Will the change of government reset the dial on Australia’s planet-endangering projects? Beetaloo gas fracking, Barnaby Joyce’s petrochemical plant, Scarborough. Australians may soon get the sinking feeling that little has changed from the Morrison-Joyce fossil-fuel spree, writes Callum Foote.
Australians heard a lot about the climate crisis during the election campaign. And last Wednesday the Albanese government won sufficient cross-bench support to get its 2030 emissions reduction ”floor not a ceiling” target of 43% through the Senate. But when it comes to big polluting projects, it seems that not a lot has changed.
Consider the evidence. The Albanese government is continuing the Coalition government’s legacy when it comes to gas, a recommitment to Barnaby Joyce’s $1.5 billion port of Darwin petrochemical precinct, continuing the fracking of the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory and refusing to impose windfall profit taxes
Plans for a petrochemical precinct for the Port of Darwin’s Middle Arm Peninsula were supported by then-deputy PM Barnaby Joyce during the election campaign. These plans are being carried out by the Albanese government.
The project would turn Darwin’s Middle Arm Peninsula into a “world-leading gas, hydrogen and minerals processing and export precinct” according to the Northern Territory government, which proposed the development.
Meanwhile Labor has been dropped the hot potato of Joyce’s dodgy dam developments.
Turbocharging the Territory
The Port of Darwin project includes a petrochemical plant for plastic, pesticide and fertiliser production. According to analysis by the NT government, this nationally significant infrastructure project is set to create 20,000 jobs and turbocharge the regional economy.
The precinct will be fed with gas coming from the Beetaloo Basin. The new Labor government has already thrown its support behind increased fracking of the region.
The NT Labor government lifted its moratorium on fracking the Beetaloo leading gas companies including Origin Energy, Santos and several smaller players to ramp up the exploratory fracking in the region.
According to energy analyst RepuTex, the “Beetaloo is larger than any of the North-West Shelf conventional gas resources, or over 500 times current annual domestic consumption in Australia.”
The oil and gas industry welcomed Labor’s energy minister Madeleine King with open arms. King told the industry that “we support opening up new gas reserves, subject to independent scientific assessments and effective environmental regulation”. For example, last month Labor agreed to support the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program Instrument in the Northern Territory during cocktail talks in May.
However, a report commissioned by the Environment Centre NT, an environmental think tank and lobby group, modelled the health and climate impacts of the proposed petrochemical precinct proposed by the Northern Territory government.
Kirsty Howey, co-director of the Environment Centre NT, says that the impact of the precinct includes “an increase of over 500% in air pollution caused by fine particulate emissions, a fourfold increase in cancer risk, and 15 additional premature deaths per year.”
These findings in part mirror those of a Northern Territory government risk assessment released in April that said the hub could have “significant adverse impacts” on community health.
The assessment also found the air quality in the area may be significantly impacted.
The Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct is about 3km south-west of Palmerston and 13km south-east of Darwin, which has a combined population of about 160,000.
The proposal is being assessed by the Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority, under a strategic environmental assessment process. Chemicals mentioned in the referral documents for the project are ammonia, urea, ethylene, methanol.
Labor backs Barnaby
On July 8, the new federal Resources Minister affirmed Labor’s commitment to provide $1.5 billion of public funding to the project. The precinct is designed to lock in consumption of fossil fuel gas from the controversial Beetaloo basin, and offshore gasfields.
The report commissioned by the Environment Centre predicts that the precinct will increase Northern Territory’s emissions by up to three-quarters.
The author of the report, environmental scientist Michael Petroni says his “analysis shows that air pollution and industrial accident risk from the proposed Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct may pose significant health threats to residents of the Greater Darwin Region.”
“Not only that,” Petroni says,
it will increase the Northern Territory’s greenhouse gas emissions by 75%, and that’s not even counting the carbon bomb of the Beetaloo Basin that will provide feedstock for Middle Arm. You could scarcely design a more disastrous project for our health and climate.
Adds Howey: “The Albanese government can’t have it both ways: you can’t take action on climate and fund climate-destroying projects like Middle Arm.”
The Inland Rail dream
Among other election promises that the Coalition announced were the controversial Inland Rail and a number of regional dams. Barnaby Joyce was heavily involved in all of them.
The Inland Rail is a mega infrastructure project, promised by the Coalition to deliver economic benefits along its 1700km rail route between Melbourne and Brisbane. However, four years and $14.5 billion were promised after the project began the route is still unclear.
Labor came into the federal election promising a review of the project, concerned with the growing costs, unclear route and the addition of double-decker freight trains passing through suburbs.
While not pausing the project, Infrastructure Minister Catherine King says her department is conducting a review into the Inland Rail alongside all infrastructure projects commissioned by the previous government worth more than $5 million. It is yet unclear if any findings have been made or will be published as the Inland Rail is a stated priority for King.
Hell no, it’s not a goer
Barnaby Joyce, at the time the leader of the National Party and deputy prime minister, spent the better part of the last election cycle advocating a series of dams to be built in regional Australia, purporting to help alleviate drought pressure and bring an economic boon to those regions.
One of these is the $1.2 billion Dungowan dam in Joyce’s electorate of New England. It is predicted to provide water at more than 100 times market rates for irrigators, according to water expert Drew Collins.
Alongside Dungowan dam, Joyce and PM Scott Morrison campaigned enthusiastically for the $5.4 billion Hells Gate Dam. This proposed 2100 gigalitre dam promising to transform 60,000ha of dry cattle country west of Townsville into an irrigated food bowl was advocated by Joyce without a detailed business case.
Labor has not decided on whether to proceed with this project, having only committed $54 million to the project, with $24 million for a detailed business case, which was intended to be released in June but has yet to be published.