As a senate inquiry launches a scathing critique of the legislative failures that led to the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves, traditional owners in the Northern Territory are fighting a fracking project that threatens water sources and sacred sites. By Rick Morton.
Fracking on Country in the NT
About 900 kilometres south-east of Darwin, hidden in the tropical savanna woodland of the McArthur River region, there is a sacred site, on Gundanji Country, somewhere off the Carpentaria Highway.
This land has been returned to traditional owners. Only they know how to find the site. The last seven kilometres must be covered on foot: there are no tracks.
“We’ve got to keep an eye out for feral pigs and buffalo because we don’t carry guns when we go bush,” says Rikki Dank, a Karanjini Gundanji woman.
“When you come closer to the sacred site, we walk softer and our voices are lowered. We don’t talk unnecessarily.”
The entrance to the site itself, she says, is other-worldly. The woodland opens up onto a large body of water, fed by a waterfall, ringed by enormous paperbark trees “so big that you can’t wrap your arms around them”.
The fallen bark from the trees floats on the water, completely covering its surface.
“You don’t actually walk here, you kind of sink and float,” says Dank.
“And there is a huge rock that you sit on and all of a sudden there is a big gust of wind, it happens all the time, this huge gust hits your face, and it feels like the old people are saying, ‘Welcome home, you’ve come home.’ ”
Rikki Dank’s people are a matriarchal group and the most senior traditional owners are her grandmothers, Katie Baker and Peggy Lawson. In Gundanji law, Dank has been nominated as Baker’s jungkayi or jungai, which gives her the responsibility of talking for the land, especially sacred sites.
It is a privilege she takes seriously. Much of the Country she calls home is part of the Mermaid’s Dreaming. Here, as the Dreaming story goes, the travelling ladies, or mermaids, have come down from the coastal waters.
“So, they’ve settled there [in Gundanji Country] and have called up the ocean, and the water has then come up over this big rock that is forming this waterfall.”
Water is key to Gundanji connection to Country, says Dank. It explains the rituals and the customs, the ecosystem. Water is life itself.
But this connection is now threatened. In September, the Empire Energy Group Limited announced to the Australian Stock Exchange that it had “mobilised” a 27-metre-tall Schlumberger land rig to a site on Dank’s Country, over which the company has exploration permits.
“My grandmother was out bush one day and just rocked up and has seen all of these trucks,” says Dank. “She’s in her mid-80s. You can imagine how stressful it was for her to see so many people and so much machinery on her Country.”
The drill site, known as Carpentaria-1, is located just 30 kilometres from the sacred site.
By December, Empire Energy had drilled to a depth of more than two kilometres and is pushing ahead to hit nearly three kilometres underground in a bid to intersect the thick Velkerri shale formation.
Carpentaria-1 is the latest development in the gas rush in the Beetaloo Basin, which was spurred on by the Northern Territory Labor government ending a moratorium on fracking in 2018. It has been kicked into overdrive by the federal Coalition’s push for a “gas-fired” economic recovery from Covid-19.
Less than a fortnight after the federal government released its delayed budget in October, the federal minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, visited the Empire Energy drill site.
He was spruiking $28.3 million in federal funding to “unlock and accelerate the development of vast gas reserves”.
“The Beetaloo Basin is a world-class resource,” Taylor said, “that has the potential to drive significant development in the Top End to create local jobs and help Australia remain a world leader in gas.”
However, many traditional owners want nothing to do with the plan, and have mounted a fight that threatens to bypass the Northern Land Council (NLC).
This council manages Aboriginal land granted through native title, or freehold ownership, on behalf of 50,000 Indigenous people. They make decisions and facilitate land usage – and are required by law to negotiate with, and for, traditional owners. However, some say that does not always happen.
A few weeks before Taylor’s announcement, the ABC reported that native title holders in the Beetaloo Basin had requested the NLC to withdraw from negotiations with gas companies. Nine land groups have joined in that request.
Until now, Rikki Dank and her family have chosen not to talk publicly about fracking. Her grandmother’s discovery of the massive drilling rig changed that.
“Before we realised Empire had their eyes on our place, we’ve been on the sideline working and quietly supporting the others because all of the fracking has been happening on their Country,” she says.
“We don’t want to step out of line in terms of cultural protocol and speak for anyone because they have their own voices. But now it feels like we have to be included in this fight.”
Empire Energy estimates the potential shale gas projects in the NT “rival the prolific US Marcellus Shale”, which produces about 25 billion cubic feet of gas a day.
In a market update on December 14, Empire’s managing director, Alex Underwood, said that “2020 has been a breakout year for Empire”, specifically citing the company’s first well in the Betaloo Basin, Carpentaria-1.
The concern for Rikki Dank and her family is the risk Carpentaria-1 poses to groundwater aquifers, which are still being studied by researchers.
In November 2019, the CSIRO, in partnership with state and territory governments and gas companies, released results from its preliminary studies of the water sources. It found that “the whole area” of the basin’s Cambrian Limestone Aquifer “is at potential risk to possible contamination from surface spills from any source”.
Vast swaths of the woodland, and Rikki Dank’s sacred site, sit above and interact with this aquifer.
The fracking will also require enormous volumes of water, and chemicals to exploit fractures in gas seams.
The NT government has not updated public chemical disclosure reports for fracking projects since 2016 but the most recent entry, for an Origin Energy project, lists surfactant F112 and sodium bromate, which carries a “may cause cancer” danger rating.
Other chemicals used include a product called Crosslinker J604, which combines ethylene glycol – found in automotive antifreeze or household cleaners – with sodium tetraborate and boric acid. Prolonged or repeated exposure may damage human organs.
“We are worried about those poisonous things, and the disruption of those underground water systems will disturb our sacred site because our site, its focus is around water,” says Rikki Dank.
“Water is very strongly connected to this site and we are aware if this water table, these systems, are disturbed, we are worried about our sacred site and those large trees that are there supporting all of those structures.”
What troubles Dank and her family the most is that they have never been consulted by Empire Energy. She tried to speak to the company but was told she had to speak with the Northern Land Council.
The NLC, Dank says, has held meetings where these matters have been discussed at short notice.
Dank’s land stretches across both a native title grant and freehold country that was handed back by the Commonwealth in 2000 as part of the Mambaliya Rrumburriya Wuyaliya Aboriginal Land Trust. The NLC represents this trust but did not respond to a request for comment from The Saturday Paper.
“We’ve got less rights over native title Country than freehold,” says Dank. “So that really scares me.”
Earlier this month, the federal parliament’s joint standing committee on Northern Australia released its interim report into the deliberate destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia.
In a scathing report, titled “Never Again”, the committee outlines its findings that the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people were offered “no support or protection from anywhere”.
Not from Rio Tinto, or the Western Australian or federal governments, or their own lawyers, and not under native title law.
On the final point, the inquiry flagged a deeper look in future at the failures of native title legislation and whether the Native Title Act needs to be amended.
“Underlying these problems is the vexed issue of Native Title,” the inquiry said. “Ironically, Native Title has become another means to destroy Indigenous heritage.”
The committee, chaired by the Queensland Liberal National Party MP Warren Entsch, also found that two other laws intended to offer protection to Aboriginal sites of cultural significance – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act – were so rarely invoked for this purpose as to be nearly pointless.
“Both these Acts will require substantial revision to make them effective and bring them in line with community expectations and international obligations,” the inquiry said.
According to the Kimberley Land Council’s submission to the inquiry, negotiations with native title holders are often rendered meaningless because companies, when they don’t win agreement, can apply to the National Native Title Tribunal for permission to forge ahead anyway.
Since 1994, there have been 163 such applications where native title holders did not agree. In all but three, the company was granted permission to continue either in full or with some conditions.
In Rikki Dank’s view, the tangle of laws favours those who want to cut traditional owners out of the approval process.
“The government is primarily thinking about money,” she says. “And they are thinking about how much money they can get off Country and how much money they can get off blackfellas before blackfellas realise what is happening. The system from the ground up is corrupt.”
Dank and her family have witnessed the degradation allowed by this system: the overgrazing of land; the development of the Glencore underground and then open-cut zinc and lead mine at the other end of the McArthur River; the rerouting of the river itself.
Like colonisation, these environmental changes are gradual but devastating.
“My great-grandmother remembers when she was a little girl seeing non-Indigenous people for the first time. It’s so close,” Dank says.
“I’ve seen the pain in my grannies’ and my grandfathers’ eyes when they’ve told me the stories of what has happened, and that is close enough for me. And it’s heartbreaking.”
Empire Energy did not respond to a request for comment.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 19, 2020 as "Nerve fracking".
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