The federal minister for resources and water, Keith Pitt, will press ahead on plans to open up the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory to fracking by giving taxpayer money to oil and gas companies despite a legal challenge to the government’s program.
Under the proposed Betaloo Cooperative Drilling Program, Imperial Oil and Gas – a wholly owned subsidiary of Empire Energy that has close ties to the Liberal party – would be given $21m.
The legal basis of the program is being challenged in federal court by the Environment Centre NT (ECNT).
In a statement released on Tuesday, the minister for resources and water said he had asked his department to move ahead despite the legal threat.
“It is important that we continue to get on with the job,” Pitt said. “This project, along with other activity in the Beetaloo Basin, has the potential to create over 6,000 jobs and make a significant contribution to secure Australia’s affordable and reliable energy supplies.
“I have also instructed my department to continue with the assessment of other applications to the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program.”
In a response to questions taken on notice in August, the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources said there were four applications for grant funding under the program, totalling $30m for four wells.
Graeme Sawyer from the Protect Country Alliance – which has been fighting a campaign against fracking – described the federal government’s decision as a “tantrum” in the face of opposition.
Keith Pitt says he has told his department to ‘continue with the assessment of other applications to the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program’. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP
“Keith Pitt is being fairly challenged in the federal court – he should await the findings of the case before continuing to give public money to fracking companies,” Sawyer said.
“Instead he has spat the dummy and is refusing to allow justice to run its course fairly.”
ECNT co-director Kirsty Howey said that her organisation had previously sought assurance from the minister that he would not act while allowing the court process to play out.
“We would have expected – and had requested – Minister Pitt to delay gifting money under the program until these important legal questions of public importance are determined,” Howey said.
The Environmental Defenders Office, acting on behalf of the ECNT, wrote to the minister on 28 July 2021 asking for him to agree not to hand over the money while the court process played out.
Pitt did not immediately respond but a month later, on 3 September 2021, he replied saying that he intended to enter into a grant agreement with Imperial energy in the next three weeks.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the decision was made in “bad faith”, especially as the government had previously used the litigation to deflect questions on its program.
“This is corporate welfare to the extreme,” Hanson-Young said. “The Morrison government is so desperate to give their mates in the gas industry tens of millions of dollars in public money, they are prepared to thumb their nose at the law, and the community.”
A Senate inquiry has been probing the Coalition’s plans to open up the Beetaloo Basin to fracking and incentivise exploratory drilling by handing $50m in grants to resource companies. The funding was announced in the May budget.
Empire is chaired by Paul Espie, a frequent Liberal donor and director of the Menzies Research Centre, and Espie has previously been described in parliament as a doyen of the Liberal party.
Empire’s managing director, Alex Underwood, told the Senate inquiry that the company’s connections with the Liberal party did not help it obtain the grants.
Gas is usually described as having half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal when burned, but studies have found its impact on the climate is higher due to methane leaked during extraction and transport.
A major report by the International Energy Agency in May suggested no new oil and gas fields should be opened if global heating was to be limited to 1.5C.