One up on Barnaby: government delivers Coalition election promise for port, petrochemicals, gas subsidies

by Michael West | Oct 18, 2022 | Energy & Environment, Latest Posts

Albanese government out-Barnabys-Barnaby with a big Budget gift for fossil fuel donors to build the Middle Arm port and petrochemicals project just 3km from the Darwin suburb of Palmerston. Michael West reports. 

They leaked the story to Rupert Murdoch’s NT News. As you do. 

Thanks for the scoop. “$2.5bn bonanza for the Territory …”. A glowing report ensued. No word the new Port might be underwater by turn of century, a climate bomb spewing toxic chemicals through the air to residents of the Darwin suburbs nearby.

We will be hearing a lot about “jobs, jobs, jobs”; abundant greenwash and hogwash about “sustainability” in the corporate media. The reality is a bizarre $2bn subsidy for the government’s corporate donors, the Big Gas Mates, to open up the Beetaloo Basin further inland for gas fracking.

Santos gets its cut, Inpex too. Even Texas oil billionaire Bryan Sheffield. His fracking start-up, Tamboran Resources, is another winner. 

Its proponents have freshly rebranded the project the “Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct”. We had playfully dubbed it the Port of Barnaby before the election, deriding the notion of an un-costed, toxic petrochemical development just 3k from the Darwin suburb of Palmerston as peak fossil fuel baloney, another Morrison regime shoot-from-the-hip campaign promise. 

Yet the new federal government, which has done well so far in so many ways, has managed to out-Barnaby the man himself. Gas is this government’s greatest weakness. Santos is proceeding in the Pilliga, there are no meaningful moves to tax gas super profits, rein in power bills, earmark exports for domestic use, control the gas cartel. Mostly just subsidies, support for new projects, and Resources Minister Madeleine King opening up almost 47,000 square kilometres of ocean for oil and gas exploration. 

The funding for Barnaby’s port had not yet been signed off by Coalition government. Yet Treasurer Jim Chalmers has earmarked $2.5bn in the impending federal Budget.

There will be a fight. There is no feasibility study, no environmental impact justification yet. But the forces behind the project, from Scott Morrison’s gas taskforce chief Andrew Liveris to the powerbrokers of Big Gas, are potent. 

The following picture from a recent NT government press release shows most of the precinct will be used for gas processing, hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, with small areas set aside for minerals processing. Bear in mind, petrochemical plants make plastics, and gas is the major input. Also bear in mind that carbon, capture and storage (CCS) is expensive and therefore as commercially feasible as the myth of “clean coal”.


Co-Director of the Environment Centre NT Kirsty Howey says “There’s nothing sustainable about the Middle Arm Project. It’s about toxic petrochemicals and plastics production in Darwin Harbour using fracked gas from the Beetaloo Basin.”

“The minister’s commitment of funding for the Middle Arm Industrial Precinct is simply shovelling huge amounts of taxpayer funds to the fossil fuel industry.”

A report released by ECNT from US environmental scientist Dr Michael Petroni modelled the likely impacts of this precinct and found there could be an increase in industrial air pollution of over 500%. 

There is a build it and they will come aspect to the whole plan. The zone would accelerate some of Australia’s biggest gas projects on our latest fracking frontier, the NT’s Beetaloo Basin, and offshore in the Timor Sea. Although proponents are parading the project as “sustainable” and It’s really a hub for Beetaloo frackers, an export facility to be financed by taxpayers for the benefit of mostly foreign-owned exporters of Australian gas. 

Tamboran Resources Joel Riddle told a Senate inquiry in October that “the gas that will be extracted from the Beetaloo will be necessary for a full range of industrial purposes at the Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct, near Darwin”.

Beetaloo Boondoggle: political bribes beat the planet as gas fracking gets public hand-outs


In a Coalition Budget press release just before the election caretaker period, Barnaby Joyce announced over $7 billion in infrastructure funding. The keystone, says Howey, was $2 billion for Middle Arm. Labor’s position, as espoused by Chris Bowen, Minister for Climate and Energy, was that public funding would not be used to support fossil fuel projects. They will deny it but Middle Arm is fairly and squarely a massively subsidised fossil-fuel endeavour.

While it is still unclear what sort of processing would occur on the site, the NT government has proposed:

  • “Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)
  • Ammonia and derivatives
  • Urea and derivatives
  • Ethylene and derivatives
  • Methanol and derivatives
  • Gas to liquids (GTL)”

The report for ECNT by Petroni, an expert in industrial pollution, found the proposed facilities at Middle Arm could increase industrial fine particulate emissions by 513% in the region, leading to poor health outcomes for residents nearby (air toxins include formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic compounds).

Further, the project could multiply emissions of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides by factors of between two and five. Carbon monoxide emissions may increase eight-fold, while volatile organic compounds emissions from the facility would more than double those emitted today in the region. 

As for the environment, Petroni estimates that the Middle Arm Precinct would itself generate 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year, increasing the NT’s emissions by 75%. Opening up the Beetaloo Basin could increase Australia’s emissions by up to 22%.

A Darwinian survival story: Barnaby’s northern port is more of a crazy boondoggle than thought

Michael West established Michael West Media in 2016 to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. West was formerly a journalist and editor with Fairfax newspapers, a columnist for News Corp and even, once, a stockbroker.

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