By ERWIN CHLANDA
The new fracking “regime will deliver the robust environmental approval and assessment process the community wants,” say Mines Minister Dave Tollner (at left) and Chief Minister Adam Giles.
“In adopting the regulatory regime recommended by Dr Hawke, the community can have greater confidence that environmental assessments are highly rigorous,” says Minister for the Environment Gary Higgins.
And Mr Giles pushed that other button as well, saying he’s “building a social licence” for fracking and onshore oil and gas administration, announcing “a raft of additional measures to ensure [the government’s] environmental approval process is comprehensive and transparent”.
If that is so, why has his government been keeping under wraps Alan Hawke’s “Review of the Northern Territory Environmental Assessment and Approval Processes” since May 1 this year, releasing it only yesterday, one day after the announcement of the successful pipeline tender, and giving the 51 page document to Darwin journalists for just one hour before the scheduled opportunity to ask Dr Hawke questions, while making no arrangements at all for Alice Springs media to question him.
The flood of statements yesterday are full of the kind of spin that has become the hallmark of the Giles Government.
Says Peter Styles, Minister for Business: “[Tuesday’s] announcement was effectively the on switch for a wave of opportunity across the Northern Territory.
“The NEGI will create more than 900 jobs, 600 of which are for locals and will result in $112 million in contracts for local businesses.
“The ability to generate local jobs and business opportunities was a major part of the selection process for this project.”
Note it “will create”. This is a deceptively modified lift from the Jemena pitch, which in fact says: “67% of expected contracts could be competitively tendered to Northern Territory (including Mt Isa region) businesses, worth $112m.
“During planning, construction and commissioning, up to 563 out of 900 direct jobs could be filled from the Northern Territory (including Mount Isa region).”
That’s a clear “maybe” – not to mention the need to get over the hurdle of the “prequalification requirements, namely demonstrated experience in similar work scopes, Australian / local good references, cost competitiveness, robust HSEQ systems and processes, ability to negotiate commercial terms and conditions”.
The “robust” process Dr Hawke had called for in his first report remains firmly in the government’s hands, judging by the 21 recommendations taking up nearly 3000 words.
Regulating the mining of the Territory’s more than 200 trillion cubic feet of gas, potentially enough to power Australia for more than 200 years (Mines and Energy Minister David Tollner’s estimate), is the job of the Minister for the Environment, “in consultation” with the Environment Protection Authority (NT EPA).
The EPA consists of a chairperson and four members appointed by the Administrator of the Northern Territory and the Chair of the NT Planning Commission.
So, how did Alice Springs miss out on the Big One? Given the effort of Tennant Creek involving the whole community, the corresponding effort in Alice Springs was paltry – to put it politely.
Alice Springs has the Economic Development Committee (EDC). It is chaired by a public servant, Scott Lovett, from the Department of the Chief Minister.
Two assumptions would be reasonable: This committee has a strong presence from the Town Council and the Chamber of Commerce, and secondly, it would have gone hell for leather for the Alice to Moomba pipeline to be built, a $1b project.
Wrong on both counts: The council has no presence in the EDC (Mayor Damien Ryan was a member last year) and neither does the Chamber.
Well, maybe. Its president, Neil McLeod, says he is on the EDC.
Does he represent the Chamber there? He’s not sure. “Maybe they asked me because I am its president.”
What Mr McLeod is sure of is that the EDC did nothing substantial to push the pipeline to be in its neck of the woods – unlike tiny Tennant and its Tennant Creek Mount Isa Alliance.
For Mr McLeod the pipeline was just a matter of the government tendering process to take its course.
Chamber CEO Kay Eade says the pipeline would have had a long-term beneficial impact on Alice’s economy, a benefit now being enjoyed by Tennant Creek whose people “are really passionate about their town,” as Ms Eade puts it.
They had earlier shown similar proactive attitudes with the Palm Valley to Darwin pipeline as well as the Alice to Darwin railway.
Ms Eade encourages Alice businesses to register their interest and get the biggest possible slice of the action.
As for the Council, Mayor Ryan says he is “disappointed” that Alice didn’t get the pipeline, but he suggests with the new air service in place, Alice residents may land some fly-in, fly-out jobs in Tennant Creek.
As the biggest town close to their operation “we are pretty well placed”.
Mayor Ryan says the council did all it could to get the pipeline, but that consisted in the main of having meetings with three of the four companies interested in building the Alice to Moomba version. These three had approached the council.
Mayor Ryan says: “The Council has plenty of meetings with the Chief Minister and I have nothing else to add.”
This precluded further examination with Mayor Ryan of what the Council could have been doing: The NT Government controls the onshore gas. The Mines Minister issues the exploration and production permits.
If there is a demand for gas of a magnitude the government would have us believe, could Adam Giles not have made the Alice to Moomba pipeline a condition for access to the resource? After all, Alice is his supposed home town.
What’s the financial loss for Alice Springs from not getting the project? “I don’t have a ready reckoner to work out these figures,” says Mayor Ryan.
If the Hawke recommendations are adopted, miners will have a “single front door through the system”, there will be a “strengthened audit and compliance role for the NT EPA”, and the Minister will give miners and the community certainty by publishing policies and procedures.
The second Hawke report seems to be full of ambiguities. Terms such as reinforce, regular, responsible decision makers, relevant, significant impact, clear, are found throughout the recommendations and provide generous latitude for interpretation.
“Independent evaluation.” By whom? Not specified.
“On request of the Minister, provide advice …” Where does the public stand if the Minister doesn’t request it?
“Discretionary decision of the Environment Minister.” It’s no secret the current government is hell-bent on increasing mining activities.
“Simplify EIA guidelines to focus on risk assessment and adaptive management responses rather than comprehensive descriptions of the environment.” Assessment by whom? Adaptive to what?
“Reward good practice [by miners] based on ‘earned trust’ so that proponents who produce high-quality documentation and management plans and build community trust are rewarded with a lighter assessment touch while those with poor documentation or practice are subjected to greater prescription.” Is that referring to a word count or does it depend on the actual meaning and relevance of what is documented?
“Consideration should be given to using peer review to outsource preparation of the adequacy scorecard.” Who are the peers? And will the consideration be given?
(We made at least a dozen contacts yesterday by phone and email to obtain comment from Dr Hawke – no joy. He is welcome now to provide responses in the comment box below this report.)
The Territory Government says it will now “embark on a major consultation exercise, starting this week until September next year. This consultation will involve stakeholder briefings and workshops around the Territory”.
Clearly the existing exploration and production activities will continue in the meantime.
Says Mr Tollner: “The NT Government will grant a limited number of exploration permits every year to assist with gathering further baseline data about our oil and gas resource.”
The government has also decided that mining and petroleum activities will now become the subject of the Water Act.
“The impacts of mining and petroleum activities on water resources have always been managed and closely regulated by the Department of Mines and Energy.
“However the Water Act, which regulates the allocation, use and management of water resources across all industries in the Northern Territory, does not apply to oil and gas activities.
“Today the Government has announced its intention to remove the exemption in the Water Act relating to oil and gas activities. This will further strengthen the management and protection of the Territory’s water resources,” says Mr Giles said.
Meanwhile the Lock the Gate anti-fracking alliance presented evidence that – it suggests – shows that Dr Hawke has a conflict of interest: ActewAGL Distribution is owned in equal shares by Jemena Limited (the winner of the pipeline contract) and Icon Water, on whose board Dr Hawke sits.
Dr Hawke, in an emailed statement, replied (in part) as follows: “I am a director of Icon Water which provides water and sewerage services to the ACT and surrounding district.
“Icon Water is wholly owned by the ACT Government, its voting shareholders being the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister.
“Icon Water is a 50% owner of a separate company called Actew/AGL in a joint venture with AGL and Jemena.
“Actew/AGL delivers electricity and gas services. I am not on the board of Actew/AGL (the Chairman and Deputy Chair of Icon Water fulfil those obligations) and I have nothing to do with the running of Actew/AGL or any interaction with Jemena.”
PHOTOS: Pipeline construction (at top) • Sketch of a gas compression station similar to the one to be built at Warrego.