By ERWIN CHLANDA
“The cultural impacts associated with the development of any onshore shale gas industry must be fully explained prior to the development of that industry and that a plan be developed to manage those impacts on Aboriginal people and their communities.
“Aboriginal people and their representatives must be involved in the design and implementation of any such plan.”
That was a recommendation by the Independent Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the NT, set up by Chief Minister Michael Gunner and headed up by Justice Rachel Pepper. Her report was released in March 2018.
The Beetaloo Sub-basin, which is estimated to have 500 trillion cubic feet of gas – about one-sixth of the nation’s reserve – gets a special mention. (See details below.)
Today, five years later, an elder of the area, Samuel Janama Sandy (pictured), deputy chairman of Nurrdalinji Aboriginal Corporation, says in a media release about the planned gas development: “In terms of benefits and support from the fracking industry, it’s all talk, talk, talk and no action.
“We are getting a peanut, while the white man is packing up his pocket with cash. We should own land, buy businesses, but we got nothing.
“I live in Katherine in a housing commission flat, on a wheelchair, and haven’t got a car or any of the benefits they say will come from fracking.
“Our people want jobs on country, but not jobs that involve drilling into our country.”
Justice Pepper was reported as promising 32,000 jobs.
Mr Sandy: “We want to protect our underground water, the environment, the animals and birdlife, from fracking.
“We don’t want fracking, at any cost. The gas should be kept in the ground.”
Under former Prime Minister Scott Morrison the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) commissioned a report about the gas project.
The NIAA is an Australian Government agency and hence spending public money.
Liberal Mr Morrison did not release the report, and neither did his Labor successor, Anthony Albanese.
Nurrdalinji had to resort to a freedom of information process to get the report, called a Blueprint, which is mostly about the Aboriginal people affected by the gas project. Nurrdalinji’s action put the document into the public arena.
Who is the author, paid from public funds? We’re not told their name which is redacted and replaced with “s22(1)” – a section of the Freedom of Information Act 1982.
It permits the release of documents so long as they “would not disclose any information that would reasonably be regarded as irrelevant to the request” for disclosure, in the opinion of the agency.
The executive summary of the Blueprint makes it clear that maximising regional benefits from private investment in onshore gas projects in the Beetaloo Sub-basin “is a core objective of the Australian and NT governments”.
Little wonder both were keen to keep a lid on the document which has little good to say with respect to the way traditional owners figure in the exploitation of this huge Territory asset.
These are issues the News has signalled we will be raising with NT parliamentary representatives Marion Scrymgour MHR and Senator Malarndirri McCarthy.
The Blueprint says resource development agreements have “burgeoned over the past 30 years, particularly following the enactment of the Native Title Act 1993 (NTA) [although] it does not require informed consent or provide native title holders with a power of veto over resource development,” as is the case under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (ALRA).
Most of the land within the sub-basin is held pursuant to native title, not ALRA.
“Almost always, traditional owners and native title holders are at a disadvantage to the companies with which they are negotiating,” says the Blueprint.
“This report outlines the four factors – political / strategic power, legal rights, ethos of the companies involved, economics of the project – that are most often associated with strong benefit-sharing agreements, the most influential of which is the political / strategic power of Traditional Owners and native title holders.
“Research shows that even where strong agreements are negotiated, the benefits for resident Indigenous populations can still be decidedly mixed.
“We find that the current conditions are not conducive to strong agreements being negotiated.”
Traditional Owners and native title holders have limited political and strategic capacity: The population is sparse; there is limited community information about the impact of resource development; the legislative framework does not favour Aboriginal interests.
“The economic benefit of the project is uncertain and variable,” says the Blueprint.
“Reports suggest the development is a globally significant economic development opportunity, while the Senate Inquiry found that the economic case for gas exploration appears to be based on overly optimistic assumptions and unrealistic modelling.”
Agreement-making processes should be strengthened and there should be better resourcing of “Prescribed Body Corporates, Native Title Representative Bodies and Land Councils to be able to perform their functions and meet their obligations.
“Governments can actively require free, prior and informed consent,” says the executive summary.
“The Blueprint recommends that governments require that all agreements with Traditional Owners and native title claimants and holders for the Beetaloo Sub-basin meet the standard of being strong or very strong … and that an independent panel should be established to undertake verification of agreements.”
These are clearly issues Mr Gunner could have included in the Pepper inquiry’s terms of reference.
But then, conveniently as some would say, the inquiry was “scientific,” an adjective never convincingly defined, but Aboriginal interests were a side issue.
UPDATE 7.30am March 30: The Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade, upon request from the News, has provided the following information.
The terms “proven gas reserves” and “gas-in-place resource” are both ways of reporting resource volumes at different levels of certainty.
“Proven gas reserves” have a higher level of certainty based on evidence collected through exploration and appraisal activities. “Gas-in-place resources” are those resources estimated to exist with a higher level of uncertainty.
Therefore, “proven gas reserves” tend to be a lower number than the “gas-in-place resources”.
The Beetaloo Sub-Basin does not have any resources classified as “proven gas reserves”, as the evidence through exploration and appraisal activities that is needed to establish “proven gas reserves” is still being collected.
Therefore comparing the “proven reserves” and “gas-in-place resources” is not a uniform (or meaningful) process.
A uniform comparison of Australia’s and the Beetaloo Sub-basin’s resources is “contingent resources (2C)”.
In 2020 Australia had 130.14 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of 2C resources and the latest reported 2C resource for the Beetaloo Sub-Basin is 8.96 Tcf or 6.9% of Australia’s contingent resource.
Contingent Resources are petroleum resources which are technically recoverable but not proven to be commercially recoverable at that time.