Remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory are gearing up for a public relations battle with the oil and gas industry over fracking.
Aboriginal communities opposed to hydraulic fracturing projects on their land have formed an alliance.
The oil and gas industry is planning a counter-offensive highlighting economic benefits and environmental safeguards.
The indigenous and community groups come from communities across the NT including Maningrida, Borroloola, Mataranka and Katherine.
Their new group, the NT Frack Free Alliance, aims to provide support to remote groups opposing fracking.
At the group’s first meeting in Darwin, Maningrida area traditional owner Eddie Mason from the Balachni clan said many Indigenous people felt locked out of decision making about where onshore gas projects will go.
“We’re going to talk to the Government, to say that we don’t want any fracking or mining on our country,” he said.
A Garrawa elder from Borrooloola, Nancy McDinny, said the group would try to stop any fracking on her country.
“We don’t want no fracking down at Borroloola area and we’d like the place to be really clear,” she said.
They are taking advice on strategy from the New South Wales protest organisers Lock the Gate.
Boudicca Cerese from Lock the Gate told the meeting the communities have the right “to say no to fracking, whether it be you mob out bush, whether it be the people in Katherine”.
Oil and gas industry strikes back
The oil and gas industry is planning to counter the anti-fracking campaign with a bigger public relations effort.
The NT Director of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), Steve Gerhardy, said the group plans to hold more public discussion and meetings.
“[We are] talking to the pastoralists, and Land Councils, and other groups as well, so we’re certainly trying to get the information out to the community about how this industry can be developed safely,” he said.
If mining happens out there, we lose everything, our water’s going to be contaminated, we’re worried about our freshwater.Helena Gulwa
To access some of the Territory’s onshore exploration sweet spots, the industry must get agreement from Indigenous communities.
Traditional owners with full land rights are the only group with an absolute veto over projects, and the companies can only negotiate with them through land councils.
Northern Land Council CEO Joe Morrison said many Indigenous people had deep concerns about fracking.
“The whole question about hydraulic fracturing is continuing to evolve in terms of the science and particularly the concerns around the aquifers, and we’ve heard a lot of concerns from traditional owners,” he said.
The Land Council wants no fracking near aquifers or bore fields.
Maningrida resident Helena Gulwa said she was scared by the idea of fracking.
“If mining happens out there, we lose everything, our water’s going to be contaminated, we’re worried about our freshwater.”
Fracking technology safe, industry says
The industry argues the technology used to pump water and chemicals at high pressure, to fracture rocks and force shale gas to the surface, is foolproof.
Mr Gerhardy said the science of drilling through aquifers was well tested.
“What it does, it has multiple layers of steel casing, thick steel and cement surrounding that protect it, insulate it from the aquifer,” he said.
“It’s promoting the jobs and contract work already offered during the drilling of 20 exploration wells, by companies including Stat Oil.”
Mr Gerhardy said Stat Oil “injected $7.5 million into the local economy using local contractors, employing Aboriginals, Indigenous people from the local communities”.
Helena Gulwa said the communities do not have a blanket anti-mining approach.
“We do want mining and we do want jobs, but this is not the way to go. We need to negotiate, talk to people,” she said.
At the moment the onshore gas industry is gearing up quite slowly, with plans for about 20 new exploration wells a year for the next few years.
If it is to realise its massive exploration and production plans, it will have to convince both communities and the Territory Government that it has carried out proper consultation and its environmental reassurances are watertight.