I was in Tennant Creek when I heard the news. Chief Minister Michael Gunner announced his government would be lifting the moratorium on fracking in the Northern Territory, opening up 51 per cent of the NT to onshore gas exploration. I sat in my car at the petrol station and cried. The front page of the NT News screaming FRACK YEAH! made my heart sink even further. This is actually happening.
The final report from the fracking inquiry has outlined 135 recommendations which will they believe (if implemented) mitigate the risks to an acceptable level. An acceptable level of risk. The NT Government has taken this report and given the green light to go all Evel Knievel. We’re wearing the jumpsuit, we’ve had the bike checked out and we’re now preparing to jump over a chasm filled with crocodiles, surrounded by fire. For most of us that’s not a risk we’re prepared to take – if there’s one thing we know in the Territory, it’s that crocodiles are scary, and I’m not swimming the Daly River any time soon.
As I drove further north I was treated to the absolute stunning beauty of our country. The leaves get thicker and darker as you leave the arid zone of the centre, and from Tennant Creek the termite mounds get bigger and redder. It’s ancient, it’s graceful; when you come up to the rises you can see far into the distance, the land feels endless. I can’t imagine looking out onto that and thinking, ‘yeah, I’m gunna tap that, with a fuck off big industrial gas field’. But there you go.
Stopping in at Elliott, I called my friends in Marlinja to see if now was a good time for a visit. The phone call was sombre – another time, perhaps.
‘I’m so sorry this has happened,’ I said.
Marlinja is a small community in the southern region of the Beetaloo Basin, around 700 kilometres north of Alice Springs and about the same again to Darwin. The people of Marlinja have been fighting to protect their country for a while now, and with this recent decision, it looks like it’s been kicked up a notch. The Beetaloo holds a metric shit-tonne of gas (I looked that up, it’s official) – the three companies proposing the development reckon there’s enough gas to build over 1000 wells across the basin pulling gas out for the next 25 years. Fracking puts the Beetaloo Basin at risk, it puts the water at risk, it puts the lives and the future of the people at risk. A risk the Government is willing to make in order to eat the GST revenue carrot Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison has been waving in front of the Chief Minister for years.
The people of Marlinja have been fighting to protect their country for a while now, and with this recent decision, it looks like it’s been kicked up a notch.
The moratorium was set up in September 2016, two weeks after the Labor Party took power, promising voters a five-year ban on fracking in response to the immense community opposition to onshore hydraulic fracturing, with the independent scientific inquiry into the environmental, social and economic risks established soon after. It was a celebratory occasion. Hope had been restored. It was like the end of Star Wars: A New Hope; Gunner was our Skywalker. But now, under the intense pressure of the Empire, our man has caved.
The threat to cut NT’s GST revenue if the Gunner Government didn’t green light onshore fracking came mid 2017 and was again repeated earlier this year in the lead up to the decision on the moratorium. The Feds might say the magical reinstatement of GST funding after the ban was lifted was a total coincidence, but we know we were being held to ransom.
It’s hard not be furious at Michael Gunner at the moment, but at the same time I acknowledge the enormous pressure he has faced in making the worst decision of his life, doing so – I assume – because of Federal Government pressure. They had him by the balls from the start and all of us too.
Onshore fracking in the Beetaloo is a joint venture between three companies; Origin Energy Limited, Sasol Petroleum Australia Limited and Falcon Oil and Gas Limited, the former partly Australian owned and the latter two entirely foreign owned. Coincidentally Gina Rinehart has been buying up cattle stations in and around the Beetaloo Basin, so I don’t expect to see much resistance by the station owners in these instances – especially since failed pollie and fracking’s number-one fan Adam Giles has come aboard as Rinehart’s general manager/henchman to oversee operations.
We’re not strangers to protesting in the Northern Territory. For a long time Traditional Owners and volunteers have come together to protect country, to keep it safe.
The resistance comes from the people who live in the places most affected. We’re not strangers to protesting in the Northern Territory. For a long time Traditional Owners and volunteers have come together to protect country, to keep it safe. The antifracking effort has been one of the biggest campaigns since the Jabiluka blockade against uranium mining in the 90s. Traditional Owners across the Northern Territory continue to fight for rights, clean water and protection of homelands, people like Eleanor Dixon in Marlinja and Gadrian Hoosan in Garawa standing up as leaders in their communities, speaking out against exploitation of the Territory’s ground, its water and its people.
For the pro-frackers it’s a not-in-their-backyard situation. There are many pro-fracking articles out there using terms like, ‘coax out the gas’ or ‘untrap the reserves underground’, like it’s a cat in a drain pipe and these great big foreign-owned companies are standing at the top with a can of Fancy Feast. What could possibly go wrong? If the NT News is your only news source, you’d be forgiven for thinking, absolutely nothing. With headlines such as ‘Fracking is Wise’, ‘Fracking Royalties To Flow’, ‘Time To Accept Fracking In The NT’ and ‘Fracking Will Be NT Boon’, it almost sounds heroic. But it’s not. It’s a bunch of men drilling through the earth into ancient aquifers which many of us depend on as our only water source, mixing water, sand and chemicals together and smashing it down there to draw the gas out.
Mate. Cunt’s fucked.
On the Wednesday morning of my drive north I was in Katherine, around 300 kilometres south of Darwin, stopping in at the Finch Cafe for a quick coffee. On entering I was greeted with a familiar sight. Only a few weeks earlier my partner and I had created a series of posters for the NT Artists Against Fracking’s protest poster exhibition Fractured Territory, which now lined the walls of the cafe. One of our posters reimagines the Dirty Harry movie poster as Dirty Power, with the slogan, ‘Do you feel like luck should be a factor in such a hugely impactful decision, punk?’
For a few moments during my drive I had managed to bury the reality of the situation into the back of my mind, but here it was. The poster exhibition has been creeping along the highway at a much slower rate than I have been, but all of a sudden we were back in the same place, on the same stretch of highway, facing the same reality and uncertain future.
We’re all for economic growth, just not at the expense of the water we drink and the air we breathe.
I arrived in Darwin in the afternoon following a protest action in the city centre. Alice Springs held an action event simultaneously, with hundreds of people showed up. The more people learn about fracking, the more fearful they get. The media pulls out all the stops, repeatedly telling readers it’s safe and protesters are all unwashed hippies. It’s the favourite catch-cry of the fuck-up-the-earth-for-profit cohort, that those opposed to big mining are also opposed to economic development, and just sit around on handouts all day. We’re all for economic growth, just not at the expense of the water we drink and the air we breathe.
After a week in Darwin I flew home. Looking out the window, across the mangroves and river systems, you can see the landscape change. It’s a different experience to the 1500 kilometre drive, but still beautiful, the tropical green giving way to the desert sands and ground covering spinifex before you hit the ranges that surround my home.
Back in Alice I stopped in to visit the Arid Lands Environment Centre, who have an increasing amount of work to do, and spoke to Communications and Campaigns Manager Nicole Pietsch.
‘We will continue to push for a ban on fracking and mobilise people on the issue,’ she said. ‘There’s two prongs of action – there’s the campaign to ban fracking and the other prong is about the 135 recommendations. We’re going to do our best to stop it but we also have to engage with holding the government to account to ensure all the recommendations are implemented in full at the very least.’
The recommendations aren’t going to protect us from the negative impacts of fracking – best case scenario, they’ll maybe make it a bit less shit.
The recommendations made by the inquiry are expected to be implemented across all fracking wells in order to mitigate risks in association to water, land, greenhouse gas emissions, Aboriginal people and culture, public health and any social or economic impacts. In fact, in regard to the risk to human health, the panel found that ‘the likelihood and consequence of such health risk are difficult to categorise,’ and that ‘in some cases there was insufficient information to determine the precise level of risk’. It’s absurd that we live in a world where rather than just not fucking with those things, the government is prepared to allow an activity which potentially threatens them. The word mitigate doesn’t mean prevent, it means to make less severe. So the recommendations aren’t going to protect us from the negative impacts of fracking – best case scenario, they’ll maybe make it a bit less shit.
The report itself states that communities across the Territory are against fracking, that it’s seen as unsafe and unwanted. We are concerned about our safety, our future and the future of our homes, our people, our country and our communities. It’s unreal that the Governments are not. There is no current alternative government that can save us now, we’re just going to have to ride this shitshow out, keep pushing for change and supporting those who need it most.
If you are looking for ways to support Traditional Owners in the fight against fracking you can donate to the GoFundMe campaign set up by the people of Marlinja.