It is disappointing that the Australian Greens, through the Chair, have decided to continue to wage an ideological crusade against the development of the Beetaloo Sub-basin. This has the potential to provide thousands of jobs and billions in economic benefit to the Northern Territory (NT) as well as the rest of Australia.
New gas supply, including from the Beetaloo, is critical to improving Australia’s energy security, potentially remedying long-term gas shortages across the east coast, and supporting the delivery of affordable and reliable energy for Australians. Gas is also critical to Australia’s—and the world’s—decarbonisation efforts. Prejudicial barriers to gas development in Australia will drive investment and jobs overseas, offshoring projects to higher-emitting markets, and perversely impacting global emissions reduction efforts while Australians miss out on opportunities.
Coalition Senators remain unable to support the majority report, which offers no substantially new evidence or perspectives since the August 2021 Interim Report, and continues to be ‘characterised by overtly political and ideological selection of evidence, resulting in biased conclusions and recommendations being made on the basis of unfounded imputations’.
Coalition Senators reaffirm their support for the original ‘Dissenting Report by Coalition Senators’ in the August 2021 Interim Report.
Ideological Nature of Inquiry
It is clear from the Australian Greens’ comments made publicly while this inquiry was still underway that its ultimate goal is to halt any development in the Beetaloo, which will prevent the realisation of the jobs and economic benefit that go with it.
On 28 March 2023, Senator Larissa Waters said:
We've derailed the proposed Beetaloo basin gasfield, which I just referred to. We've derailed that mass fracking of that carbon bomb. The reason for that is that the project will now face an extra cost of an estimated $1 billion a year... This is a huge financial barrier in the way of a project proceeding, by forcing them to be net zero from day one, and it brings its viability into serious question, which we celebrate.
The following day, on 29 March 2023, Senator David Shoebridge added: ‘And here's a big reason to celebrate: we have derailed the Beetaloo and Barossa gasfields’.
These sorts of comments undermine the credibility of the majority report’s attempt to paint itself as impartial and balanced when dealing with the evidence presented to it.
For example, the majority report chose to air unsubstantiated claims by the Environmental Defenders Office—a legal outfit with a history of attempting to prevent the development of resources projects—that analysis by the appointed independent officer, Dr David Richie, on the progress of the Pepper Inquiry recommendations, was incorrect and that the majority of recommendations allegedly remain incomplete. It did not however expand on the evidence for this claim, or assess its veracity.
As the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) previously pointed out in response to similar claims by the Australia Institute:
The implementation of the Pepper Inquiry recommendations included the appointment of an independent officer, Dr David Richie. The role of the Independent Officer is to provide the Chief Minister and government with independent advice on how the implementation is progressing and being managed.
The Northern Territory Government reports that 75 per cent of the Pepper Inquiry recommendations have been completed, 25 per cent have commenced, and none are yet to commence. Coalition Senators also note the conclusions of the Pepper Inquiry and support the implementation of its recommendations.
Moral grandstanding about Australia’s gas resources may make the Australian Greens feel better, but shutting down our industries will have the opposite effect they may have hoped for. Were we to shut down our gas production, or refuse to step up to meet demand around the world, those countries that need our resources would just turn to lower-quality, higher-emitting resources from other countries. If Australia withdraws from exporting our gas, the energy security of our allies will be compromised and global emissions will rise.
Economic benefit of the Beetaloo
The economic benefit of unlocking the Beetaloo, as independently assessed, is significant. The Beetaloo Basin is one of our most prospective gas basins and has the potential to be a new world-class gas province. Natural gas provides about a quarter of global primary energy consumption and demand is increasing especially among our trading partners in Asia. As recent international events have shown, gas is an integral part of secure energy supplies and national security.
As the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Madeleine King, said in her speech at the Northern Territory Resources Week Conference in August 2022:
The considerable gas resources of the Beetaloo Sub-basin can deliver reliable gas to Australian businesses and households, and to our regional partners – this is a great opportunity. It is estimated that the development of the Beetaloo will generate thousands of jobs and billions in economic activity over the coming decades.
It is estimated that there are over 200 000 petajoules of shale gas-in-place in the Beetaloo sub-basin, which is a significant resource for Australia and the world. If even a portion of this gas is recoverable, it could supply our entire domestic and export markets for decades. The Commonwealth Government’s submission also extols the virtues of developing the Beetaloo:
Developing the Beetaloo presents a tremendous opportunity to drive job creation, stimulate economic growth and increase gas supply, to the benefit of Northern Territory and Australia. The Australian Government’s actions in the Beetaloo, including administering the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program [the BCD Program], will help to harness this opportunity, and ensure the benefits associated with development are realised as soon as possible.
Development will support a range of new industries in the NT, including refining and petrochemicals, methanol production and hydrogen production. The Northern Territory Government has been clear in its support for the development of the basin:
Globally significant gas reserves in the Beetaloo Sub-basin could propel advanced manufacturing, domestic supply security and cleaner energy production in Australia, while accelerating multibillion dollar growth in the Territory economy, with long-term global gas supply potentials of international significance.
The Beetaloo Sub-basin, 500km south east of Darwin, covers 28,000 square kilometres and is estimated to contain 500 Trillion cubic feet of gas (P50 gas-in-place resource as estimated by industry). Resource estimations are equivalent to more than 1,000 times the current annual domestic consumption in Australia, or the amount of energy required to drive a car 483 million kilometres.
The Centre for Independent Studies argues that ‘the economic opportunity that oil and gas exploration in the Beetaloo Basin will create would enormously benefit Indigenous communities in the area as well as the Territory economy as a whole’. However, any evidence from the Centre for Independent Studies about the benefits and potential to address economic disadvantage in the NT was notably absent from the majority report. Another submission that supports the development of the Beetaloo Basin’s gas resources, which was notably absent from the majority report, came from the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU):
The AWU supports the development of the Beetaloo Basin’s gas resource. The basin has been assessed independently by the Australian Government and Geoscience Australia as highly prospective – with preliminary estimates that there are over 200,000 petajoules of gas in place in the region, equivalent to 100 years of Australia’s domestic gas consumption in 2021. Development of the NT’s gas resources has potential to create up to 6300 new long-term jobs and provide an additional billion dollars in revenue to the Northern Territory Government over the next 20 years.
ACIL Allen’s report, prepared for the Northern Territory Government, stated:
ACIL Allen projects a shale gas industry development could result in a net real income (a measure of the overall wealth impact of the industry’s development) increase of between $937.2 million (BREEZE), $2.8 billion (WIND) and $5.8 billion (GALE) for the Northern Territory over the modelling period, or between $36 million, $108.4 million and $222.2 million per annum.
APPEA noted that ‘the Australian oil and gas industry is already a key component of the Northern Territory economy’, with ‘related service and supply work for Territorian businesses…worth an estimated total $100 million per annum to the Territory, with room to expand this further’. The submission also presented analysis by Deloitte Access Economics, which stated:
…Deloitte Access Economics research found that developing the Territory’s substantial shale gas resources could create up to 6,300 new long‐term jobs and generate up to $1 billion in additional NT Government revenue over the next 20 years. The report also states that by 2040, the NT’s Gross State Product could be between $5.1 billion and $7.5 billion higher than the 2012‑13 base case in real terms. This represents an increase of between 26 percent and 37 percent on current estimates for the NT economy.
The NT’s Beetaloo Sub-basin is one of the largest undeveloped onshore gas resources in the world. Development of this resource has the potential to transform the NT’s economy. Northern Territory Labor Minister for Small Business, Paul Kirby, stated:
I know that for the territory to progress — for us to be able to put roads into remote communities, to have schools, to have health centres, to have the right amount of police in the Northern Territory — we need to find more avenues towards our own own-source revenue… The gas industry is certainly one of [those avenues].
Short sighted bans on developing unconventional onshore gas in some other states are coming home to roost. The last thing we need is more onshore gas locked up in the NT. The AWU pointed out that every public scientific inquiry into unconventional gas has concluded it can be safely managed:
Some critics of gas development in the Beetaloo Basin take aim at hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, as an industrial process, and have called for a complete ban on this process in any gas developments in Australia. However, every state and territory that has conducted a public scientific inquiry into the safety of fracking – including the Pepper Inquiry in the Northern Territory – has found that all safety environmental risks can be managed effectively.
The Coalition invested over $305 million in developing the Strategic Basin Plans program, with $225 million of that investment going towards the Beetaloo Strategic Basin Plan, affirming our commitment to developing and ensuring affordable gas supply for Australia.
The AWU contended that the Beetaloo holds the potential to be treated as a part of the east coast gas market if a meaningful pipeline plan were to be developed. It is disappointing to note then that pipeline funding under the National Gas Infrastructure Plan was cut in the October 2022 Budget by the Labor Government. The AWU also offered public support to the then Coalition Government’s BCD Program:
Given the substantial economic gains on offer for the Territory and the country, the Commonwealth Government has sensibly supported explorers in finding prospective projects through the Beetaloo Cooperative Development Program, providing grants of up to $50 million over 2 years. The AWU submits that this should be expanded to pipeline development to the basin.
Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program
The BCD Program was a $50 million grants program designed to boost exploration and development of the Beetaloo sub-basin. The program provided grants up to $7.5 million for companies seeking to conduct exploratory work in the basin.
The Northern Territory Government welcomed the former Commonwealth Government’s investment in the BCD Program:
The Northern Territory Government welcomes the [former] Australian Government’s recognition of the importance of the Territory to Australia’s economic recovery and energy security through the Beetaloo Strategic Basin Plan. The Australian Government’s investment in infrastructure and the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program support the development of the Beetaloo Sub-basin for the benefit primarily of Territorians and for Australians.
The Coalition provided three grants totalling $19.4 million to Imperial Oil and Gas (Imperial), and one grant of $7.5 million to Sweetpea Petroleum, a subsidiary of Tamboran Resources Limited. A total of $26.9 in grants was provided under the program. Empire Energy Group Limited, the parent company of Imperial, revealed in its submission that the grant provided an economic multiplier of four:
The grant funding to Imperial will generate economic activity of four times the grant amount in 2021 and 2022, with much of this investment directly benefiting local businesses and traditional owners who will gain employment (such as cultural heritage monitor work) and exploration payments akin to royalties under the exploration agreement between Imperial and the [Northern Land Council].
In a speech to APPEA in 2021, then Shadow Minister for Resources, Madeleine King, told the industry that Labor supported the BCD program:
Labor agreed to support the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program Instrument in the Northern Territory. It is important that people are aware that the Beetaloo is a world-class, low-carbon gas basin containing about 3 per cent carbon dioxide… We believe in the science.
These grants were honoured by the government, however, the remaining $23 million allocated towards the program was not extended. Minister King confirmed the budget cut in Parliament on 27 October 2022.
The majority report makes mention of the BCD Program case which was before the Federal Court of Australia and in which the judgement was handed down on 23 December 2021. It does not, however, acknowledge that the court found that the legislative instrument that supports the BCD Program was valid. It does not mention that the court also found that the decision to award grants to Imperial was valid.
The Federal Court of Australia also found that there was no basis to conclude that the Commonwealth had acted in bad faith with the intent of stymieing court processes. The court ultimately upheld that the program and the Minister’s decision to award grants to Imperial were valid.
Further, while not addressed directly in the majority report, it is worth noting the effects of attempting to shut down the gas industry and the development of the Beetaloo.
Gas Supply and Investment Concerns
With the Australian Energy Market Operator recently triggering the gas supply guarantee for a second time this year in order to stave off a potential gas shortage in Victoria, forecasting shortfalls in our southern states as early as this winter, and larger supply gaps across the east coast market from 2026, it is clear that continued development of new domestic supplies is vital and remains at risk.
The Coalition understands the importance of bringing additional gas supply online, particularly at a time when prices are high and supply is disrupted globally.
Australia’s LNG exports are expected to reach over $90 billion in 2022‑23, exporting roughly 83 million tonnes this year. Australian exports supply 21 per cent of the global LNG market and global LNG demand is expected to double by 2040, further highlighting the need to develop further gas supplies.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) World Energy Outlook projects that total global oil and gas demand will grow. The IEA confirms that gas will remain an important part of the world’s energy mix decades into the future: this means that gas will play a vital role in Australia’s energy mix for the foreseeable future.
Oil and gas is not just used for energy, but is critical in the production of a number of vital products in modern society. Gas plays a pivotal role in the production of fertilisers, like ammonia or urea, which in turn sustains the food security of billions of people around the world. Petroleum is also a vital component in the creation of plastics and pharmaceuticals. Our modern lifestyle would not exist without the oil and gas industry. From high-tech manufacturing to the food on our plates, the Australian Greens cannot tell us where they would source these vital inputs that support our way of life.
That is one of the reasons why, by 2040, global LNG demand will have doubled. The question will be whether Australia supplies these commodities to the world, or whether someone else does.
In the context of currently tight supply and price pressures for gas on the east coast, the ACIL Allen report to the Northern Territory Government identified the potential positive impact of bringing online new supply:
The increase in gas supply to eastern Australia as a result of imports of Northern Territory shale gas under the GALE Case assumptions results in significant and sustained downward pressure on wholesale delivered gas prices.
The experience of the European Union, the United Kingdom and places like California recently demonstrates the wisdom of Coalition’s technology, not taxes, approach to lowering emissions while supporting the development of our rich resources.
As Japan and Korea demand more gas to fuel their transition, it is in everyone’s interests that our high-quality resources are the first choice for our partners around the world. Japan has publicly called on the Prime Minister to guarantee gas supply over the coming years—it would be both embarrassing and inexcusable if we were to let down our international partners who rely on our natural resources.
Gas from the NT is already one of the most significant sources of LNG for the Japanese. Recent comments from INPEX, a partly Japanese government owned corporation, by the President CEO, Mr Takayuki Ueda, should highlight the grave concerns our allies and partners have about Australia’s trend towards blocking necessary resources development based on ideology and politics:
The energy policy environment in Australia today appears to be driven almost by ideology and domestic concerns. This gives us great cause for concern… Australia is competing for global investment and the changes we are seeing to Australian policy settings will choke investment and strangle the expansion of LNG projects in this country. In a perverse way, the new policies intended to reduce the impact of climate change will most likely have the opposite outcome.
INPEX’s investment in Australia is the largest ever overseas investment by a Japanese company and, by extension, the largest single Japanese investment in Australia.
Coalition Senators note with concern the deteriorating environment for investment in gas exploration and production in Australia, the increasing number of investors and allies who are sounding the warning bell, and raising concerns with the use of ideologically motivated inquiries designed primarily to seek the end of a gas industry that is vital to our way of life.
Middle Arm Development
The committee heard evidence that gas from the ‘Beetaloo will be necessary for a full range of industrial purposes at the Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct’. The Coalition strongly supports economic development in the NT and the jobs and infrastructure investment this growth would bring across the Territory. Coalition Senators note the Northern Territory Government’s goal of a $40 billion economy by 2030 and that central to this ambition is the prospect of not just the development of Beetaloo but the development of the Middle Arm Precinct.
Through the $7.1 billion Energy Security and Regional Development Plan, $2.6 billion was set aside for infrastructure projects across the NT to help pave the way for private sector investment in Middle Arm, which the Northern Territory Government has estimated will be in excess of $16 billion.
The Albanese Government subsequently retained the Commonwealth’s commitment to develop Middle Arm. As Minister King said in her speech at the Northern Territory Resource week conference in August 2022:
I am looking forward to continuing to work closely with the NT Government and with industry to make the Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct a reality. Middle Arm is an extraordinarily exciting project within my Northern Australia portfolio, and will be crucial to creating a more resilient supply chain at home while building trade ties with Asia. Together, the Beetaloo and Middle Arm projects will generate considerable economic benefits for Territorians.
Whilst Coalition Senators hold concerns around the Albanese Government’s reclassification of some of this expenditure as ‘planned equity’, the greater risk to the success of developing Middle Arm seems to be from sustained hostility of parliamentarians largely based outside the NT towards creating economic opportunities for Territorians.
Since coming to government, the Albanese Government has willingly given significant concessions to the Australian Greens to secure their support for the Government’s legislative agenda. The Australian Greens have previously stated their opposition to the development, that it does not fit with the Government’s climate commitments and have threatened to use their ‘balance of power’ in the Senate to stop this development going ahead.
The Coalition fears that it is a matter of when—not if—the development of Middle Arm becomes a bargaining chip in future negotiations with the Australian Greens, to the detriment of future employment opportunities for Territorians.
Overreach on Safeguard Mechanism and Emissions
Coalition Senators strongly reject any imputation in the majority report that the previous Government did not successfully address emissions reduction or environmental issues in a significant and meaningful way. An honest assessment of the last decade will demonstrate a clear record of success through practical action, rather than just feverish rhetoric.
A successful emissions reduction policy achieves balance—between the environment and the economy, bringing emissions down and growing renewables while maintaining energy security and helping industry thrive. This is at the heart of the Coalition’s successful approach.
The last Coalition Government delivered lower emissions while protecting our economy, jobs and investment, including in critical new gas supplies. Australia’s emissions were reduced to a level 20 per cent lower than they were in 2005 (the baseline for the Paris Agreement) while the economy grew 45 per cent. That was a superior performance to any year under the Rudd and Gillard governments and left Australia’s emissions over 100 million tonnes lower than they would have been under Labor’s own projections about the proposed impact of its carbon tax.
At the time that we left office, we were on track to meet and beat our 2030 Paris target, with projections showing a 30 to 35 per cent reduction. In fact, between 2005 and 2019, Australia reduced our emissions more quickly than Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United States. As a country, we also beat our 2020 Kyoto target by 459 million tonnes.
The Coalition’s technology-driven Long Term Emissions Reduction Plan set out a credible pathway to net zero by 2050, while preserving our existing industries like the gas sector, establishing Australia as a leader in low emissions technologies, and positioning our regions to prosper. At the time it left office, our government was on track to invest more than $22 billion in low emissions technologies, driving over $88 billion of total investment to reduce emissions while growing the economy and creating 160 000 jobs across Australia.
Under the last Coalition Government, Australia’s investment in renewable energy continued to break records with renewables ultimately making up almost one third of our energy mix. Australia also had the world’s highest uptake of rooftop solar, with one in four homes with rooftop solar panels.
More broadly, across governments and the private sector, over $40 billion was invested in renewable energy in Australia between 2017 and 2021. In 2020 alone, Australia deployed more renewable energy than in the six years of the previous Labor government.
The Coalition Government’s green bank also hit its $10 billion investment milestone, supporting more than 26 000 emissions reduction and energy efficiency projects across Australia. We also made carefully considered and targeted investments in transmission projects to support new renewables coming online, including investing a further $84 million in microgrids for remote communities.
The Coalition Government introduced the Safeguard Mechanism to limit the growth of emissions in the industrial sector by applying an emissions baseline on 215 of Australia’s largest emitters. Emissions reductions were driven by the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), which supported voluntary action by landholders, businesses and communities.
The ERF auction in April 2022, saw 7.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO₂-e) abatement contracted across the agriculture, vegetation, landfill and water, and industrial sectors. This brought total contracted abatement to 217 million tonnes, at an average of $17.35 per tonne.
The Coalition’s achievements did not require the shutting down of industries or opportunities for Australians but encouraged industry and leveraged our nation’s existing strengths.
Conversely, the Labor-Greens’ approach to emissions reduction is punitive, and a significant risk to our industries, particularly the gas sector. Labor’s changes to the Safeguard policy will force facilities to reduce their emissions by up to 4.9 per cent each year, regardless of whether the technology exists for them to do so. Failure to meet the government’s emissions targets or purchase the necessary amount of offsets will see a business fined $275 per tonne.
Labor’s policy fails to factor in the challenges faced by industries, such as steel, lime and cement production, where emissions are produced in the manufacturing process and can’t be abated in the timeframe set by the government.
The additional introduction of an emissions ceiling following this government’s 11th hour backroom negotiations with the Greens, a cap of 1233m tonnes of CO₂ by 2030, effectively acts as a hard limit on any significant new projects to enter the market at a time when power bills are rising and cost‑of-living pressures are being felt across the economy.
Labor’s Safeguard deal with the Greens changes the goalposts for gas developments, including in the Beetaloo, despite new gas supplies being critical to Australia’s energy security. The treatment of new gas fields supplying existing facilities as ‘new facilities’ with a net zero requirement puts additional hurdles in place for new gas development. At the least, it is a disincentive to investment, at worst, it will make it economically impossible for proponents to expand existing projects.
The Government’s Safeguard agreement with the Greens specifically targets the Beetaloo to offset Scope 3 emissions—a world-first imposition that the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood has described as ‘the weirdest thing I have ever come across’ which would ‘have significant financial implications’.
As Greens Leader Adam Bandt told The Guardian, the deal ‘puts ‘significant hurdles’ in the way of new projects including development of the vast Beetaloo gas basin in the Northern Territory, with up to $1bn a year in costs to offset its emissions enough to ‘derail’ the business case for the project’.
The need for an ample supply of cheap, reliable gas projects has never been greater, but the Labor-Greens’ Safeguard Mechanism hamstrings new entrants by limiting their ability to meet aggressive climate targets, ensure ample supply is made available for consumers, and to remain profitable.
In the sphere of environment policy specifically, the majority report reflects a confused set of priorities, as well as a deeply partisan view of recent decision making and actions at the federal level in Australia.
In parts, it acknowledges that processes are already well underway to significantly alter national environmental and cultural heritage protection laws and it talks about the importance of these. Yet, in other parts, it proposes overriding and/or actively pre-empting these processes.
We do agree with the broad implication in the report that the response to the Samuel Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, and the support of the work of the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, are stalling badly under Labor. Nevertheless, they should still ideally be allowed to run their course rather than being supplanted by radical new policy directions in these areas.
Arguably most worryingly of all, the majority report raises the prospect of blocking economic activity in the Beetaloo on the basis that, at some unspecified time in the future, it is conceivable that further ‘matters of national environmental significance’ might be identified in the area. This is not a realistic or sound foundation on which to make and implement government policies and decisions. This approach also misunderstands that environmental protection and economic growth are not, by any means, always mutually exclusive objectives.
In short, this approach (which is referenced in paragraph 3.8 of the majority report) is seriously flawed and, if translated into policy and/or law, it would be economically and socially catastrophic. If it was ever to be applied on a uniform basis, it would wipe out most forms of economic development, wealth creation and job generation in Australia.
Likewise, it fails to take into account that the goals of dramatically raising their environmental consciousness, and practically improving the environments in which they operate, have long been central to the work of many companies across Australia.
Similarly, in government, the Coalition delivered a myriad of successful environmental policies, programs and outcomes, as well as unprecedented investments. Across the nation as a whole, the $200 million Environment Restoration Fund protected, preserved and restored our iconic natural landscapes. In turn, the Morrison Government enhanced Australia’s network of national parks in many different forms, including by investing over $233 million in upgrades.
At a wider level, we also initiated the Samuel Review, having recognised the need to substantially improve the key piece of federal environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Before leaving office, we had released a response to the Samuel Review, and developed comprehensive National Environmental Standards and legislation to implement the key components of that response. Regrettably, these were blocked by non-government parties.
Similarly, we instigated (and significantly funded, in the 2021-22 Budget) work on reviewing and modernising Indigenous cultural heritage laws.
Regrettably, in paragraph 5.86, the majority report (in defiance of the points above, and many others) makes a completely erroneous claim about the Coalition’s years in government. Naturally, this is not backed by any practical evidence in the report.
Given that the majority report makes the Coalition’s performance in the Environment portfolio a partisan issue, this invites us to make some reflections about the record—by contrast—of the Albanese Government since it came to power.
Accordingly, it should be observed that it is, to date, impossible to identify noteworthy national achievements from the Albanese Government in this portfolio. Furthermore, funding has been dramatically slashed in the Environment portfolio across a wide variety of fronts. Numerous important initiatives and funding measures that were in place under the Coalition for environmental protection across Australia have been terminated and/or mismanaged.
In fact, as is revealed on pages 192-194 of Budget Paper 1 from this Labor Government’s first Budget, the Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, has staggeringly presided over the cutting of net federal environment protection funding measures of around $1 billion (from 2021-22 to 2025-26) since she was appointed to her role.
Since it was included in the EPBC Act—at the instigation of the then Member for New England, Tony Windsor MP—during the years of the Rudd and Gillard governments—a range of problems and concerns have arisen in relation to the application and workability of the water trigger. In turn, there are a wide variety of views about the trigger and how it should (or should not) be used in the future.
Against this background, the majority report notes that the Albanese Government is currently considering its options on amending the operation of the water trigger as part of its response to the Samuel Review. It also notes that the Government has foreshadowed that it may make some far-reaching changes as part of that work, including expanding the remit of the existing water trigger to all forms of unconventional gas.
Coalition Senators are particularly concerned about Labor’s potential changes to the water trigger. Indeed, in our time in government, we did not support the trigger’s application to unconventional forms of gas. We also believe that less federal intervention and an increased role for the States and Territories in this policy area (and, accordingly, reduced duplication across different levels of government) is likely to deliver better results.
However, in the short term, we also believe it would be sensible to wait for Labor’s processes to conclude and to then assess their proposed alterations—rather than supporting the majority’s desire to make immediate changes and thereby generate further confusion.
Excerpts from the Samuel Review
In relation to the water trigger, it should also be noted that the majority report focuses on the findings of the Pepper Inquiry in this context, yet essentially ignores the findings of the Samuel Review. We have included below a number of excerpts from the Samuel Review that consistently make the point that the Commonwealth’s role in this area should be reduced rather than increased, not least because it is the States and Territories themselves that are generally more sensibly vested with these responsibilities.
Recommendation 1: Matters of national environmental significance should be focused on Commonwealth responsibilities for the environment. a) The water MNES (section 24D/24E) should be amended to apply only to cross‑border water resources. Any action that is likely to have a significant impact on cross-border water resources should be subject to the trigger. Restrictions should be removed where they prevent other parties from being accredited to undertake approvals of proposals assessed under the water trigger. This amendment should occur in the second tranche of reforms;
Recommendation 18: Commonwealth assessment pathways should be rationalised to enable a risk-based approach to assessments that is proportionate to the level of impact on matters protected by the EPBC Act;
Many of the suggestions about the Commonwealth taking on a broader role reflect a lack of trust that States and Territories will manage these elements well. The Review does not agree with suggestions that the environmental matters the EPBC Act deals with should be broadened. The remit of the Act should not be expanded to cover environmental matters that are State and Territory responsibilities. To do so would result in muddled responsibilities, further duplication and inefficiency. Unclear responsibilities mean that the community is less able to hold governments to account;
The States and Territories have constitutional responsibility for managing their water resources. This responsibility is reflected in the National Water Initiative, which is the intergovernmental agreement that sets out the respective roles of jurisdictions in water management and the water reform agenda they have collectively agreed to pursue;
Direct or indirect changes to water resources that have a potential to impact protected matters have always triggered the EPBC Act and should continue to do so;
In its leadership role, the Commonwealth should continue to transparently report on the progress made by jurisdictions in advancing commitments to manage water under the National Water Initiative;
To reduce the complexity of the regulatory process, the pathways for assessing proposals should be rationalised;
Reducing duplication in development assessment and approval is a sound ambition, and one that governments should continue to pursue. The Review recommends that the EPBC Act should enable the Commonwealth Government to recognise and accredit the regulatory processes and environmental management activities of other parties, including States and Territories and other Commonwealth agencies. This would streamline decision-making by removing the obligation for a project to be assessed under multiple environmental assessment laws.
Traditional Owner consultation / Northern Land Council
Coalition Senators note that companies with acreage in the Beetaloo Basin have a considerable history in negotiating, interacting and co-operating with the Traditional Owners on the lands where wells are being drilled. Indeed, it is already a feature of NT land access requirements that companies must reach agreements with the relevant Traditional Owners before commencing exploration activities such as the drilling of wells.
Additionally, where ongoing development has been occurring in the Beetaloo Basin over recent years, it has been increasing the demand for the consultation and negotiation services of the Northern Land Council (NLC).
Coalition Senators note previous comments provided in the dissenting view to the August 2021 Interim Report regarding criticism of the NLC.
Coalition Senators note that the NLC is the legitimate and appropriate organisation for working within the laws of the Native Title Act and Aboriginal Land Rights Act to identify who are the correct Native Title holders and engaging them in the consultation process.
The NLC is one of the most experienced representative bodies in Australia, having been established in 1973, with the additional expertise of also discharging representation/consultation functions under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. Between 1973 and today, the NLC has conducted considerable ethnographic work in the Beetaloo Basin that informs the identification of Native Title holders, the traditional decision-making processes, and information relating to sacred sites.
Coalition Senators note that the NLC has been diligent in its approach to identifying, consulting and decision making with Traditional Owners and that this has helped facilitate effective engagement by industry with recognised Traditional Owners.
Coalition Senators note again that current legislative requirements and subsequent practices support the principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), which are being followed by oil and gas companies operating in the Beetaloo.
The former Coalition Government specifically provided $2.2 million in dedicated funding in order to support improved engagement with Traditional Owners and to extend the NLC’s capacity to deliver informed and timely decisions.
Further, Coalition Senators note that the majority report has chosen to dedicate an entire chapter to the views of Indigenous Australians, but opted to bury dissenting views in footnotes—like Pompey and Rosemary Raymond—instead of providing them with equal prominence in the report with other witnesses.
Mr Raymond, who notably is a Native Title holder in seven of 10 determinations in the area, said:
Mr Raymond is satisfied that the consultation process has been conducted to the standard of obtaining the Raymond family free, prior and informed consent for the project to go ahead… Mr Raymond wants a prosperous future for his community through a gas operation that will protect country and power Australia with net zero emissions. He is confident that the education, career and infrastructure opportunities from the project would be very beneficial to his community and those surrounding the area.
The Centre for Independent Studies noted:
Indigenous Traditional Owners have expressed their desire for the economic stimulus of the oil and gas exploration to go ahead by giving their consent to the Northern Land Council and publishing their views in the Land Rights News: Northern Edition July 2022. Jingili Elder and Native Title Holder Pompey Raymond was interviewed about his beliefs that the debate around oil and gas exploration was being hijacked by those who should not be speaking for the region. On Warranangku Country, Mr Raymond said the voices who could rightfully speak for country were clear in their support. Mr Raymond sees careers for young people, education, community infrastructure and a pathway to protect his country. As the article outlines there are Traditional Owners that trust operators to conduct fracking safely.
However, any evidence provided by the Centre for Independent Studies in its submission was notably absent from the majority report.
This selection bias in choosing to only reflect opinions and views that suit the majority’s predetermined ideological position undermines the credibility of the report. For example, at a hearing on 2 August 2021, the Chair suggested that the review, other reports and submissions to the inquiry all support the view ‘that there is an overwhelmingly majority of traditional owners in the Beetaloo basin who are affected who are opposed to fracking’. However, the NLC, when asked if this was their understanding, responded:
We would have difficulty accepting necessarily the premise of that question – that the overwhelming majority of traditional owners are opposed to fracking... [T]hese matters are far more complex than just a question of who's opposed to fracking.
Coalition Senators remain convinced that the majority report is characterised by overtly political and ideological selection of evidence, resulting in biased conclusions and recommendations being made on the basis of unfounded imputations.
Ideological and politicised opposition to the development of the Beetaloo Sub‑basin, using selective evidence and testimony to justify pre-conceived anti-development positions, is disappointing. Coalition Senators reaffirm the position of the original ‘Dissenting Report by Coalition Senators’ to this inquiry in August 2021 and express their strong support for the continued development of the Beetaloo.
Throughout this inquiry, where evidence has been based on science and fact, it is clear that the development of the gas resources in the Beetaloo can be managed responsibly and unlock jobs and economic prosperity for the Northern Territory and Australia more broadly. With over 200 000 petajoules of potential gas to unlock, 6300 long term jobs, over $1 billion in additional revenue to the Northern Territory Government, and up to $7.5 billion in additional economic value, this basin presents a significant opportunity for the people of the NT.
Unlocking significant new supplies of gas, including from the Beetaloo, is critical to improving Australia’s energy security and affordability, at a time when gas supply on the east coast is tight and new investments are drying up. Placing barriers designed to derail gas development in Australia will only result in the offshoring of projects to higher-emitting markets, and perversely, undermining global emissions reduction efforts at the cost of Australian jobs and investment.
Senator Hollie Hughes
Senator Ross Cadell