The Morrison government failed to follow through on a promised $2m to facilitate consultations with traditional owners over its controversial plan to allow fracking in the Beetaloo Basin, an inquiry has heard.
The federal government has handed fracking companies tens of millions of dollars to accelerate exploratory drilling in the basin as part of its “gas-led recovery” from the pandemic, despite evidence that exploiting the region’s gas would drive up Australia’s emissions by 13%.
Before production can take place, consent must be secured from traditional owners across the vast area that makes up the Beetaloo.
The Northern Land Council, tasked with liaising with traditional owners, told a Senate inquiry on Tuesday that it had been promised $2m from the Morrison government to help it consult over the Beetaloo plan.
The money, promised in the last federal budget, had so far failed to materialise, the inquiry heard.
In fact, the NLC said it had not even received a draft grant agreement for consideration.
“We don’t yet have a funding agreement, we have not yet received a draft agreement for our consideration,” Greg McDonald, the council’s branch manager for resources and energy, said.
“This was an announcement that was made at last year’s federal budget, and that’s where the NLC first heard about it, when that public announcement was made.”
Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy said: “So we’re coming up to the next budget of the Morrison government, and you’re still waiting on this money, is that right?”
McDonald responded: “That’s correct.”
The NLC told the inquiry it had already secured consent for exploratory drilling to be conducted in parts of the Beetaloo Basin, but was yet to consult on production more broadly.
The inquiry heard that consent was at odds with opposition from a number of traditional owners, including those giving evidence to the Senate inquiry on Tuesday.
Ray Dimakarri Dixon, a Mudburra man and traditional owner in the Beetaloo, said the fracking threatened his land and had prompted serious concerns about water, sacred sites, the environment, and his connection to country.
“Fracking uses a lot of chemicals underground and that’s what we are worried about,” he told the inquiry. “This is going to contaminate the water and it’s going to make it bad for our children. It doesn’t matter where we are. It doesn’t matter where we live, what colour, what race, what tribe we are. The water is very important for us … it’s life.”
“I think we shouldn’t have fracking in our country. They’re using our water. They’re using our sand. It’s going to destroy our future, our culture, everything that we have.”
Lock the Gate, an environmentalist group opposed to fracking, on Tuesday released an analysis of the impact of current and proposed exploratory drilling projects in the Beetaloo, based on the environmental management plans released by proponent companies.
It found the exploration activities will use 2,272m litres of water and more than 1m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
The gas industry peak group, Australian Petroleum Exploration and Production Association, told the inquiry that opening up the Beetaloo would create thousands of jobs and increase the supply of gas to both domestic and export markets.
“This is both an export and domestic opportunity,” APPEA chief executive, Andrew McConville, said.
The inquiry heard concerns about the way traditional owners were treated during consultations over fracking.
GetUp’s first nations justice director, Larissa Baldwin, said there were instances where traditional owners were not afforded due and proper process, despite fracking companies claiming they had secured consent through the NLC or Central Land Council.
“We’ve heard from traditional owners time and time again that on many occasions there has been no process of informed consent,” she said. “Meetings without translators provided, no detailed description of what will occur, where they will drill and [conduct] production, no information about the long-term impact and the risk to water, health, and cultural heritage.”
“The communities are not willing to trust these companies on their words.”