By ERWIN CHLANDA
Proponents of hydraulic fracturing and opponents of fracking (both terms mean the same, of course) were within shouting distance of each other on Monday, separated only by burly bouncers.
Inside the Star of Alice, at an invitation-only function, were about 45 local business people and bureaucrats, looking for a slice of the action. They were guests of Origin Energy.
Outside were about the the same number of people, but with a very opposite mindset, hoping to somehow prevent any action.
They have little realistic hope now that the NT Labor government, for which a good many of the placard wavers probably voted, directly or indirectly, has given the green light to fracking.
Origin is not an oil or gas producer but an explorer. It will not be fracking near Alice Springs. Its main focus is rather the highly prospective Beetaloo Basin, about half-way between Tennant Creek and Darwin. The company will drill a small number of exploration wells there.
In the end the two sunset functions on Monday turned out to be very civilised. What’s more, some significant facts emerged, during the two gatherings and subsequently: What is the position of Aboriginal people in relation to fracking?
It is clearly a stand-by-for-more situation.
Both sides are referring to (or using?) Aboriginal people in their arguments, but there is a significant difference in the substance and the style of the two sides.
The Lock the Gate Alliance: “The Northern Territory Government has abandoned communities and many unique natural places to the greed of the gas companies.”
The fracking opponents refer to “traditional owners” in plural but Ray Dixon, “a traditional custodian for the region downstream from Origin’s frack site”, is the front man whom an alliance media release quotes: “There are many traditional owners who are sharing concerns about Origin’s fracking plan and the downstream impacts.”
Origin seems to be on firmer ground, having reached an official agreement with the Federal statutory body in charge of such matters, the Northern Land Council.
Says an Origin spokesman: “Claims by the anti-fracking lobby that traditional owners have not given consent are misleading.
“In terms of our relationship with Aboriginal people, Origin works with the Northern Land Council to ensure we engage with traditional owners who are the native title holders and who speak legally and culturally for the country within our exploration permit area.
“The NLC are the statutory body who determine who the rightful native title holders are for our permit areas.
“We recently met on-country with our host traditional owner and native title holder groups ahead of this year’s work program.
“Pending all necessary environmental assessments and approvals, our plan this year is to drill two new exploration wells,” says the spokesman.
“Native title holders together with the Northern Land Council completed sacred site clearance and avoidance surveys for this work in September last year.
“Our native title holders are very optimistic about the economic and employment opportunities this project may deliver to their families and their communities.
“Our native title holders also respect the rights other TOs have to speak for their own country, though they would also like the same respect be afforded to them, and not have others speak for their country.”
Not surprisingly, the first slide of the Powerpoint presentation given to the Alice business community on Monday was a collage of Aboriginal people in mining-related settings (photo above).
The claim on a flyer advertising Monday’s demonstration that the “traditional owners have not given consent” seems to be shaky.
Also not surprisingly the Origin spokesman referred to the Justice Pepper enquiry commissioned by the NT Government: “We have also just been through a very thorough and detailed independent scientific inquiry that found the risks identified with fracking can be mitigated or reduced to an acceptable level, and in some cases eliminated.”
Meanwhile Alana Richardson, the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce in Alice Springs, says the action is some two years away.
The response of the business people at the Origin function had been “very positive”.
The chamber and the Industry Capability Network of the Northern Territory are keeping a sharp eye on the commercial opportunities which are likely to include transport and opportunities for construction tradies, says Ms Richardson.
Talks are also proposed with Charles Darwin University about new courses that may be useful.