Peak gas industry body tells Senate inquiry into Beetaloo Basin fracking cannot happen without consent of traditional owners

The chief executive of Australia’s top oil and gas industry body has said no fracking will occur in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin without the consent of the traditional owners or ranchers involved.

Speaking at a Senate inquiry into the Darwin Basin on Tuesday, Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) CEO Andrew McConville said gas companies would not operate on land without permission.

Mr McConville also referred to several independent studies which “indicated that hydraulic fracturing could be carried out safely in Australia”.

APPEA CEO Andrew McConville (left) told the inquiry that gas companies would comply with strict environmental regulations to mitigate the risks from hydraulic fracturing.(ABC News: Samantha Dick)

The public hearing, chaired by WA Greens Senator Dorinda Cox, heard from dozens of stakeholders about the federal government’s controversial $50 million grant program aimed at accelerating fracking in the Beetaloo Basin.

Among them was traditional owner Johnny Wilson, who lives less than 20 kilometers from frac pits in the Beetaloo, and chairs the Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation.

He told the inquiry that mining companies had not gone far enough to adequately consult with traditional owners about the prospect of fracking on their land.

“Our concerns have not been heard across the entire Beetaloo Basin,” he said.

two aboriginal men in a park
Mr. Walker and Samuel Daylight testified as representatives of the Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation.(ABC News: Peter Garnish)

Mr Wilson said he believed some local traditional owners who had previously consented to fracking were not fully informed of the risks.

“Our elders before, when mining giants came to sign deals, they never quite understood the full impact of fracking and what it will do for our country,” he said.

Other anti-fracking groups include environmental lawyers, academics and local cattle ranchers, who said they fear gas production will cause pollution and increase carbon emissions from Australia at unacceptable levels.

Two women seated at a long table with microphones look seriously ahead of them.
Green Senators Lidia Thorpe and Dorinda Cox questioned gas company representatives about the risks of fracking.(ABC News: Dane Hirst)

Debate over a perceived “conflict of interest”

Speaking at the inquest, Dan Robins, of anti-fracking collective Lock The Gate Alliance, alleged a “conflict of interest” between Shaun Drabsch, the CEO of the Department of Industry, Tourism and Commerce of the Northern Territory, and the gas giant Santos.

“Some of the conflicts of interest that we’ve seen at the Northern Territory level… [include] politicians who work for Santos one day and then work for the Northern Territory Government the next,” he told the inquest.

“Shaun Drabsch, who oversees most planning and environmental decisions, worked as a consultant for Santos in the Northern Territory, and he hadn’t even updated his CV before working for the NT.”

In response, Mr. Drabsch confirmed that he was a former Santos employee.

“It is a fact that during one of my 40 years of work I was employed as a consultant by the Santos gas company,” he told the inquest.

An aerial view of a drilling site in the Beetaloo Basin.  Machines and vehicles are in a clearing surrounded by trees,
Tensions flared over the investigation into accusations that some NT bureaucrats were influenced by the gas industry. (Provided: Empire Energy)

Mr. Drabsch said his role at Santos was to coordinate the company’s participation in consultations conducted by the Territory government following a major investigation into fracking, known as the Pepper inquiry.

“That shouldn’t be particularly surprising, because I’m an economist with extensive experience in state and federal government processes,” he said.

He said the NT Government was “confident we are on the right track” to complete the Pepper Inquiry’s 135 recommendations this year.

The Northern Territories government plans to consider approvals for gas production in the Beetaloo sub-basin in 2023, he said.

The final report of the investigation is due April 21.

Norman D. Briggs