Senate debates

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Regulations and Determinations

Industry Research and Development (Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program) Instrument 2021; Disallowance

4:00 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

[by video link] I note that business of the Senate notice of motion No. 1 has been moved. It is to disallow the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program grant. I want to start by saying clearly what this vote is about. In the middle of a climate crisis, at a time when the International Energy Agency, the G7 and the IPCC are all saying, 'Stop funding coal, oil and gas,' the Morrison government is gifting $50 million of public money to the fossil fuel industry to frack for gas in the Beetaloo basin in the Northern Territory. It's doing so against the wishes of First Nations communities and before key environmental baseline studies have been completed.

Twenty-one million dollars of that slush fund has already gone to the first applicants, Imperial Oil and Gas, a wholly owned subsidiary of Empire Energy, a company that is linked to major Liberal Party donors and life members and has been lobbying relevant ministers for months. There is absolutely no requirement for the company to repay any of that largesse if they go on to make millions from exploiting a public resource. There is no assurance that the companies will not spend the money offshore and avoid paying tax locally.

Today the Senate has the chance to stop this misuse of public funds, to stop the rorting, to listen to First Nations communities, to listen to the climate science, to protect precious groundwater and to save $50 million that could be better spent on housing, education or increasing JobSeeker. We have the chance to stop it. But yesterday the Labor Party said that they won't. We beg them to change their minds, because there is so much at stake here—firstly, for the climate. The Beetaloo basin holds 34 billion tonnes of gas, which is the equivalent of 68 years of Australia's current pollution level. It alone would increase Australia's annual emissions by six per cent. It is a climate bomb. Opening up the basin would completely blow our chance of meeting our already weak Paris targets. The IPCC advice could not be clearer on this: we have until 2030 to halve the world's climate pollution if we want to have any chance of staving off chain reactions that will lead to runaway climate breakdown. This is a critical decade, and even conservative bodies like the International Energy Agency recognise that and have urged governments to stop subsidising climate-wrecking fossil fuel projects. Yet this government wants to hand out more public money to its fossil fuel mates, and it seems the Labor Party are going to let it do it.

But it's not just climate impacts. Our precious groundwater is also at risk from fracking. The independent review of fracking in the Northern Territory, the Pepper review, noted significant environmental, social and economic risks from fracking the Territory. The review made 135 recommendations and it said only the full implementation of all of those recommendations could provide any assurances that those risks could be managed. But fewer than half of those recommendations have been implemented, the Senate inquiry that the Greens initiated into this insane proposal was told. The federal grants program that we're seeking to disallow would actively fly in the face of at least three of those Pepper recommendations. Environmental baseline studies won't be completed before the drilling expedited by these grants would be done, there's no requirement for carbon offset arrangements to be locked in before the drilling commences, and the federal government has no plans to extend the water trigger under the EPBC Act to assess the impact of shale gas extraction on water, as amendments that I moved in 2013 would have achieved had they not been voted down by both big parties.

Perhaps most importantly, the justice of our nation is at stake. The Senate inquiry heard from traditional owners right across the Territory, who were deeply concerned about fracking the Beetaloo basin. First Nations countries are worried for their country, their water, their kids and their access to cultural practices. They are furious that this government is handing out millions of dollars to its donor mates and offshore shareholders while kids can't get a decent education and towns like Borroloola don't have footpaths or safe water and houses are poorly built and overcrowded. These traditional owners told the Senate inquiry that they have not been consulted in any meaningful way by this government or by the companies that are so keen to pillage their country and their groundwater. There's been no scientific explanation of the work being undertaken or information provided to those traditional owners about the long-term impacts and risks. Their questions have gone unanswered and their concerns have been ignored. Traditional owners despair as their wishes and their responsibilities as custodians of this country continue to be ignored.

Yesterday, Senator McMahon shamefully dismissed the views of First Nations community members who gave evidence to the inquiry. Her comments were so typical of the attitude of this government and their approach to consultation: if you don't like what you hear, dismiss it, belittle it, ignore it. First Nations communities have spoken loudly and clearly in opposing fracking in the Beetaloo basin. This Senate must listen.

Even if you were to overlook the climate impacts, groundwater risks and the opposition of First Nations communities, these grants should be stopped, because the program is yet another dodgy Liberal slush fund for Liberal Party mates. The rogues gallery of applicants for the grants includes Sweetpea Petroleum, a company registered in a tax haven that is connected to a Russian oligarch who is currently on a US sanctions list. It includes Tamboran Resources, which is registered in a tax haven and is so opaque that we don't know who actually owns it. Santos, Australia's 11th-biggest polluting company and a regular political donor to both of the big parties, is also in the mix. There is Empire Energy, a company with extensive links and lots of financial support to the Liberal Party, one of whose main shareholders is a man with an outstanding arrest warrant from Hong Kong for insider trading.

Yesterday, Senator Watt, for the Labor Party, in his contribution to debate on the interim report of the Senate Environment and Communications Committee's inquiry into fracking in the Beetaloo, went through the shocking list of everything that is wrong this program. There were the meetings between Empire Energy and Minister Taylor, at which Minister Taylor says the grants programs weren't discussed, something that is contradicted by emails from the company disclosed under FOI. There was the Empire Energy funded joy flight for Minister Taylor; Liberal donors; half of Minister Taylor's fundraising arm, the Hume Forum; a Nine News journalist; and Senator McMahon and her then staff member, who, incidentally, was recently preselected by the CLP for the Daly by-election and, if elected, could vote on future NT government decisions regarding Empire Energy's fracking operations. Thirdly, there is the coincidence of Empire meeting with Minister Taylor just days before the first-in, first-served grant guidelines were released, and then happening to be the first application and, so far, the only one to be served. We know that Minister Taylor isn't the Minister for Resources and Water, as Senator McMahon so helpfully pointed out yesterday. But he does represent resources in the cabinet. Empire Energy was pretty keen to talk to him and for his help to get them a meeting with Minister Pitt.

Applicants for grants under the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program are required to declare conflicts of interest. Where no conflicts are declared, no further questions are asked. Being a massive donor to the Liberal Party apparently isn't a conflict. Having a meeting with the relevant minister just prior to the guidelines being announced apparently isn't a conflict either. The whole program is so dodgy that the Labor Party want to refer it the ANAO. Why not just stop it now?

Senator Watt says that if people want to know where Labor stands, they should look at their policy platform. I think people will look at Labor's voting record. Right now, Labor has a chance to actually avoid another sports rorts or park-and-ride style abuse of public funds. Rather than give the program a catchy name and then be outraged when the ANAO finds that it was a really bad idea, you could just vote to stop it now. The community will remember that Labor had the chance to stop public money going to climate-wrecking projects that First Nations communities have said they do not want. Labor have decided they will just step aside and let the Liberal government do the bidding of their fossil fuel donor mates.

This grant program is a bad one. The evidence of the inquiry was clear: the criteria don't require climate risks to be considered, won't consider the adequacy of consultation with First Nations groups and aren't interested in the environmental history or the tax-avoiding behaviour of applicants or conflicts of interests. The only relevant criterion seems to be whether you are a friend of the Liberal Party.

Australia should not be spending public funds on fossil fuel projects when we know that we have less than a decade to prevent climate catastrophe. Health, education, increasing JobSeeker—there are so many better ways to spend $50 million in the Northern Territory. Granting public money to party donors for a climate-wrecking project that no-one wants is unethical, wasteful and a danger to our children's future. I urge the Senate to disallow this program.


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