Labor's support for 'carbon disaster' in Betaloo basin condemned

Helen Davidson

Labor’s support for unlocking the gas supply from the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo basin has drawn the anger of environmental groups, who say its emissions would dwarf those from Adani’s proposed Carmichael coalmine.

Earlier this week Labor announced it would replace the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility with a different fund to finance infrastructure projects of national significance in the north of the country.

The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, said up to $1.5bn of Labor’s fund would be earmarked to unlock gas supply in Queensland’s Galilee and Bowen basins and to connect the Beetaloo sub-basin – about 28,000km sq south of Katherine and part of the McArthur basin – to Darwin and the east coast.

But environment groups say that would undermine Labor’s target of reducing carbon emissions by 45% of 2005 levels by 2030.

In August 2017, a Northern Territory inquiry into hydraulic fracturing heard the McArthur basin could release four to five times the volume of greenhouse gas emissions as the Carmichael mine, if fracked.

The gas-rich Beetaloo basin alone would dwarf Adani’s expected emissions, said Tim Forcey, a chemical engineer with decades of experience in the petrochemicals industry. And the emissions figures may be underestimated, he said.

The final report from the NT inquiry suggested McArthur gas extraction could contribute more than 6% of Australia’s emissions.

Naomi Hogan, a spokeswoman for the Lock the Gate Alliance, said unlocking it could “unleash a carbon disaster which would make it impossible for Australia to meet our Paris targets”.

“Fracking the gas out of the Beetaloo basin has been measured to be the pollution equivalent of building and operating at least 50 new coal-fired power stations,” she said.

“Federal Labor has ruled out Naif funding for the climate-wrecking project of Adani, how can it justify propping up an industry that will trash the Northern Territory with fracking?”

Dan Gocher, from the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, said all fossil fuel expansion subsidies should be ruled out.

“This would be a terrible investment for the Australian people and makes a mockery of the ALP’s climate commitments,” he said. “We call on the ALP and Bill Shorten to reverse this position.”

Labor’s announcement showed the political system remained “fully in the thrall of the fossil fuels industry”, he said.

Questioned on the incongruity of the two policies on Wednesday, Shorten said gas would be “a transition-caseload energy source of the future”.

“What we also need to do as we move towards 45% [is] make sure we’ve still got an Australian manufacturing sector,” he said. “Therefore, opening up the gas reserves will ensure cheap domestic gas for Australia, so we can keep tens of thousands of people in their jobs in the south-east and indeed in Darwin and Brisbane.”

His earlier announcement had said opening up the Beetaloo could provide up to 400 years of domestic gas supply.

The Coalition’s federal budget included $8.4m to open the Beetaloo sub-basin for exploration and development, after the federal and NT governments signed a memorandum of understanding to guide the area’s development.

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The Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, said his party would seek to block legislation of the Beetaloo project in the Senate.

The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association has previously rejected warnings of the cost of offsetting fracking emissions, saying they ignored the positive impact on emissions of gas replacing coal.

Origin and Santos both have interests in the Beetaloo, and intend to develop it now the moratorium on fracking has been lifted. The NT inquiry recommended the practise could go ahead with appropriate safegurds, and handed down 135 recommendations for the government.

Before the moratorium, Origin Energy had found an estimated 6.6tr cubic feet of dry gas resources at its project site in the Beetaloo.

Citi market analysis has found there could be 100tn cubic feet (2.8tn cubic metres) in the sub-basin.

The question has been hugely divisive in the NT. Apart from the matter of emissions, there are also widespread concerns about the potential environmental risks to the aquifers and rivers, but these have come up against the need for the estimated billions of dollars the fracking industry could bring to the struggling NT economy.