Almost 100 scientists have published an open letter to the Northern Territory government urging it to abandon plans for fracking in the Beetaloo Basin, warning of “the damage it will inflict on our climate”.
- Scientists call for an end to new fracking in the NT, warning it will add 89 million tonnes of emissions to the atmosphere annually
- They say the NT government “failed” to keep its promise to implement all Pepper Inquiry recommendations
- One scientist says a rise in emissions from the industry will intensify bushfire seasons, floods and accelerate the death of coral reefs
Published in national newspapers across Australia on Wednesday, the joint letter comes as the NT government is poised to make a final decision on whether it will allow a large-scale gas industry to go ahead.
Since a moratorium was lifted on fracking in 2018, the NT has been racing against the clock to implement all recommendations from the Pepper Inquiry to minimise any risks associated with the industry.
The government and the fracking industry say gas buried deep within the Beetaloo Basin could solve Australia’s energy crisis, grow the NT’s economy and create jobs.
Late last month the government ticked off a major milestone when it completed the Strategic Regional Environmental and Baseline Assessment, an environmental study that was recommended by the Pepper Inquiry.
The report found no new risks associated with fracking, while environmental groups said the study’s scope was too limited.
In the joint letter, the scientists claimed one key recommendation of the Pepper Inquiry, known as 9.8, had not been addressed.
“[The government] committed to implement all the recommendations of the Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing,” the letter states.
“Including that the NT and Australian governments seek to ensure that there is no net increase in the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions emitted in Australia from any onshore shale gas produced in the NT.
“The Northern Territory government has failed to keep its commitment.”
UNSW Professor Matthew England, who specialises in oceans and the impacts of global warming, said Australia would face a steep spike in emissions if fracking was given the green light.
The signatories of the letter claim an industry in the Beetaloo Basin could add 89 million tonnes of emissions to the atmosphere annually which, according to the letter, was “equivalent to four times the current emissions of the Northern Territory”.
“Australia has been suffering severe bushfire seasons, intense flooding rains, we’re seeing our coral reefs die off before our eyes — all of these events are costing the Australian economy hugely,” Professor England said.
“We’ve made a pledge to get to net zero by 2050.
“That’s not very far away and yet we’re seeing more and more of these fossil fuel projects being commenced.
“Making a quick buck out of some fossil fuel extraction, to the detriment of Australian society and future generations, just makes no sense whatsoever.”
The NT government has said it would get the federal government to commit to helping offset emissions from the Beetaloo Basin in order to satisfy recommendation 9.8.
But two weeks ago NT Environment Minister Lauren Moss was unable to confirm whether that had happened.
Ms Moss instead pointed to the federal government’s safeguard mechanism, the centrepiece of its pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 43 per cent by 2030, and said the government recognised it “[had] a role in this”.
One of the signatories of the letter, principal adviser at the Australia Institute Mark Ogge, however, disputed that any meaningful agreements had been made between the governments.
He said the policy would only require direct emissions from extracting the gas to be mitigated or offset, and ignored the vast bulk of emissions that come from processing and burning gas.
“The Beetaloo Basin threatens to sink our emissions targets,” he said.
“The ministers responsible for our emissions targets, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek and Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen, need to intervene and stop the Northern Territory going ahead with this … they’re responsible for making sure we meet those targets.”
Professor England also expressed concerns that there was often too high a reliance on offsetting emissions as a solution to reaching net zero.
The focus, he said, should be on reducing emissions.
“All of the proposals I’ve seen to burn fossil fuels at one end and then somehow have measures to absorb those fossil fuels with planting trees, growing seaweed or carbon capture and storage just don’t work here in Australia,” he said.
“I’m really concerned that some of the [oil and gas] companies are forging ahead with fossil fuel extraction and burning … and proposing ways to mitigate them with technologies that have just not been tested and proved.”
Australian engineer Ian Dunlop, another signatory, was previously the chair of the Australian Coal Association, but said he had moved away from the fossil fuel industry after reckoning with the realities of climate change.
“Quite simply, the greatest threat the world and this country faces now is climate change,” he said.
“We’ve had 30 years to try and do something about it, and we’ve achieved precisely nothing.”
He said that even though the NT government was expected to make an announcement on the future of fracking in the territory on Wednesday, it was “never too late” to try to rectify a decision.
“This is a classic case of what people call moral hazard. In other words, [the government] has committed to doing something knowing there are going to be bad consequences from doing it and it’s promised to solve them by finding solutions further down the line,” he said.
“The letter needs to bring to the attention of governments everywhere, and particularly the fossil fuel industry, this is the end of the line.
“The cost to the community is going to be enormous.”
In a statement, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, the oil and gas industry representative body, said the letter overestimated prospective emissions in the Beetaloo Basin as a total of Australia’s emissions.
The letter “contradict[s] the findings of the 15-month long independent Pepper Inquiry and a more recent study by Australia’s leading scientific research body,” APPEA NT director David Slama said.
The NT government declined to comment.