Type
Essay
Category
Climate politics
Environment

The invisible sea

As my plane soars over the Northern Territory, I imagine the ocean has turned into desert, its skin inscribed with song cycles. Ribbed earth stretches into ochre dunes like the bottom of the sea, the hills puckering with naked-looking, coppery scars. Darker blooms jut fractally into the dry, tessellating scales and the sandy plains are dotted with poppyseed vegetation.

Ridges curl like surf, plateaus sit like crème-brûlée atop crumbling ledges, scraped away by the greedy spoons of erosion. Untidy waterbodies yawn like oysters and unravel into thirsty oxbows. A stinging, sandy whip of river tapers into split ends. Tributaries spool out from rivers, tangling in the mountains slumped like old dogs, guarding the horizon.

From this distance, it looks like it could be an ocean, or another planet. But the crosshairs of humanmade roads divide the landscape with lethal precision and broad strokes of cleared vegetation lacerate the quilted flatlands. I wonder when the wet season will rush upon the land and slake it, as a single puff of cloud roams its shadow, like a black sheep, on the plains below. As I watch it fall behind the plane’s halo, a smudged rainbow oil-slick, I think this should be impossible. Never before have humans ventured so many thousands of feet beyond the troposphere.

According to Steinar Ellefmo, we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean. The Norwegian scientist’s pilot research, Deep Sea Mining, is currently developing technology to exploit mineral resources beneath the sea floor. Rising sea levels, warming oceans, and freshwater salinification (the whole country of Egypt is projected to be uninhabitable by 2100 according to recent studies) are accelerated effects of burning fossil fuels. Yet corporations plunge their needles deeper into the ocean floor, the Arctic tundra, the veins of the desert.

Beneath the sun strafed landscapes of the Northern Territory are vestiges of millions of years of rain, sequestered among limestone formations above stratified beds of shale from Cretaceous and Proterozoic periods. From tens of thousands to two million years, the Great Artesian basin has percolated thousands of gigalitres down into the lungs of the continent through porous rock. The quartz-lined aquifer network extends over a million square kilometres from Coober Pedy in South Australia to the food bowl of Queensland’s Darling Downs and into the Great Dividing Range in New South Wales. Aquifers trammel the desert, diffusing water like a giant lung.

The Top End is a land of paradoxes. From the arid savannah of the Tanami desert to the lush wetlands of Kakadu, the hydrology of the Territory hangs in a delicate balance. Every April, monsoon rains replenish an ephemeral network of rivers, wetlands, oases and springs, which disappear during the dry season from May to September.

But the seasonal patterns are changing. Global warming is displacing annual cycles of rainfall, and tropical and semi-arid regions of the world are being impacted first and worst. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the Northern Territory will undergo warming from 1–1.5 ˚C up to 2–3 ˚C in the next 30 years—in weather terms, this means rainfall patterns will be more unpredictable and less frequent, with more extreme instances of heavy runoff. This will alter the flow of interconnected stream systems, while drought and heatwaves will intensify, according to a recent study by Monash University. Professor Yuming Guo says ‘future heatwaves will be more frequent, more intense and will last much longer’. Sooner rather than later, regions strung out on the Tropic of Capricorn will feel the heat.

The lethality of heatwaves is pervasive but little known; in fact, prolonged periods of extreme heat take more lives than any natural disaster in Australia, including floods and bushfires. Their primary victims are elderly people, those with pre-existing health conditions, and communities with limited access to services. In 2006, more than half of Territorians living in remote communities had no local health services, according to surveys from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Given that more than three quarters of the Northern Territory’s Indigenous population currently live in remote areas, it is overwhelmingly clear who bears the risks of catastrophic climate change.

According to Zac Romagnoli-Townsend, Koori man and former community organiser for Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network, ‘Climate change disproportionately affects those who are most vulnerable, and least responsible for its effects. Not only is it an environmental, but a social justice issue.’

***

Far beneath the invisible aquiferous sea is a nebulous, unexploded ordnance of colossal proportions. Around six trillion cubic feet of natural gas have been found in the Beetaloo Basin, at a potential value in revenue to the Commonwealth of $5.8 billion dollars over 25 years—between $36 million and $222 million dollars each year. With the development of onshore shale gas, an industry expansion could bring up to six hundred jobs to the region.

Deep shale mining requires hydraulic fracturing, a practise which has been legislatively banned in Victoria, as well as European countries such as Germany and France. Following the Lazarus report of 2016, several Australian states implemented temporary bans, including Western Australia, New South Wales, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. Three months after the moratorium began in the NT, a panel was appointed to undertake a scientific inquiry into hydraulic fracturing. In April 2017, following the inquiry, the Labor government in the Northern Territory announced that they would be lifting the moratorium.

Geoscience Australia estimates 257,276 petajoules of gas can be found in the Beetaloo Sub-Basin, located five hundred kilometres to the south east of Darwin. Thirty thousand square kilometres of low-lying savannah, the Beetaloo grows more desert-like towards the Sturt Plateau, and river systems thread through the patchwork of oil and gas licences of the basin. At the time of writing, these licenses covered over half the area of the Territory. The Beetaloo’s surface waterbodies are linked to groundwater sources—many flow through shallow limestone formations, from the Tindall Limestone Aquifer in the Daly Basin to Montejinni in the Wiso Basin, and the Gum Ridge Formation in the Georgina Basin. According to the Scientific Inquiry, there is no distinction between these major aquifers; they are all considered part of a larger system of the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer. The CLA is the source of around eight hundred registered water bores, most of which are used for stock watering.

Understanding of the deeper geological systems underlying the Territory is limited, especially regarding their interaction with surface water. According to the Scientific Inquiry, there is very little information on the location, hydrological characteristics and ecology of temporary water bodies in the Beetaloo. Matthew Doman, the NT director of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, says time is of the essence. ‘Our exploration activity will build our knowledge of the gas resources, groundwater and the environment that contains them, and enable informed decisions about future development.’

In recent years, petroleum extraction in the NT has given way to the dominant gas prospectus of liquid natural gas, or LNG. This fuel is mostly found in the form of unconventional gas, located in shale-bound deposits over 1,500 metres below ground, where impermeable source rocks require ‘artificial stimulation’ to release the trapped gas. Hydraulic fracturing earns its name as gargantuan quantities of water are blasted through well bores, fracturing the rock and releasing large quantities of gas through fissures created by the pressure of megalitres of fluid. A proppant mixture, composed of sand, porcelain or guar gum, holds the fractures open and enables gas flow, and a further ten percent of fracking fluid is actually made up of geogenic chemicals—some which are undisclosed to the public.

Unconventional shale is distinct from coal seam gas (CSG), whose deposits lie closer to the surface, no more than one kilometre below ground. CSG wells require the drainage of large quantities of groundwater and treatment for salt to be removed before CSG can be accessed, resulting in a large by product of saline waste, and coal seam gas deposits do not always require fracking to enable gas flow. Shale gas reserves can be up to 4000 metres deep and always require fracking. As the wells descend below the water table, they guzzle millions of litres of water. Each frack requires around two megalitres per fracking stage. If you’re shaking your head, a megalitre is one million litres; two million litres are the equivalent of an Olympic swimming pool.

Development scenarios from Origin, Santos and Pangaea would sink more than 1,200 wells across the NT in the next twenty-five years. Their cumulative water usage is projected at two and a half billion litres per year—and this is a conservative estimate. The major companies have admitted likely figures of up to twice this amount during peak demand, and these assume a consistent thirty per cent recycling of used water. During the next quarter of a century, twenty to sixty billion litres could be extracted from the invisible sea.

This is significant, as over ninety per cent of Territorians rely on underground water sources for consumption, which includes drinking, stock-watering and commercial purposes. This is a higher proportion than any other state, as the Top End’s surface water is scarce, and its allocation is regulated by the state Water Act 1992. Under the Act, 80 per cent of a river’s flow and annual recharge must be allocated to ‘environmental and cultural’ purposes. The percentage is higher in semi-arid zones, including areas south of the Beetaloo, where ninety-five per cent of a river must be allocated to the environment, and total extraction over a century ‘should not exceed eighty per cent of total aquifer storage’. According to the Scientific Inquiry, the demands of full-scale gas expansion on surface water are untenable under the Water Act, leaving groundwater the industry’s only economically viable option for fracking operations.

But there’s a catch. We don’t know how much water is left in the Great Artesian Basin. For the last two centuries, the basin has supported agricultural development across inland Australia, but the invisible sea is finite. It takes eons for water to seep through the geological layers of porous gravel, and strict water controls apply to pastoral owners across regional Australia. In the Northern Territory, the hydrological transfer of surface water to groundwater is unpredictable—many drier basins and rivers rely on episodic recharge from distant locations to maintain their base flow. For example, the Roper River system relies on the relatively shallow Cambrian Limestone Aquifer (CLA) to sustain the Elsey National Park, thermal pools at Mataranka, Red Lily Lagoon and large expanses of vegetation along the Roper River, north of the Beetaloo.

There is very limited information on the complex hydrological systems that connect these aquifers. According to the Inquiry, there is no baseline data to calculate risks to groundwater. Absence of baseline data is serious—it means there is nothing by which to compare environmental changes in the future. Without these studies, it is extremely difficult for rural stakeholders to prove at a point of law that damage has occurred on their land. In the past, powerful gas companies have been known to provide ‘insufficient and inadequate’ reports on groundwater impacts, while fast-tracking assessments through local planning departments.

***

One day at work, I find out that one of the other sewing teachers is an ex-department scientist and whistleblower from the coal seam gas industry in Queensland. Simone Marsh is extremely soft-spoken, calm and unassuming—as a single mother, she worked within the industry and in government departments for many years, until her senior role at the Queensland Department of Planning and Environment led to a trauma that changed the course of her life.

When I meet her for coffee, she orders my suggestion of banoffee pie for both of us and refuses my offer to pay, laughing gently. She tells me about her experience as an environmental assessor for Santos—one of the companies who filed a report on a multi-billion dollar project in Queensland in 2010, with no chapter on groundwater.

‘Basically, their environmental impact statements were conceptual. They lacked the detail that you would normally find in an EIS (environmental impact statement) for a large mining project.’ Marsh struggled to assess the company’s proposal, and as her work was met with continual alteration and omissions, she was put under intense pressure to approve the project—on one occasion, she was assigned half a day to write an entire chapter on greenhouse gas emissions, without being provided the essential scope or location of drilling to be undertaken.

Across the industry, sweeping environmental impact statements are being made with no outline of the basic risks to surroundings. Marsh says of the Queensland CSG expansion, ‘We’ve seen this with the Condamine river in Queensland where we’ve observed rapid bubbling of the river with methane. As we don’t have a baseline, the companies are saying it’s natural.’

Gas companies have actively obfuscated the link between distant underground water sources, routinely claiming that there is no significant connectivity between major aquifers and coal seams. But in 2012, a study by the Queensland Water Commission confirmed that coal seams are connected to aquifers, revealing a web of intertwined geologies.

In 2010, Marsh alerted the Crime and Corruption Commission to the unlawful conduct of British-owned Queensland Gas Company and Santos. These multinationals had $50 billion in the pipeline and huge holes in their environmental impact statements—an absence of essential information, such as locations where gas wells would be laid, eventuated in rushed approvals without baseline data on hydrology or existing methane levels. These issues were dodged by using ‘constitutional innovation’ and the engagement of political favours by the well-connected industry players. When Marsh’s comments on the EIS were ignored, deleted and altered, the scientist was put under immense pressure to fast- track the approval. Amidst fears for her life and child, she took evidence to the Crime and Corruption Commission in 2016.

She is not alone. Last year in January, 2017 Sally McDow brought a court case against Origin Energy, testing changes to whistleblower protections under the Corporations Act. McDow was a senior lawyer at Origin, where she witnessed continual breaches of project conditions, including gas leaks, chemical spills and explosions. She told the Sydney Morning Herald that the industry cover ups of non-compliance extended to the highest internal level of staff, including former chief executive Grant King, who would become president of the Business Council of Australia, and as of 2021, the appointed chairman of the government’s Climate Change Authority.

Marsh tells me, ‘There’s a revolving door of people moving between the industry and government, and through legal firms as well. We’re seeing high level public servants move out of government and into the industry and vice versa.’ Corruption is at issue, as the stacking of industry representatives is peppered by monetary bribes. ‘We saw a massive increase in political donations to the National Party from Santos over the years. And because donations under the threshold are not reported and foreign donations are often unclear, we don’t know the extent of corruption from foreign influence on our political democracy.’

In the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer water passes through Cretaceous sandstone sediments from the time of the dinosaurs into ancient groundwater dependent ecosystems. Karstic springs, sinkholes, caves and groundwater flow pathways are home to stygofauna; a kind of primitive crustacea with origins dating back to a time before the main land masses of the earth broke apart and became continents, according to the Western Australia Department of Biodiversity. Stygofauna can’t survive in sterilised laboratories; their ecological role is inextricably linked to underground water flow and quality, according to a recent study from the Pilbara region of WA. This is where Aboriginal communities have reported thousands year-old springs gone dry, amidst thirsty CSG wells.

In his seminal book Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe reveals a multitude of sites where Indigenous Australians developed sophisticated systems of largescale aquaculture, strategically harnessing the power of water without compromising its long-term sustainability. The greatest collective concern of submissions to the Scientific Inquiry was water; one Traditional Owners group noted that ‘aquifers underlying country give rise to springs, associated with the travels of ancestral beings. They link neighbouring Aboriginal groups, connecting people across the landscape.’

Indigenous Australians are also the first people known to record sea level rise. Ten thousand years ago, the Yidinji constructed stories about the retreat of the shore in a coastal area of the Northern Territory, which is now a barrier reef. Marine geology has corroborated a body of stories, narratives and oral histories from 10,000 years ago, confirming the story passed over generations to communicate the changing borders of the land and sea. This transmission of myth across four hundred generations is extraordinary, says linguist Nicholas Reid. A filial cross-checking process would have sustained the stories’ endurance across vast swathes of time, through parents telling stories to their children. Reid has studied over twenty stories centred around sea level rise, and in Jeff Goodell’s book The Water Will Come he recounts a cautionary tale where a hero flees to higher ground to escape the retribution of the gods. But for most people, displacement is not a viable or desirable option. Over 150 million people around the world are living at three feet (or less) above the current sea level. Many people living in inland Australia will be pushed to the coasts if warming continues on the present trajectory. The Marshall Islands need average warming to curb at 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels just to stay above water.

On 5 September 2018, the Australian government signed the Boe Declaration at the Pacific Islands Forum, declaring climate change the ‘single greatest threat’ to island nations, and expanding matters of regional security to environmental issues. But Australia shied away from calls to urgently accelerate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. According to Professor Will Steffen, ‘the exploitation of any new Northern Territory gasfields is inconsistent with the Paris 2.0 ˚C target.’

***

All known onshore gas reserves in the Beetaloo are situated on Aboriginal land or native title under the Land Rights Act. Together with federal land rights legislation, the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act and Heritage Act provide a level of control over land which is higher for traditional owners than in any other Australian jurisdiction.

However, their power to bargain with extractive companies is limited to the initial stages of exploration, as communities cannot refuse proposals beyond exploration into the production stages. ‘If traditional Aboriginal owners want development on their country, they are forced to make a decision at a time where there is limited information available about what the size of the final project will be,’ says the Inquiry.

The Gas deposits earmarked in the Beetaloo Basin hold more than five times the global warming potential of the projected emissions from the controversial Adani Carmichael mine. The NT government estimates up to 117 million tonnes of carbon dioxide would result each year from the Beetaloo gas expansion, a figure equivalent to 22% of Australia’s current annual emissions. But governments are willing to legislate and lend public funds to these ventures, even restructuring obligations under the international law of the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change limiting warming to 2.0 ˚C. The Australian Government has not yet ratified the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which it adopted in 2009, which provides mandates for the consultation of first nations whose land is being mined. The Principle of Free, Prior and informed Consent is emerging at common law, but the mining industry’s multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns in the 80s and 90s have grown deep roots of anxiety over native title, and neoliberal tax policies continue to allow the mining industry free reign over Australia.

On 30 June 2017, national treasurer (at the time of writing, prime minister) Scott Morrison suggested that the Northern Territory may get ‘leave pass under the GST formula for not getting on and doing things’. As the Productivity Commission was adjusting the distribution of GST payments to states and territories, these words insinuated a funding cut if the territory didn’t give the green light to fracking companies. ‘What they’re saying is that if you don’t frack, then you don’t get the services that people get access to in Sydney, in Melbourne, in Queensland,’ said the state treasurer, Nicole Manison.

The leader of the opposition Anthony Albanese is quoted as saying ‘No-one is opposed to new gas’, in response to the federal government’s proposal for a ‘gas-fired recovery’ to open up unconventional gas basins in the Northern Territory, the Pilbara and country New South Wales. The power divide for young people, Indigenous communities, pastoral landowners and tourism operators is clear when governments kowtow to multinational gas companies—and with bipartisan support, the fracking industry is not going down without a fight.

Australians are rarely seen at the forefront of anthropogenic climate change. We tend to huddle at its contested causal fringes, narrativising and profiting from fossil fuel dependence—our ‘good’ coal is ‘helping’ global, colonised communities to meet their electricity needs, according to politicians who have cut foreign aid to less than twenty cents per hundred tax dollars. While historically coal powered communities like Port Augusta transition to renewable energy, our political representatives drag their heels along with lumps of coal into Parliament, speaking in slogans written by and for the fossil fuel industry.

But across rural Australia, the risks to water, young people and biodiversity are so imminent to their regional populations, they have sparked a decentralised leadership. As the Adani campaign has gathered nationwide momentum from the inner-city climate movement, fracking has largely been fought by localised, grassroots community groups. And while national energy plans tend to focus on the short-term goals of political election cycles, the leaders of the climate movement in the Northern Territory are a coalition of the longest standing peoples on Earth.

Enter Seed mob: the first Indigenous Youth Climate Network in Australia, with the goal to build a movement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people for climate justice. Their vision is a just and sustainable future, with strong cultures and communities. In the Northern Territory, over a third of the population are under the age of 30. Throughout history, youth have been positioned as a site of potentiality, but also of sacrifice. As Briohny Doyle discusses in her novel Adult Fantasy, young people across Australia from regional and urban centres are facing huge economic challenges, from an increasingly precarious workforce to the unaffordability of stable housing. Arguably the most disenfranchised young people are those being pushed to the forefront of climate change, bound to further losses of connection to country, scarce opportunity, depleted resources and threatened biodiversity. For many, the notion that young people will inherit such a future of instability is the intergenerational elephant in the room.

In 2018, my home city of Hobart was hit by once-in-a-hundred-year flooding, an extreme weather event which the city council predicts will become an annual occurrence during the next century. Water slithers into the tunnel at the bottom of my street, and a tiny Mazda wallows in a waist-deep pool of mud beneath the overpass, shuddering under traffic. As I trudged through the swamped tunnel, decorated by public art reading YOU ARE HERE, the message was forebodingly submerged by muddy water. My share house block was built on an illegally steep gradient, and my head ached from sleep interrupted by tyres screaming on the wet incline and invective shouted from cars.

A recent social impact assessment of CSG mining in Queensland noted an increase in mental health complaints from areas surrounding fracking. According to Professor Melissa Harswell, a phenomenon called solastalgia can manifest rapidly in communities, causing a sense of powerlessness and lack of control amid change. ‘Production ramps up with drilling and fracking, with its 24-hour lights, noise, privacy invasion, odours, tree clearing and truck movements. This causes some people to feel a deep sense of loss of place and a feeling of being trapped and unable to escape.’ In anecdotal evidence from fracking sites in North Dakota and Chinchilla, drug addiction and crime increased in areas local to fracking sites, due to the effects of a ‘cash splash’ and the social fragmentation of man camps, temporary housing sites where transient workers live in isolation from the local community. In Texas, traffic accidents have increased, according to the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science, and the NT inquiry warns of the propensity for accidents to occur during the wet season, due to overflowing streams. An inland expansion will require large stockpiles of drilling supplies and chemicals to be driven in and out of the area in large trucks.

The expansion of a full-scale gas industry will see the rollout of massive infrastructure, including vital roads into remote terrain. Thousands of kilometres of access tracks, vegetation clearing and pipeline will need to be constructed to set up thousands of drilling stations. It is uncertain where the long-term costs of maintenance will fall—in Queensland the costs of maintaining roads have been shifted to state governments. But at least for the short term, it seems that such large-scale investment could bring valuable employment opportunities and much-needed infrastructure to the Top End.

An industrial overhaul may address or deepen inequalities. The Top End has the deepest poverty levels and the highest disparity of wealth in the nation, and nearly 45 per cent of all Indigenous households are located below the poverty line. Homelessness rates are higher than any other Australian state or territory, and poor housing is the single biggest cause of poverty according to a report from Alice Springs, which identifies overcrowding as the primary risk to health. Rheumatic heart disease is an illness that strikes children, causing long-term heart problems that last into adulthood—this disease was rampant in Dickensian England, and spreads like wildfire in close conditions that lead to cross-contagion in low quality housing facilities across Central Australia. The UN has noted the highest rates of rheumatic heart disease in the world among youth in the Northern Territory.

In a peer-reviewed article from the Medical Journal of Australia, Michael Marmot says the only clear way to address the deep-seated health inequality in the Northern Territory is through government investment. But the politicisation of Aboriginal affairs perpetuates this unrelenting disparity. ‘Aboriginal people are frequently blamed for their poverty by white Australians,’ says Chris Graham, publisher and editor of the New Matilda. ‘Governments do not invest in remote Aboriginal communities, because they know if they do it they’ll get voted out.’ In 2007, Prime Minister John Howard and Indigenous Affairs minister Mal Brough suspended the Racial Discrimination Act, in order to spearhead a racist government intervention for the forced removal of children from their communities, under the propaganda screen of child protection. The sensationalist coverage had depicted a rampant and widespread child sex industry supposedly flourishing in the backroads of far-flung Mutujulu. The media storm was conjured from a set of claims made during a Lateline interview, by a government witness who had never set foot in Mutujulu. Eventually, after a military operation that coincided perfectly with the discovery of uranium ore in Central Australia, it was established there was no evidence of paedophile rings. Reports by the Australian Crime Commission and the Northern Territory Police found that the sweeping claims made by the government had no grounds.

‘The report did not point to paedophile rings,’ says co-author of the Little Children are Sacred report, Pat Anderson, in John Pilger’s 2013 film Utopia. ‘We wrote what people told us about. They spoke to us about poverty, about kids not going to school—young mothers, about a lack of education, lack of housing—when certain conditions like that exist, the likelihood of child abuse is very likely.’

When I was 3 years old, I was taken into a temporary foster home. I was unable to pee for days after I was told my father had killed himself, and that I could not live with my mother. A few days before his suicide he tried to commit himself to a mental hospital—but was told that it wasn’t a hotel. (My dad had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals since he was nineteen. As well as schizophrenic, he was a gardener, former record-breaking long jumper, and a good musician who once wrote a song about being busted for smoking in his car, called ‘Conehead in a Coma’.) After three days, I was taken out of the foster home and brought to live with my grandmother, where I could pass water again.

The trauma that lingers in these incipient places is deeply disturbing. In a horrifying continuation of the Stolen Generations, the modern-day system allows infants to be removed by authorities, without explanation or consultation with mothers and families. During the Northern Territory intervention, armed forces were brought in to steal land, forming a corollary to the first waves of invasion. Members of the steadfast communities who remained were threatened, coerced and deprived of sanitation and services. During this period the rate of self-harm and attempted suicide in the Northern Territory increased fourfold.

Currently Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are twice as likely to die by suicide than non-Indigenous Territorians. Suicide rates in the Kimberly are seven times the national average. Murray Chapman is an Associate Professor at the School of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Western Australia. ‘Indigenous suicide has been characterised as one potential outcome of an intergenerational transmission of mass trauma—including massacres, being pushed off traditional lands, policy resulting in the loss of parent/child attachments (stolen generations), social inequality and institutionalised racism,’ Chapman writes.

I am not an Indigenous person, and I do not compare my experience to that of the dispossessed peoples of this land. But as a young person—a conventional site of potential and sacrifice—I have noticed the cause of ‘saving the children’ being weaponised in micro and macro-level leverages of power: in family court submissions, orchestrated land grabs, anti-LGBTIQ+ campaigns, and anti-vaccination rhetoric. Rather than ‘saving the children,’ we need to equip young people with the resources for an ecologically, socially and economically just future. There is no way we can achieve this without addressing the traumas entrenched in our collective memory. But young people are powerful. We are embodied change, and youth should not be underestimated.

***

Currently in the NT there are only a few gas producing fields at Dingo, Mereenie and Palm Valley in Central Australia, linked to Darwin through the Amadeus gas pipeline. Another pipeline is under assessment, from a foreign-owned company called Jemena, with plans to extend the pipeline across 622 kilometres in order to link the Northern Territory to the Queensland energy grid. A feasibility study has been put through for an additional pipeline to run through the Simpson Desert.

The Top End is home to Kakadu, a culturally significant heritage area and Australia’s largest national park. According to studies by Stratten and Whitten, the economic value of preserving the park may be as high as $647 million per annum—without even considering the values of its ecosystem services, or the socio-economic components which are vital to the Mirarr people. Among many enterprises, fishing and tourism depend on the environmental health and natural image of the Northern Territory. According to the Scientific Inquiry’s social impact assessment, the long-term effects of gas industry expansion could reduce the diversity of employment in the Top End. Paul Cleary writes that in the NSW Hunter Valley, niche agricultural industries have been squeezed out by the gas monopoly, as generations of farming and tourism businesses are literally undermined by wells, vents, pipelines, pressurisation stations, tailings ponds and access roads.

A recent study by the University of Newcastle has found that road infrastructure in conjunction with sea level rise can have a devastating impact on wetlands. ‘When we build a road across a wetland, the tide is forced to move from one side of the road to the other through culverts or bridges instead of freely flowing over the tidal flat,’ says Associate Professor Patricia Saco. When considered alongside the risks posed by drought, salinification and spillages, infrastructure expansions alone would render vulnerable some of the most productive and biodiverse ecosystems in the Northern Territory.

In my home state of Tasmania, waterbodies have long been the battlefield for contentious developments. Dams form the concrete palate to the mouth of many rivers, yawning like calcified falls, fringing the riparian landscapes and bloating lakes. The force of thousands-year-old rivers are held back by the sweat of migrant workers. A Tasmanian folksong, ‘Giuseppe’s Lament’, was transcribed by Kerrie Maguire in 2014. It goes like this:

The bush has all been cleared now and the tramway is finished
We’ve built the dams and powerhouse, and now it’s time to go
Some have gone to Queensland to find work in the canefields
Maybe I’ll go there as well, for my heart is full of woe.

Perhaps Giuseppe was the original FIFO, a ‘fly in fly out’ employee. At the airport I watch fluoro-vested workmen line up at the gate, rubbing their eyes and nursing cappuccinos in corrugated Biocups, as they hurriedly convey their comings-home to loved ones through mobile phones.

The construction of gas plants, pipelines and well pads is the most labour-intensive stage of production. After the roads and wells have been built, the process of fracking is fairly short on the extraction timeline. It often takes less than one month to extract gas from the fractures. The final, contentious step of the process involves rehabilitating abandoned gas wells. Once empty they’re called ‘orphan wells’, and like orphans, their care falls to the state. Abandoned drilling pads present a global challenge: 30,000 orphan wells are due for decommissioning in the next 15 years.

Currently, the fastest growing areas in the NT economy are retail and agriculture, with public administration, healthcare, and education making up the largest employment sector in the NT, alongside private construction and retail service industries. The rate of unemployment in the Northern Territory is the second lowest in the country, at 5.3 per cent. But these statistics ignore the inequity between average and Indigenous unemployment rates, which are estimated at 24.4 per cent in regional areas. According to the Inquiry, Aboriginal employment in the Beetaloo Sub-Basin collapsed 50 years ago, following the equalisation of wages to Aboriginal station workers and the mechanisation of the cattle industry. Epic union victories, like the Gurindji Strike at Wave Hill cattle station, have been slowly eroded by slow-burn neoliberalism. Remote populations could reap immediate benefits from employment opportunities in the gas industry, if the price is right.

At the time of writing, the price of LNG according to Reuters is about $7 per million British Thermal Units (or MBTU—a mysterious unit for quantifying gas and fuel. A million BTU is about one million and sixty thousand joules, or the energy equivalent of about seven thousand Caramello koalas). To put this in context, gas prices have fallen since 2014 from twenty dollars, and as they continue to fall, open slather techniques become the only viable way for fracking companies to ensure profit. According to Bruce Robertson from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, ‘Producing high-cost onshore gas is not economic in a low-cost gas world.’ But as fossil fuels become more scarce, hydraulic fracturing will become more and more lucrative. Origin and Santos, like the coal giant Adani, are heavily reliant on debt financing and as of June 2020, the companies shoulder a net debt of respectively $5.2 billion and $3.4 billion. Five years ago Santos had a debt of 8.8 billion dollars.

The growth of global gas giants has led to unexpected consequences. The Australian gas industry lacks transparency around LNG prices according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), as the famed ‘gas crisis’ has culminated in a national supply shortage. As overseas exports have increased, Australia’s domestic energy market has seen domestic prices skyrocket with consumers paying up to four times the typical price for gas. This had a catastrophic effect on the Australian economy, according to Rod Sims, the chairman of the ACCC. Ian Verrender, business editor at the ABC considers that a long-term solution to the electricity system requires greater investment in renewables and energy storage—currently, natural gas makes up about a quarter of domestic energy consumption after oil and coal, and is the second biggest source of national energy production after black coal.

Natural gas is touted as a source of clean energy, but the process of exploitation produces many different kinds of pollution. There are two stages of the natural gas lifecycle: upstream production, which includes processing, transmission and delivery, and downstream production, which includes energy conversion and burning of gas. Pure natural gas is a ‘clean burning fuel’, due to lower levels of greenhouse gases when converted per unit of electricity, but it is still methane; a greenhouse gas with over 25 times the lifetime warming potential of carbon dioxide. Its transport is risky, with leakages from shale gas pipelines in the US making its production more greenhouse intensive than oil and coal, according to a 2011 study at Cornell University.

Across its lifespan, the actual burning of the gas is merely a twinkle in the lobbyist’s eye. Over 8 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse emissions are fugitive emissions from upstream fuel production. The fugitive emissions from new gasfields in the NT are estimated to be worth $62 million per year—at over 300 petajoules of gas, and more than the NT’s entire livestock waste emissions. When itinerant methane rises from the fracking pipe, the gas is burnt in extravagant flares. According to the Ohio Environment Protection Agency, flare gas systems are used to manage waste gas that cannot be efficiently captured and returned to the system for processing. But this says nothing of unaccountable methane that is released in fractures, which can escape through waterways and even cause tap water to combust.

The industry’s PR campaigns include piecemeal claims like ‘a tennis-court-sized gas well can power a large city for 100 years’. Compelling—like the government advertisements that tell individuals to turn off a dripping tap, as though consumers were responsible for the collective failure to curb industrial-scale waste. But who is quantifying the distance travelled by Australian gas, and the very real thirst of multinational corporations?

Unfortunately, the data desert extends to water resource extraction from the Great Artesian Basin, where cumulative extraction projects are taking their toll. While the National Water Commission estimates that the impact of gas projects on the Great Artesian Basin is 55 per cent higher than the combined 540 gigalitres drawn by all its other users, figures from Watergroup estimate withdrawals of three to five times higher. On the ground, in the Surat Basin north of Darling Downs, over five hundred irrigation bores have been found compromised by long-term water level reductions that are linked to gas development.

Uniquely to the Northern Territory, consumptive water licenses are free. The Panel to the Scientific Inquiry noted that surface water is inadequate to the demands of fracking when combined with pastoral, drinking and commercial use. As groundwater sources are the only viable option for the extractive industry, the Panel has recommended extensive amendments to the state Water Act 1992. But in order to charge gas companies for water licenses, a new body of regulations must be developed and monitored. Enforcement may present a challenge to glean a mere few million dollars for the government each year, at a revenue price of $1000 per gigalitre, as state and federal governments lack the willingness and capacity to enforce best-practise regulations—and large companies like Origin have traditionally preferred to pay the fine, when it is cheaper than compliance. As Paul Cleary writes in Minefield, ‘Our easy-going regulatory regime has made Australia the darling of the global resource multinationals,’ commenting on the disastrous self-regulation of CSG companies in the New South Wales hinterlands, where spill zones have left treeless voids in the forest regions of the Pilliga. In his essay ‘Opened Ground’, Guy Rundle describes it as ‘an essentially unregulated industry process,’ where contamination is allowed to occur under the monitoring and exploitation license of Eastern Star Gas (at the time a subsidiary of Santos).

According to Simone Marsh, ‘there are not enough regulators to check on impossibly large areas where the impacts occur … expansion is at such a large scale that it poses another cost that hasn’t been calculated into the industry—the cost of trying to regulate such widespread practises.’ For this reason, Marsh says, many rural stakeholders in Queensland have struggled to have their complaints investigated.

Several years ago, gas companies revealed to the Senate Rural Affairs Committee that they required up to 35,000 litres of chemicals per frack (the equivalent of two backyard swimming pools). This is similar to shale gas fluid injections, which contain a range of agents from hydrochloric acid, guar and surfectants, and a variety of geogenic chemicals including bactericides, sodium hypochlorite (an ingredient of bleach) and a tongue twister of compounds including N-timethylethanaminium chloride, polyethelyneglycol, monohexyl ether, and dodecumethylcyclophexasiloxane (the last one is popular in women’s beauty products, so we’d like to assume it’s safe).

The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme has yet to undertake a risk assessment of many chemicals authorised by state governments. When Origin Energy provided the first inclusion of geogenics in an Australian risk assessment of onshore gas drilling, surveys found low amounts of hydrocarbons including benzine, a chemical compound of petroleum, which was over six times the level allowed in drinking water. And in a recent assessment of wastewater spills in America, the US Environmental Protection Agency found 63 per cent of flowback water led to soil contamination, 8 per cent reached surface water resources, and 0.4 per cent were documented as reaching groundwater.

This is telling. The US Environment Protection Agency says aquifer contamination is problematic, ‘because groundwater contamination can only be detected if monitoring bores are installed the area where contamination is most likely to occur.’ You need to anticipate spills in order to discover them. Equally circumspect are the CSIRO’s comments that up to 40 per cent of reinjected fracking fluids could remain underground and flow into aquifers. This would create major impacts for human health, livestock and cultivation through land pollution, which would vastly outstrip the gas industry’s short timeline. According to the Scientific Inquiry, due to the slow flow rate of many aquifers, ‘it would take decades for water containing contaminants to travel even one hundred metres.’ The Panel found the scientific evidence was ‘unequivocal’ that onsite spills of chemicals and wastewater are very likely to occur at onshore shale gas well pads. They also noted there are no facilities for the treatment or disposal of gas wastewater in the Northern Territory.

Perhaps most horrifying of all, stream sediments in Pennsylvania have been found to contain carcinogenic radionuclides from fracking flowback. Organic rich shales are hotspots of radioactive isotopes including radium and uranium, and the wastewater analysed by Cornell revealed compounds in fracking fluid that cause cancer. Tash Matthews, a young leader at Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network in Tasmania, says ‘Contaminating water means risking life. The land is a major part of the identity of First Nations’ people. To destroy it means to destroy our identity.’

Water is inextricably linked to the culture of Australia’s first peoples. According to the Northern Land Council, ‘Water is both steeped in Aboriginal mythology and history, and critical to the present-day maintenance of life, culture and livelihoods. Water always has and always will be central to Aboriginal identity and, thus, to the continued maintenance of Aboriginal law and culture in this country.’ The Northern Land Council, in conjunction with the Central Land Council, are responsible for the representation of Traditional Owners whose land is earmarked for gas projects. These statutory bodies are thinly stretched with the task to assist negotiations between local groups and powerful, well-resourced industries. This is what mining magnate Lang Hancock had to say of the Aboriginal people whose land he was digging up in 1984: ‘The ones that are no good to themselves and who can’t accept things, the half-castes … I would dope the water up ‘til they’re sterile,’ the billionaire told TV audiences.

I feel misplaced to address the ongoing colonial violence in this country, as I am the descendent of a coloniser who murdered Aboriginal people, and whose forced bride was a young woman from Samoa. In the Pacific islands, nuclear radiation from military testing has engulfed many atolls, and storms threaten to destroy whole nations whose inhabitants have done little to contribute to rising seas. Nothing I do will restore the lives my ancestor destroyed, and I’m not sure how to feel about my role in the accelerating destruction of land and climate. But reading about sea level rise, it strikes me that the movers and shakers of the response to the crisis share a motivation towards adaptive technologies: ‘You can’t let yourself become paralysed by fear.’

One day, a friend and fellow volunteer at my university group, ‘Fossil Free Utas’, doesn’t turn up to a climate-related event. I remember in high school, how a woodwind player stopped coming to rehearsal for youth orchestra. A few weeks later I was brought to the office and told that he had committed suicide. I remember my dad. I feel hollow with dread and ransacked by shame. I tell myself my friend’s absence is a sign, but I feel inert. On Facebook, he’s reposting Guardian articles, using ‘love’ reactions, and beaming cheekily from under a slicker hood in his cover photo. I feel stupid as I start typing the four-letter acronym, and then stop. I convince myself not to do anything. I feel grounded in my distance and justified in my uncertainty. But he will not be okay. He joins the ranks of hundreds of young people who end their own lives every year in this country, a high proportion of whom are in the Northern Territory.

***

Since she exposed the coverups of the CSG industry Simone Marsh has suffered from post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders. Other environmental whistleblowers have also been targeted and victimised, such as Origin employee Fiona Wilson, who was detained in a risk facility and involuntarily injected with aripiprazole, a medication used to subdue schizophrenia patients. (My mother, who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, often told me that her antipsychotic medication turned her into a “zombie”.) Wilson was arrested and detained at the Queensland Fixated Threat Assessment Centre (QFTAC), run by the Security Operations Unit and established in 2013 by Campbell Newman’s government. The scientist had written a social media post that the QFTAC deemed exhibitive of ‘delusional’ behaviour—in her post, Wilson complained about evidence tampering by Origin Energy being ignored by the state government. A submission to the Scientific Inquiry from a separate ex-Origin employee further stated that two of his colleagues had attempted suicide, after experiencing strain and victimisation at work. In the face of well-founded fear, these women spoke up against the most powerful companies in the world. They are braver than I can imagine. The fear of losing the planet is inchoate. Where there is the threat of irreversible loss we need to be rigorous, and revisit the suppressed environments, areas of cultural erasure, and sacrifice zones where our legacies lie. We cannot live without water—we have known this since time immemorial. Water is our memory.

As Toni Morrison writes, ‘all water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was’. Thwarted efforts to straighten out the Mississippi River see the mass of water flood the townships, as it diverges towards its original path. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie’s children’s novel, the Ocean of Notions is the source of all knowledge and storytelling—but it is plugged and polluted by the silent Gups. Of her bildungsroman Swallow the Air, in which the protagonist May finds her birthplace drained for extraction, Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch says ‘I knew there were rivers and estuaries and oceans of bigger stories in my family and my country.’

Water is deeply symbolic. It transforms its vessels. I cannot effectively imagine a future in 50 years when life in the desert may become impossible, because in my experience it is already impossible. I don’t have the knowledge to survive without water cached in fountains and bottles and cisterns, and I wouldn’t be able to live on a boat with a tiger like in Life of Pi, or crash-land a plane in the wastes of Algeria like de Saint-Exupery. The explorer and diarist Charles Sturt travelled from South Australia to the Simpson Desert in search of an inland sea in 1844. He might have been standing right above it.

 

 

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Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn is a young writer and the nonfiction editor at Voiceworks magazine. Her writing has recently appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, Rabbit Poetry, Island and others. In 2018 she won the Scribe Nonfiction Prize.

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