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A concession to the Greens over the Nature Repair bill has handed the environment minister a means to obstruct the Beetaloo Basin fracking project – the question now is whether she will use it. By Mike Seccombe.

The bill that could stop fracking at Beetaloo Basin

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek.
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

For the uninitiated, the words “water trigger” might be associated with a garden hose attachment, or maybe a kid’s Super Soaker toy. But it’s actually a powerful weapon with which the federal government could avert environmental disaster.

Should she choose to act on changes to environmental law forced on her by the Greens this week, Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek could, for a start, put paid to plans to extract enormous quantities of gas from the Beetaloo Basin, a 28,000 square kilometre expanse of semi-arid land about 500 kilometres south-east of Darwin.

And we mean enormous – far bigger than any current project on Western Australia’s North West Shelf. The bumf from the Northern Territory government says the basin’s gas reserves “are equivalent to more than 1000 times the current annual domestic consumption in Australia, or the amount of energy required to drive a car 483 million kilometres”.

It also claims development of the Beetaloo would produce 17,000 jobs by 2040 and bring a $17 billion boost to the economy.

There is one glaringly obvious problem. Exploiting those reserves also would pump massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

By the calculation of physicist and climate scientist Professor Bill Hare, chief executive of Climate Analytics, just getting the gas out of the ground and processing it in Darwin would produce up to 49 million tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent a year and increase Australia’s total domestic emissions by about 11 per cent.

That is just half of the emissions. Once it is burnt, Hare calculates that emissions will be as much as 1.2 billion tonnes over 25 years.

As readers by now will be well aware, the International Energy Agency warned in 2021 that if the world was to have any hope of reaching its goals of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and keeping the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, it had to immediately stop opening new fossil fuel projects.

But the territory government is pressing ahead and the former federal government allocated about $200 million in subsidies and infrastructure spending to accelerate development.

At time of writing, the current federal government was still prevaricating over whether or not it would join the large and growing number of nations at the COP28 climate conference in Dubai advocating a phase-out of all fossil fuel extraction.

Bottom line, Beetaloo and the various other planned major gas projects are being developed in defiance of the science that suggests they are a threat on a world scale.

Moreover, the Beetaloo project is a risky precedent for Australia.

The gas in the Beetaloo is hard to get at. It’s not as if there is a big underground void filled with gas that can be easily tapped. It is tightly bound in the rock, which necessitates mining by an unconventional method, called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This involves injecting liquid – primarily water, mixed with sand and chemicals – at high pressure into the gas-bearing strata, which opens up fissures in the rock for extracting the gas (or oil).

In America, where the technique was pioneered, it has been linked by the United States Geological Survey to a surge in earthquakes. There is also a heightened danger of leaks of methane, which is what “natural” gas is. While methane does not linger in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide, it is 82 times more potent a greenhouse gas over 20 years.

And of particular concern for Australia, the driest inhabited continent, is that it requires vast quantities of water.

According to industry estimates cited in the 2018 report of the Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory, chaired by Justice Rachel Pepper, the 1000 to 1200 wells planned to tap the Beetaloo gas would use an average of 2500 megalitres – that’s 2.5 billion litres – of water a year, and up to five billion litres at peak demand.

And that was a modest estimate. The NT Department of Primary Industry and Resources suggested there could be 6250 gas wells drilled in the Beetaloo Basin alone, and more than 15,500 across the territory more broadly. A water management plan released by the territory Department of Environment and Water Security in August allocates 10 billion litres a year to “water use for petroleum activities”.

Environment groups, traditional Indigenous owners and graziers have opposed the Beetaloo development out of concerns about the over-extraction and contamination of groundwater during the mining process. There are even greater worries about the environmental consequences of the storage and disposal of polluted water after mining. The Pepper report warned there was “significant potential” for accidental releases, leaks and spills of toxic hydraulic fracturing chemicals and fluids.

In the United States, it said, “most of the reported incidents of contamination of surface waterways and groundwater have been the result of surface leaks and spills”.

Yet, says Carmel Flint, national coordinator of the Lock the Gate Alliance, “the NT government failed to implement the fracking inquiry recommendation that there should be no wastewater stored in open water storages and to have a proper waste management framework and facilities in place.

“But they’re keeping the waste in open wastewater ponds, which is a huge threat in the wet season.”

Even in the pilot stages of development there have been several incidents. One company, Tamboran Resources, was fined earlier this year for using more than 300,000 litres of contaminated water for dust suppression.

The pro-mining government and anti-mining interests have produced competing reports by experts reaching conflicting conclusions about the impacts of fracking. Now, with fracking companies close to full-scale production, says Flint, the need for “proper federal assessment of their water impacts … was becoming really urgent.

“So, for us, what happened in the Senate this week was very significant.”

It was also a bit complicated and a little odd. Essentially, the government took into the Senate a bill to deal with one environmental issue and came out with one that addresses something much bigger.

What went in was the Nature Repair Market bill, which was in itself a pretty big deal. The idea was to enable landholders to undertake projects to “enhance” biodiversity on terrestrial and aquatic environments and then monetise it.

If project proponents could show they had enhanced the environment to the benefit of koalas or platypuses, for example, they could be issued with biodiversity certificates by the Clean Energy Regulator. And those certificates could then be sold.

Plibersek has hyped the idea as creating a “green Wall Street”.

The Greens, says party environment spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young, had no issue with the idea of giving credits for protecting vulnerable habitat and species, so long as they went to “a philanthropic group, or an NGO or a company or business … that bought these credits to say ‘look at us, we’re being good, we care about nature’ ”.

The Greens and conservation groups hated the idea that those credits could be used for offsets, using credits earnt by protecting the environment in one place “so you could knock stuff down elsewhere”.

That simply meant a lot of money could change hands, to no net environmental benefit.

After months of negotiation, Plibersek either came to see the sense of the Greens’ argument or decided it was better to get something past the Senate rather than nothing. She agreed to drop the idea of biodiversity certificates being bought and sold as offsets.

Thus the bill was amended to remove offsets, and its name changed to remove the word “market”.

That wasn’t the only amendment the Greens got. The other big one was the water trigger.

The water trigger actually already existed, having been inserted into the main piece of federal environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in 2013, to give the federal government power to regulate the impact of coal and coal seam gas projects, which are, like gas fracking, very thirsty and dirty things.

The water trigger is so-called because it prompts a rigorous assessment of surface and groundwater impacts. Ultimately, though, it is at the minister’s discretion whether a project goes ahead.

Plibersek has approved several new mines or mine expansions but also pulled the trigger to prevent a few projects deemed to pose particularly grave threats to the environment. In February this year, for example, she blocked a major coalmine proposed by Clive Palmer because it was adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef.

There was, however, a loophole in the legislation that gave gas fracking operations a licence to drill without any federal environmental water assessment – probably because in 2013 there were no proposals to frack.

The effect of the Hanson-Young amendment, agreed to by Labor, is to close that loophole.

“The agreement is a major blow to climate-bomb projects in places like the Beetaloo Basin and the Kimberley and a win for the climate, the environment and First Nations communities,” said Hanson-Young’s media release after the vote.

The question now is whether Plibersek will pull the trigger.

Even if she doesn’t, says Hanson-Young, “it means these developments are open to litigation from various groups – traditional owners or local communities, NGOs, environmental defenders – and it makes funding them, getting the finance, a lot more dicey”.

Polly Hemming, director of the Australia Institute’s climate and energy program, says the passage of the Greens’ amendments increases the pressure on Plibersek and the government. “The Albanese government has been very self-congratulatory this year about ‘delivering’ for the climate and environment,” she says.

“But whether it’s the safeguard mechanism, the Nature Repair bill, the Sea Dumping bill [which authorises the use of carbon capture and storage for emissions from offshore gas drilling] or the water trigger, the government now needs to show exactly what it’s delivering.”

The parliament has given the government the power to cut emissions, she says, “so it can’t blame the Greens or the Coalition if emissions rise”.

The Beetaloo Basin, says Hemming, now represents a big test case “of just how credible this government is ahead of the 2025 election”. 

Is the Albanese government serious about addressing Australia’s outsized contribution to climate change, by acting on the legislative power the Greens have now given it?

“Or is it just a fig leaf?” asks Hemming.

It’s a very good question, and it will have to be answered very soon.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "Will this stop Beetaloo?".

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