In the middle of the Federal Government’s planned “gas-led recovery”, the future of the Beetaloo Basin is in doubt because traditional owners have decided they want to take over the power to negotiate with gas companies.
The local land council, which had been negotiating on behalf of the traditional owners, has been asked to withdraw from talks with the gas companies.
The Beetaloo Basin is an enormous shale gas resource 400 kilometres south of Darwin, which this month was named as one of five “strategic” gas basins that the Federal Government wants to help fund the development of.
Native title holder Samuel Sandy has watched with growing concern as fracking companies gear up to start this massive new shale gas industry on his land.
“If fracking does come in, including the 500 wells that they’re talking about, it’s going to destroy the very life of this land, the land that my ancestors used to walk for 40,000 years,” he told the ABC’s PM program.
He is even more worried that both the Northern Territory and federal governments are staking a large part of their post-COVID-19 economic recovery plans on the proposed gas field.
The Newcastle Waters Murranji native title holder said when traditional owners, including his father, gave their consent for gas exploration in the Beetaloo in 2015 and 2016, they weren’t given enough information about fracking by the Northern Land Council, which facilitated the negotiations.
“There was an agreement but there was bad communication, they could have explained more to the native title holders.”
He said his native title group and traditional owners from eight other areas, covering most of the Beetaloo Basin, have decided to take the power to negotiate about whether a major fracking industry starts away from the Land Council.
They held a meeting of all of their groups at Daly Waters in the heart of the Beetaloo at the weekend.
The native title holders have established their own negotiating body, known as a prescribed body corporate (PBC), the Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation.
Mr Sandy said through the new body they will try to stop gas being developed in the Beetaloo and if they can’t do that, they will try to gain stronger guarantees of environmental protection for their land from gas companies, including Origin Energy.
“With this PBC we’ll try to have agreement with them, try to tell them not to do this, not to do that, not to touch sacred sites,” he said.
“It’s about time we all come together as one voice and solve this problem.”
Land council says it did communicate clearly about gas development
Native title holder Janey Dixon said she decided she wanted to be represented by the new body because she felt the Land Council had not given her family enough information about the scale of the gas developments proposed.
“They never gave us good advice about what it’s for and what it’s going to do,” she said.
“We are standing strong not to have this fracking, because we don’t like fracking.”
Northern Land Council chief executive Marion Scrymgour rejected accusations the land council failed to get properly informed consent from Beetaloo Basin native title holders.
“I’m confident that everything the Northern Land Council has done has been above board and that we have consulted with everyone appropriately, in particularly to what is proposed in the Beetaloo Basin,” she said.
She would not be drawn on whether the Land Council would attempt to challenge the new body’s application to be recognised as the new representative of the native title holders in the Federal Court.
“Any claims that go into the Federal Court from third parties, the Northern Land Council can’t comment on that until such time that happens. So we’ll just have to wait and see what’s going to happen,” Ms Scrymgour said.
Would a new body be able to change gas development plans?
Kirsty Howie, a specialist in native title who has worked as a Land Council lawyer, says establishing the new negotiating body is the first step Beetaloo native title holders will have to take in order to take negotiating control from the Land Council.
They will also have to convince the Federal Court that they are the key Indigenous decision makers for their areas.
“The new PBC will have to establish that the appropriate people have been part of consultations, those people need to have authority under Aboriginal tradition to make the decision effectively,” she said.
Native title laws don’t give traditional owners the legal right to veto gas developments.
But Ms Howie, who is completing a PhD on native title negotiations with resources companies, said Northern Territory Government approval processes require that native title holders are properly consulted before development applications are granted.
“It’s very important for the gas companies, for their social licence to operate, that they have functioning, supported, native title agreements with traditional owners, it’s a core part of the authorisation of any project,” she said.
She said even if the native title holders fail to block gas production on their land, they will have the right to negotiate for fair compensation and environmental guarantees.
“Those benefits can include royalties, the establishment of a trust to manage social and community benefits, extensive sacred site protection, establishment of indigenous businesses, as well as environmental protections above and beyond those that are part of Northern Territory law as it currently exists.”
Origin Energy, which holds the gas exploration permits over most of the area the nine native title holder groups have rights to, said the company “is not aware and has not been advised of any change to the Northern Land Council being the default PBC”.
“There are many ways traditional owners can engage with Origin and seek information about our exploration project.”
The company has also consistently said it will use the most advanced engineering techniques to make sure its fracking does not cause any environmental damage in the Beetaloo Basin.
This content was originally published here.