The future of the Northern Territory economy is central in the posturing ahead of this week’s election, with a need to get away from boom and bust cycles renewable energy and fracking are controversial elements of the overall debate. Roxanne Fitzgerald looks at the political policies and the commentary around them.
With limited economic opportunities, a falling population, a government billions of dollars in debt and a global climate crisis, concern for the future of the Northern Territory has never been greater.
Ahead of the election, the NT Independent is giving voters an overview of where the major parties stand on renewable energy and the onshore gas industry, or fracking, and how they plan to revive the Territory.
There are strong and contradictory views about the place gas will take in the hoped for revival of the Territory economy and future electricity generation.
Energy industry financial experts have warned the onshore gas industry will not fix the Northern Territory’s failing economy while offsetting fracking emissions could reach $4.3 billion per year if the industry reaches full production by 2030, researchers from the progressive think tank The Australia Institute found.
Environment groups in fierce opposition, say fracking could poison aquifers, pollute rivers and kill the tourism industry.
But last month, former Dow Chemical chief executive officer and head of the NT Economic Reconstruction Commission Andrew Liveris said fracking “could really cement the economy of the Territory in a way that it has never been cemented before.”
And the NT’s resources sector says fracking is tightly sewn into a bright economic future.
First a ban on fracking, now Territory Alliance has an ambitious plan for renewables
Following a controversial announcement to ban fracking if elected to power at the upcoming election, Territory Alliance released its policies to lead the Northern Territory out of the woods with renewables.
“Renewable energy is rapidly changing Australia’s energy landscape presenting great opportunities for job creation in [the] NT whilst reducing the price of power and our emissions,” Territory Alliance Leader Terry Mills said.
“The enormous economic challenges before us, the low interest rate environment and the need to transform our energy systems onto a sustainable footing make this the moment for the NT Government to step up.”
The policy paper plans to legislate emissions reduction targets of 50 per cent of net zero by 2030 and 90 per cent by 2050 and invest $20 million into clean energy.
“Territory Alliance will kick-start the establishment of a $50 million renewables investment fund for NT homelands by investing $10 million into the fund as leverage for an investment request of an additional $40 million from the Commonwealth,” Mr Mills said.
The other $10 million will “turbo charge” the Gunner Government’s current Home and Business Battery Scheme, allowing more Territorians access to the $6,000 subsidy to help pay for a home battery system.
Energy policy expert from the Environment Centre NT, Monica Tan, says Territory Alliance has distinguished itself from the political pack with the twin commitment to clean energy and severing ties with the onshore shale gas industry.
But the oil and gas industry says a future void of gas development is unrealistic and would be a blow to the economy.
Abandoning the Northern Territory’s bread and butter
In June, Territory Alliance pledged to ban fracking if elected. Under the policy, new production permits would not be issued, existing exploration licenses would not be renewed and current operations would be held to strict regulations.
“The biggest point of difference between the Territory Alliance renewables policy with that of Territory Labor and the Country Liberal Party lies in the party’s complementary anti-fracking stance,” Ms Tan said.
She said she commended Territory Alliance for abandoning what has traditionally been the Northern Territory’s bread and butter.
“Investing in renewable energy will boost our economy and grow meaningful jobs for Territorians in sustainable, long-lasting industries, in contrast to the boom-and-bust cycles of the fossil-fuel and resource sector,” she said.
A report from the Environment Centre NT called The 10 Gigawatt Vision, found that if the government put renewable energy at the centre of its strategy by driving investment into 10 gigawatts of renewables by 2030 it would create over 8,000 new jobs and over $2 billion in new annual revenue.
“The Northern Territory needs to get off the economic roller-coaster set by our continued investment in high-risk, boom-bust, fossil-fuel industries that employ fly-in-fly-out workers and offer limited benefits to ordinary Territorians,” Ms Tan said.
“The NT solar industry is already stimulating the Territorian economy by employing large numbers of electricians, tradespeople, engineers and other professionals who actually live and work in the Territory and spend their earnings in local communities.”
She also highlighted the drastic reduction in electricity costs for businesses and households that switch to solar.
Oil and gas industry: the reality is fracking
The Minerals Council of Australia’s Northern Territory director Drew Wagner says the oil and gas industry is well aware global action is required to reduce the risks of human-induced climate change.
He says the industry supports a “measured transition” to a low emissions economy, through renewables, but it needs to be a mixed bag to work into the future.
“We’ve been quite open about the opportunities renewables present, especially in the NT as there are lots of resources, as long as it doesn’t impact base–load power” Mr Wagner said.
He said it was unrealistic to think only of renewables now, raising the role the gas industry plays in securing jobs and creating reliable energy.
“We are going to need more power into the future, and the reality is we want to see a growing economy… we see gas as an important development for the way of life in the Northern Territory,” Mr Wagner said.
“The Pepper review says we can do it properly and we believe in that evidence and that it can be done appropriately.
“We need to have reliable energy available and right now that can’t completely come from renewables.”
Keld Knudsen, the Northern Territory director of The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) echoed Mr Wagner’s sentiment, saying Territory Alliance’s policy on renewables ignored the role the gas industry plays in facilitating “reliable, on-call and low emissions power”.
“Gas-fired generation technologies can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent compared to the National Electricity Market average, by 68 per cent compared with current brown coal generation technologies and 61 per cent compared to current black coal generation technologies,” he said.
“Gas-fired generators also allow an integration of more renewable electricity as they can be rapidly started making them complementary with intermittent renewable energy.”
Where is the funding coming from?
It its policy position paper, Territory Alliance describes the transition to renewables as an opportunity “we can’t afford to miss out on”, with the potential to be a provider of clean energy to both domestic and international markets.
If elected, the party says it will immediately establish a Renewables Taskforce, spearheaded by the Chief Minister, to drive investment.
Little detail has been revealed on how the party would secure the $20 million for its policy, but Ms Tan says she is optimistic.
“As any Territorian who has installed solar panels on their roof will tell you, although there is an upfront cost to investing in renewables it quickly pays itself back and then some,” she said.
“The same goes for a government investing in renewables at a Territory-level. It is a low-risk investment that pays itself back quickly in the form of lower power prices, increased energy resilience, security and independence, and by attracting lucrative new industries and new jobs to the Territory.”
She said she encourages all NT parties to offer renewable energy developers Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) through a reverse auction process.
Not only was this recently proved successful in the Australian Capital Territory’s move to 100 per cent renewable energy electricity consumption, but it is also touted as a low capital investment with limited financial risk.
Election promises to implement remaining fracking recommendations
All 135 recommendations of the Independent Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing, headed by Justice Rachel Pepper, will be implemented under a continued Territory Labor Government and a new CLP Government.
But neither have clear plans for offsetting the resulting emissions – estimated to equate to all of Victoria’s coal power stations – from a fracking industry, as recommended by the Inquiry.
Territory Labor, recently released their plan for the resources and mining industry, stating it would continue its support and investment of $26 million over four years (from 2018 to 2022).
And has pledged to grow the economy and create jobs in the resources industry while simultaneously protecting the environment and achieving a net-zero carbon society by 2050.
Environment groups are not buying it and have called the government out on years of “incompetence when it comes to monitoring of environmental impacts.”
The Northern Territory’s abundant onshore shale gas resources have been the cornerstone of the NT Government’s economic strategy since it controversially lifted a moratorium on fracking in 2018.
The succinct plan states in its first term Territory Labor accepted and committed to implementing all of Pepper’s 135 recommendations from the Inquiry, and that if elected at the upcoming election, will “implement the remaining recommendations… to ensure risks associated with an emerging onshore petroleum industry are minimised”.
No further details are provided in the plan and environmental groups in fierce opposition of fracking say the election promise “is laughable but sadly incredibly dangerous for Territorians”.
Protect Country Alliance spokesman Graeme Sawyer said the Gunner Government’s track record has been “appalling” and “cannot be trusted to implement these recommendations.”
“The Gunner Government has ignored the recommendations about transparency and accountability of decision making and has left things like the ‘corruption clause’ as he calls it in the Petroleum Act,” Mr Sawyer said.
“That is the bit that allows a minister to make a decision, even against advice, and to not have to publish their reasons.
“They are not following their own guidelines around ecologically sustainable development even though their own documents say this is their guiding principles.”
Too little, too late
While exploration came to an abrupt halt this year as the world shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19, there are three major energy companies – Origin, Santos and Pangaea – that hold permits and have operations in varying stages of progress in the Beetaloo Basin.
It was in 2018 that Chief Minister Michael Gunner committed to implementing all 135 recommendations, which included codes of practice for wastewater management and water licensing, requirements for environmental management plans and to consider any impacts of proposed activity based off environment reports.
It also included the right of veto for traditional owners under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.
A spokesman for Protect Country Alliance says while he is encouraged by the overdue response to concerns held by the majority of Territorians who oppose fracking, “this last-minute mediocre election announcement is too little, too late”.
“The Labor Party has had three years to implement the findings of Justice Pepper’s fracking inquiry, and has utterly failed,” he said.
“Even when it says it has implemented the recommendations, the reality is often the opposite. For example, the Gunner Government has allowed fracking companies to leave fracking wastewater in open air storage ponds, contrary to Pepper Inquiry recommendations.”
Commitments at odds
A plan to make the Northern Territory a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050 continues to be in Territory Labor’s sights despite researchers labelling the onshore gas industry a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
The party’s Climate Change Response: Towards 2050 and Three Year Action Plan, outlines it will “make sure” to invest in new and existing low carbon industries, “develop strategic approaches to deliver meaningful emission reductions” and provide up-to-date information for Territorians on climate change.
It remains unclear, however, how the party will actually reach its 2050 goal.
Mr Sawyer said there is “not any way in the world” the Northern Territory can achieve its reduction targets while developing the fracking industry.
“Fracking will release huge amounts of methane. New research has shown this is much, much worse than thought at the time of [the] Pepper [Inquiry],” he said.
“The Beetaloo is completely at odds with carbon reduction strategies.
“The government is either lying or incompetent.
“Work by the Australia Institute showed it would cost billions to offset, where is that money coming from?”
It also remains unclear which of the remaining recommendations will be implemented and under what time frame, Mr Sawyer said.
“There is a supposed list on the website associated with the community reference group, but it is carefully crafted misinformation,” he said.
The CLP’s $12,000 rooftop solar battery subsidy and gas as a transitional fuel
Last week, the CLP announced it would double the current incentive for homes and businesses to install rooftop solar batteries from $6,000 to $12,000, if brought into power.
It had already released a statement in June outlining its focus on harnessing the sun’s energy, but stood firm on the continued development of an onshore gas industry.
“Playing to our strengths is the key,” Opposition Leader Lia Finocchiaro said in the June statement.
“The Territory has all the required inputs for hydrogen production, including abundant natural gas supplies and capacity for vast solar generation,” she said.
“It is estimated that the hydrogen industry will be worth more than $1.8 trillion by 2050.”
The party doesn’t have a clear plan for offsetting the resulting greenhouse gas emissions either, but says it will take it “seriously”.
“The onshore gas industry represents an opportunity for the Territory to transform into an energy exporter and manufacturing hub, adding more than 6,500 high paying jobs and producing cleaner burning fuel for the world and supporting private investment into the future,” their plan states.
“The CLP supports the development of our vast reserves of natural gas for use as a transitional fuel source to tackle climate change, and developing solar and hydrogen as renewable energy sources securing our place in the clean energy market.”
The NT Government was contacted for further comment on pre-election policies.