What happens when a gas-led recovery collides with a climate election?
We’re about to find out.
From Narrabri in New South Wales to outback Queensland and the Northern Territory, the former government said the opening up of massive new gas basins was going to power the Australian economy out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fast forward a few months and Greens leader Adam Bandt is suddenly talking about his party’s potential power to demand an end to those plans.
So what will happen under a federal Labor government promising stronger action on climate change?
We take a closer look at where Scott Morrison’s gas-fired recovery was supposed to start, in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin.
Where are things at with fracking in the Beetaloo Basin?
Things are approaching a tipping point in the Beetaloo, which sits 500 kilometres south-east of Darwin.
Stretching across an area more than twice the size of Tasmania, the basin contains enough shale gas to power Australia for an estimated 200 years.
In the coming months, gas companies including Origin Energy, Santos and several smaller players will ramp up the exploratory fracking that began after the Territory Labor government lifted its moratorium on fracking.
Some of it is financed by millions of dollars in grants awarded by the former federal government last year, which also promised hundreds of millions for enabling infrastructure before the election.
Backers say developing the Beetaloo will generate thousands of jobs, make domestic gas supplies cheaper and more reliable, aid the energy transition of Australia and neighbours in Asia and boost the NT’s small economy.
Critics say carbon pollution from the basin — taken at its highest estimates — would swamp any of Australia’s proposed emissions reduction targets.
The results from test fracking conducted over the next few months will help proponents decide if their projects are economically viable.
The former government was hopeful the basin could be producing gas by 2025.
Will anything change under the new Albanese government?
No, according to the new Labor government’s previous statements about the Beetaloo.
But there’s a bit more to it.
Anthony Albanese has said Labor backs the development of the basin — as well as new gas and even coal projects that win environmental approvals — and is insisting his emissions reduction target of 43 per cent by 2030 isn’t up for negotiation.
But there’s one significant policy change Labor has promised to make, and important questions about another.
The party has kept a promise taken to the 2016 election to extend the federal “water trigger” to shale gas fracking — something the previous federal government was refusing to do.
Environmentalists have welcomed the change, which means potential projects will have to pass an extra assessment under federal environment laws.
“It will certainly impose additional requirements that just don’t exist under Northern Territory law,” Kirsty Howey, co-director of the Environment Centre NT said, describing the NT’s water laws as “notoriously poor and weak”.
That leaves the other policy change we mentioned — and it’s a big one.
What about the carbon emissions?
This will be one to watch as the new federal government starts opening its emails.
While Mr Albanese is saying Labor’s climate policies won’t change from what it took to the election, his counterparts in the Northern Territory have already promised that they will.
That’s because the NT government lifted its fracking moratorium based in part on the promise that it would get the Commonwealth government’s help to ensure all emissions associated with fracking the Beetaloo are offset — that’s all life cycle emissions, wherever the gas ends up going.
Territory Labor failed to get the Coalition on board with that commitment, and there are doubts within the NT government about whether it can be done.
In a statement, NT Environment Minister Lauren Moss said the Territory government was working on fulfilling this commitment “within its sphere of control”, which she described as “the life cycle emissions from the onshore petroleum industry that occur in the Northern Territory”.
As for emissions outside the NT: “We will continue to work with the federal government to implement the full recommendation,” the statement said.
Asked if federal Labor would co-sign the Northern Territory government’s commitment, a spokesperson for Mr Albanese said the Commonwealth would consult with the NT government about the Beetaloo Basin soon.
“We expect the full Cabinet will be sworn in [this] week; our first priority will be to honour our election commitments,” the spokesperson said.
How Labor plans to do that while supporting the gas industry remains to be seen — and its approach to the Beetaloo Basin will show the rest of Australia what’s to come.