Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP slams the Government and the ALP on the fracking of the Beetaloo Basin

22 June, 2021


That the Industry Research and Development (Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program) Instrument 2021 made under the Industry Research and Development Act 1986 on 13 May 2021 and presented to the House on 24 May 2021, be disallowed.

This instrument gives effect to the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program. The Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program aims to provide businesses with funding to accelerate exploration and appraisal activities in the basin. The Beetaloo Sub-basin is a gas field approximately 500 kilometres south-east of Darwin, extending across an area of approximately 28,000 square kilometres. The basin is just one of five such basins that the government plans to open up around Australia, in complete contradiction to our international commitment to keep global warming to under two degrees and against all expert advice that no new gas fields can be developed if the world is to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. The program will cost some $50 million of public funds over two years, alongside several hundred million dollars of taxpayer money that has been directed to the Beetaloo Basin. The Australian people are paying for this folly, and it is entirely unacceptable.

It is extraordinary that, on a day when we learnt that the Great Barrier Reef may be listed as in danger by UNESCO due to our climate change impacts and due to the lack of strong climate change policy from this government, the government and the opposition are voting against a motion to disallow the exploration of one of the most polluting gas basins in Australia. Both the coalition and the ALP are absolute hypocrites when it comes to a climate change commitment. It is astounding that, despite claiming to be committed to net zero, the ALP are supporting the government on this gas folly. The Beetaloo could result in an almost eight per cent increase in our domestic emissions, and that is not just carbon dioxide but also methane, which is almost 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time line. By funding the drilling in this basin the government makes a complete mockery of its commitment to the Paris Agreement to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees and under two degrees.

At a time when the Bureau of Meteorology has already told us that we are currently on track to have over three degrees of warming globally and, in the Northern Territory, over four degrees of warming, it is astounding that this government continues on a path of self-destruction to make our country and the Northern Territory uninhabitable. The government's own department stated that the emissions from the developing of onshore shale gas in the Northern Territory may be difficult to offset and could impact on Australia's progress in meeting the Paris Agreement commitments. And what has hardly been said is that we're talking about fracking here, which is deeply unpopular with so many of the regional communities that this government and the ALP are pretending to represent.

The call to stop further fossil fuel expansion is backed by one of the most conservative energy agencies in the world, the International Energy Agency, which traditionally the government was very happy to quote from because it had a conservative approach to transitioning to clean energy. But it has made clear in its Net Zero by 2050 report that there must be no new fossil fuel projects from this year onwards to keep warming to 1.5 degrees and at least under two degrees. So, remember, when this government claims that this is for the Northern Territory, that it's for northern Australia, it is gaslighting the very people who will be on the front line of global impacts.

One of the reasons that I'm sure the minister will come up and gaslight us about will be jobs. The government and the gas industry will deliver talking points and spin about the jobs relating to these projects. They're notorious for promoting gas as a big employer, but the facts actually speak for themselves. The real figure is that only 0.3 per cent, or some 42,000 jobs in Australia, are actually in the gas industry. The gas industry is actually ranked 55th in terms of employment out of 105 industries in Australia. We don't need more gas.

The next argument you will hear is that this is about supply and price. This is just more gaslighting. The supply from the Beetaloo Basin won't help Australians. Let's be really clear about that. From 2015 to 2019, the supply of gas has more than tripled, yet I haven't seen a reduction in prices. In fact, prices have increased by 130 per cent. So, since the coalition have been in government for a significant number of years yet the prices are rising, it begs the question that the policy is not working, and that is because the Beetaloo will help only exporters of gas and not manufacturers—and not domestic prices.

Only one per cent of Australian gas is used as feedstock in manufacturing—a reason that's often promoted by the government. Some 70 per cent of gas goes offshore to export markets. In fact, the gas used in manufacturing has declined in every state in the last several years. The Australian Energy Market Operator is projecting that the industry's use of gas will decrease from 2022. Ironically, the gas industry uses more gas just processing gas so that it can be exported than the entire manufacturing industry does. This is like a vicious circle of atrociousness, and the justification we hear from the minister in this place is just amazing. Manufacturing employment has declined since the 1980s, when Australia did in fact have cheap gas, but it's government policies that have actually enabled most of the gas to be exported. The real question is: if you want to reduce prices, change those laws, keep the gas domestically. Of course, that's not what they want to do; they just want to open up more, because why not make the problem bigger and put your head in the sand for a little bit longer?

The Australian Energy Market Operator has projected that residential and commercial consumption of gas is actually going to decrease. We know that the cheapest electricity comes from renewables. People know, so they will switch their home heating to electric and they will switch their hot water to heat pumps. Gas is in decline, but that's not what the government and the ALP want to hear. They want to promote the industry for longer. They want to ignore the science. Customers are moving away from gas. There's no future in this. Even our export markets know that there is a time limit on this. This huge amount of public funding going into opening up these basins will have no significant return for the public. Public money is being wasted because there is not going to be the time line return to actually justify any of this public spending.

China, a major customer, will be peaking emissions before 2030 and will hit net zero by 2060. We're always hearing from members of the coalition: why should Australia do its bit when no-one else is committing? But here we are: it's 2021, and the rest of the world is committing. They have committed to net zero, and the only player that hasn't is Australia. If only the government would listen to its own rhetoric of why we should be committing or following the pack. Japan, our largest market, have committed to almost halving their emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050. So too will Korea, our third-biggest market. They've committed to net zero by 2050 as well. Some 70 per cent of our two-way trade is covered by net zero targets, so we can't bank on these markets providing any kind of substantial return for this public investment.

Is gas a transition fuel? We'll hear that. We'll hear grand words coming from the dispatch box. But it's just more gaslighting. About a decade ago you could have argued that gas was a transition fuel, but those days are long gone.

Gas power supplied only 7½ per cent of energy in the grid last year. The reason I'm optimistic about the decline of gas is that there's been such a remarkable shift in the business case for batteries. A study commissioned by the Clean Energy Council found that batteries are a superior choice for electricity peaking, outcompeting gas. The study compared a gas peaker plant and a grid-scale battery and found that the battery provided a cost saving of more than 30 per cent. So, for a government that is focused on sensible economic management, you would think that there would be a focus on the technologies that are actually commercial.

Batteries attract no carbon risk or exposure to volatile gas prices. They are attractive to investors, and that is why the market is speaking time and time again. But it's not where the government's going and it's not where the ALP is going. The proof is in the numbers. Fifteen large-scale batteries were announced this year. That's $4.3 billion in investment. The future is in renewables, not gas. We can either buy the dystopian reality this government is selling or reach for a different reality—one where our economic prosperity is actually underpinned by clean jobs. With the sunny and flat expanses of the Northern Territory, there is so much opportunity to support an abundance of renewable energy projects, and they will deliver energy overseas and domestically.

More concerning is the information we've had about the process by which Indigenous and First Nations' consent has been obtained in relation to the Beetaloo Basin—native title consent. I met last week with traditional owners of the Beetaloo Basin and nations that live downstream from where the drilling will be conducted. The traditional owners said there has been no process of informed consent for the exploration to occur, no scientific explanation, no translators provided to those community groups, no information about the long-term impact and risks to water tables and their livelihood and the land on which they live. They're concerned that even the mining companies have not been able to tell them where the exploration wells will be, how they will impact the underground water, what the final production level mine would look like or how many wells are being proposed. It's outrageous that the government is coming into this place, and the ALP is coming in this place, to support this going ahead when there has not been proper informed consent, and the risks have simply not been addressed or properly assessed.

While traditional owners live in poverty, they're seeing the government give a mining company $50 million worth of public money to drill and frack for gas on their land. This is the land they use to survive; it's their source of food and water, and it has been so for over 60,000 years. It was where we went to escape the threat of COVID. It's where they want their children to grow up to continue the tradition of living on the land. They are very real; they live on that land. They rely and need that water to be clean. And people in this place are carelessly compromising that. As one of the traditional owners said to me: 'We want our children to grow up in nature and with nature, to learn about it. We need to preserve it.'

This is the responsibility of every person in this place. It's very clear that steps need to be taken to address climate change, and that's what this motion is ultimately about. For all of the members who talk a big game on climate change, this is an opportunity to show who you are. I call on all the members in this parliament to vote with their conscience on this motion. It's not enough for government members to fall back on their miserly ambition of 2030, and 'preferably' by 2050—mind you, we know that probably isn't worth much these days with the dysfunction of the coalition party room. But the facts have changed and the science has changed since the last election. I say that to the ALP, because their justification is, 'This was a promise in 2019, and we have to stick with it.' It's hypocritical of all MPs in this place, both coalition and ALP, to tell their electorates that they're committed to action against climate change, but then, when the opportunity arises to take action where they can have real influence and show that they oppose a project that science tells us must not go ahead, they don't show up. They don't vote against it.

The coalition can't be trusted to take action, not with renegades in their own party room. The Labor Party is held hostage to its own elements. It's clear the Australian public need to know that this parliament is not genuinely committed to taking real action on climate change. If it were, under no circumstances would we be approving an instrument to spend $50 million of Australian public money at a time of record debt on a project that is not the future of Australia, that will doom us to more global warming and that will not deliver for future generations. It is shameful on every member of this place that fails to stand up and oppose this instrument.