the Australian crawl when toilets are flushed.

Sam says while some in Katherine are still reluctant to accept the science of global warming, attitudes are slowly changing since the 2019 heat wave “really scared the shit out of people”. She says ultimately, though, the threat fracking poses to the region’s water is what resonates most strongly with locals. “People right across this region are really concerned about how much water fracking will use but also water contamination.

In Katherine, we already can’t drink our groundwater because it’s contaminated with PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances) from the air force, so all our water for this whole town comes out of the river, and that river is really struggling.

The idea that we can give away billions of litres of water to fracking companies and exacerbate climate change while doing that is insanity, and that’s felt really strongly by people from Katherine all the way down to Tennant Creek right through the Beetaloo Basin.” 

The next day, we arrive in Darwin, and the following morning, the court case begins. The protest on the steps of the Supreme Court is lively and loud. Coincidentally, the first day of the case coincides with Tamboran’s AGM in Sydney, and there is a second protest occurring outside that as well. Calls are made between campaigners as they address the crowd, with phones held up to the microphone.

The rally culminates in a tug-o-war. Some supporters have been convinced to play the part of fracking executives, who try to drag everyone else into a “fiery future”. The company men are unsuccessful and fall in a heap in the blistering sun. The case lasts for two days, with a decision not expected until after New Year. 

Meanwhile, Territorians fearful of a full-blown fracking industry wait. They are hopeful – they have to be. The Territory Government gave the green light to full-scale fracking, estimated to lead to the drilling of 6,000 wells across the NT in May, but at the time of writing, no production approvals or licences have been issued.

But Tamboran, which recently “re-domiciled” to the known tax security jurisdiction of Delaware in the United States, has made another “exploratory” project application – contained in a 3,600-page document lodged just before Christmas. Stakeholders were given just 28 days to respond. If approved, the company would drill and frack 15 gas wells, while storing 34 million litres of wastewater on site.  Greenhouse gas pollution from the project is expected to be about 400,000 tonnes –  but could be much higher.

The courts are a last line of defence against the Territory Government’s support for the fracking industry, a chance to argue and hopefully prove the government is wrong. CAFFA member Di Newham says, “We were always hoping the NT Government would engage properly on this subject and stand by their word… but they haven’t. I feel really proud to be a part of CAFFA, but I feel really sad it has come to this and the obvious, rational, scientific way forward is not being listened to.”

Gas fracker Tamboran grabs government cash, snubs Senate, scurries off to tax haven

Dominic Geiger undertook his journalism cadetship in Dalby on the Western Downs as the unconventional gas industry was beginning to gain a foothold in the area. After close to a decade working at newspapers around the country and writing spin for politicians, he now toils in the truth mines as Lock the Gate Alliance's media coordinator.

Don't pay so you can read it.

Pay so everyone can.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This