NT government accused of lying about meeting climate condition before it greenlit ‘carbon bomb’ Beetaloo fracking
Exclusive : Advocates claim new documents are proof the NT government lied when it claimed it had met all climate risk conditions for the massive new gas project New documents reveal the Northern Territory government knew it could not meet a key recommendation to reduce the climate risk of its planned massive expansion of gas production, and asked the Albanese government for help. Federal climate change officials in turn admitted Australia did not have any existing policies that would meet the recommendation in full. Advocates say the documents are proof the Northern Territory government lied when it claimed all the conditions were in place to give the green light to gas production in the Beetaloo Basin, an area of vast shale reserves 500km south-east of Darwin. Analysis suggests full production at Beetaloo would create a carbon bomb of 1.4bn tonnes of total emissions globally. When the NT government lifted its fracking moratorium in 2018, it did so with the promise there would be no move to production until all 135 recommendations from the territorys 2018 Pepper inquiry into fracking were implemented. Earlier this month, the NT chief minister, Natasha Fyles, cleared the way for fracking production to begin in the Beetaloo Basin when she announced she was satisfied all of the inquirys recommendations including recommendation 9.8 had been met on the project. That recommendation requires the NT and federal governments to seek to ensure there is no net increase in life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Australia from any unconventional gas projects in the Northern Territory. Fyles told a press conference in early May we have absolutely met the recommendation but later backtracked, admitting that meeting this requirement for scope 2 the energy used by gas companies and scope 3 when the gas is sold and burnt emissions would require work with the commonwealth government. Dr David Ritchie, the scientist overseeing the implementation of the inquiry, also wrote a letter saying there had been material departures from some of the recommendations and no progress on the crux of recommendation 9.8. Now, new documents released to Guardian Australia under freedom of information laws show the territory government knew in late 2022 it had not met the recommendation and wrote to the climate change and energy minister, Chris Bowen, seeking the federal governments help. I write to continue to progress as a matter of priority the recommendation made by the independent Scientific Inquiry relating to greenhouse gas emissions (recommendation 9.8), the NTs environment and climate change minister, Lauren Moss, wrote in September. Moss asked for an implementation committee to be established and a work plan developed to prioritise the development of early actions. Bowen did not reply to her letter immediately, but an October email between his office and federal climate change officials shows some of his advisers liked the idea of using [net] zero safeguard baselines for new gas entrants in the NT to give effect to this. This was an idea that was ultimately agreed to only for on-site or scope 1 emissions through negotiations between the government and the Greens that led to the passage of amendments to the safeguard mechanism in March this year. Emails from November last year, obtained by Guardian Australia, show senior climate change officials discussing how to respond to a draft recommendation from a Senate inquiry into the Beetaloo Basin that both governments implement recommendation 9.8 and ensure any costs associated with that were borne by the gas industry. In one email, a senior official writes that the scope 3 aspects of Pepper could not be dealt with through the safeguard mechanism. In reply, a second official says the problem was Australia did not have any existing policies that would meet the recommendation in full. I think the challenge is that the Minister has suggested that he wants to meet the recommendation but we collectively dont have any programs that would get us there, the email says. A letter from Bowen replying to Moss was not drafted until February this year and simply noted the federal climate change department was working with the NT government to establish a working group to ensure our policies and programs are complementary, and support your commitment to sustainable economic development in the NT consistent with our shared goal of net zero emissions by 2050. In response to questions, Bowen and Moss said the documents had been superseded by the passage of amendments to the safeguard mechanism and the referral of broader life cycle emissions to the Energy and Climate Change Ministerial Council for discussion. But Carmel Flint, the national coordinator for the Lock the Gate Alliance, said this claim was dubious. Referring this recommendation to a council that hasnt even discussed it yet does not constitute a program for implementing it, she said. Its obvious neither government has a plan as to how this recommendation will be implemented, and until there is such a plan in place it is clearly misleading to suggest that it is complete. Sign up to Afternoon Update Our Australian afternoon update breaks down the key stories of the day, telling you whats happening and why it matters after newsletter promotion Flint said the documents showed the territory government lied when it claimed all of the Pepper recommendations were in place. She pointed to Reputex analysis, which estimated that a high production scenario in the Beetaloo would create a carbon bomb of 1.4bn tonnes of total emissions globally, about 70 times the territorys current annual emissions. Were calling for Chris Bowen to step in now and ensure that the gas production green light given by the territory government two weeks ago is overturned given his own department has acknowledged this vital climate recommendation has clearly not been implemented, she said. The climate scientist Bill Hare said the NT and federal governments were recycling old tactics. What it shows is that at every step both governments have kicked the issue down the road, he said. Its another way of deferring dealing with these emissions until everyone forgets about it. He said it was still early in 2023 but there had already been major heatwaves in Asia and wildfires in Canada. Theres a really big democratic deficit between what the science and energy agencies like the [International Energy Agency] are saying needs to happen which is no new fossil fuel development and what governments are doing, which is facilitating and enabling expansion and development of fossil fuel resources. On Friday, energy ministers met in Alice Springs but did not discuss recommendation 9.8. It will not be discussed until the next meeting in the third quarter of this year when climate ministers are in attendance. Bowen told reporters on Friday that dealing with all of the life cycle domestic emissions that would come from fracking in the NT would have to be managed across jurisdictions signalling other states and territories could be required to help the NT offset emissions associated with unconventional gas. In response to questions, a spokesperson for Bowen said the government remained committed to the full implementation of the Pepper inquiry. The Energy and Climate Ministerial will next meet in Q3 2023, they said. In the meantime, they said officials in a decarbonisation working group had begun to consider this matter and will develop advice for ministers consideration. Companies operating in the Beetaloo will still need to make financial decisions about whether to proceed to production and apply for necessary environmental approvals. Origin Energy sold its stake in the Beetaloo Basin to Tamboran Resources last year. Bowen himself appears to question whether the projects will be financially viable due to their remoteness, the safeguard amendments and the global energy transition. It is the case that the Beetaloo is more remote and less developed than other prospective gas fields, closer to the east coast market, like Narrabri, his spokesperson said. Moss said the NT government was continuing to carefully manage the onshore gas industry through the strongest regulatory framework for onshore gas in Australia. She said recommendation 9.8 required the NT and federal governments to work together to ensure no net increase in Australias emissions from onshore gas in the Beetaloo because the NT government does not have jurisdiction over emissions beyond NT borders. Our government continues to work with the Australian government to reach the overall target of net zero by 2050.