power station Jabiru

OXYGEN FILES: The Northern Territory is embarking on a huge investment in solar energy but the government needs to reconsider its fossil fuel plans, and recognise the role its Indigenous people play in controlling carbon.

Last week’s announcement by Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes and mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest of a substantial investment in a huge solar plant in the Northern Territory is a big step in the right direction but it doesn’t mean the NT government will stop investing in fossil fuels.

The NT does have a clean energy target of 50 per cent renewables by 2030, and it has a minister for renewables, energy and essential services, Dale Wakefield.

Historically, the bulk of the NT’s grid electricity has come from gas-fired power generation, with off-grid remote communities and small towns relying on diesel generation.

At last week’s Council of Australian Government’s (COAG) energy meeting, Wakefield pushed the NT government’s energy reform agenda, including increased emphasis on solar and hydrogen power to underpin economic development.

The territory government has created an office of Sustainable Energy within the Department of Trade, Business and Innovation. The office will coordinate energy policy and the implementation of renewables across government operations.

It is also developing a solar and renewable hydrogen investment strategy. The first win in this regard is the $20 billion Sun Cable Asia Singapore Power Link backed by Forrest and Cannon-Brookes.

Wakefield says the worldwide transition to cheap, clean, renewable energy presents incredible economic opportunities for the NT.

“The Territory Labor Government understands this and is acting now to secure more local jobs in these industries of the future,” he says.

It’s progress of a sort but, as the Climate Council pointed out this week in its latest State of Play Report, the NT has the smallest uptake and implementation of renewable energy of all of Australia’s states and territories, with just 4 per cent of its energy coming from renewable sources in 2018.

LNG pipeline

Not only is it starting from a very low base, the NT government looks like it is hedging its bets with a buck each way on fossil fuels and renewables.

It is pushing ahead with plans to become a growing global supplier of LNG, while energy group Jemena’s 622-kilometre LNG pipeline from Tennant Creek in the territory to Mount Isa in Queensland started operating, earlier this year.

One of the problems with fracking to produce LNG in the NT is that it relies on oil also being produced, says Bruce Robertson, an analyst for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

The oil is rarely mentioned but, as Robertson told The Fifth Estate, the pipeline can’t be justified financially at current gas prices without it.

The oil in the shale makes the balance sheet stack up while the gas is simply a by-product, he says.

In comparison, elsewhere in Australia, the gas is the primary product and no oil is present.

Whether oil exists in significant quantities in NT shale deposits slated for fracking is largely guesswork at this stage.

But where it is present it creates “substantially different environmental risks” to CSG fracking, although a recent NT fracking inquiry did not mention these risks.

Hydrogen plans “economically shaky”

Robertson says all the applicable regulatory systems in the NT are also set up for gas, not for oil in shale.

Recent proposals by the federal government that hydrogen could be a big new renewable energy industry, and that hydrogen could be produced using coal-fired or gas-fired electricity are equally economically shaky.

Robertson says “brown hydrogen” would only be economically viable if there was a price on carbon.

He also doubts there is much global demand for brown hydrogen.

Much of the distortion in the economic and the energy resources picture “comes down to the fact we don’t price carbon in Australia anymore,” he says.

The lack of a price on carbon is also affecting Indigenous policy, and the economic and social prospects of Indigenous people who live on Country.

Sources in the Indigenous community have told The Fifth Estate the government has failed to do any significant work to address fundamental inequities and barriers.

One major policy failure, at a territory and national level, is not recognising that Indigenous people living on Country deliver multiple benefits to the entire community in the areas of biodiversity conservation, feral pest control, carbon sequestration, emissions reduction, water resources protection and soil conservation.

The majority of these benefits are not rewarded in any substantial way, aside from some traditional savannah burning projects that have gained carbon credit payments under the federal government’s emissions reduction fund or through corporate purchase of carbon offsets.

Indigenous contribution ignored

A number of Indigenous Land Management programs, including protected area rangers and support for small to medium enterprises in the land management, pest control, land rehabilitation and endangered species breeding and protection programs, have also been supported.

This is despite the Commonwealth Government counting Aboriginal owned and managed lands in the national reporting around international commitments for biodiversity conservation and carbon accounting.

Funds directed to Indigenous-owned and Indigenous-managed lands are a fraction of what the state and federal conservation agencies receive, despite the Indigenous lands by area accounting for the majority of protected land tenures.

According to federal government data, about 14 per cent of Australia is under some form of protected tenure associated with Indigenous ownership or management. The vast majority of this is in the top end, including the NT.

Yet despite caring for such a vast part of the entire continental landscape, in the policy narrative, those living on Country are perceived as an economic liability when it comes to policies around income support or assistance for economic development aside from mining-related development.

Politicians have accused Indigenous people living on Country of making “lifestyle choices”. But our sources point out that if those people moved to big cities in search of jobs, they would likely be worse off in terms of health, diet, economic opportunities and key social indicators such as housing.

They say the “Sydney-Melbourne” model that dominates social and economic policy is simply not applicable to traditional Indigenous culture and people on Country.

Recognising and rewarding the contribution Indigenous communities make in terms of national environmental wellbeing is a key part of changing the narrative.

“Aboriginal people are a net benefit to Australia,” one source says.

The shift towards the cashless debit card and away from conventional welfare payments is an example of how policies are disadvantaging traditional land managers.

Much of the exchange that lies behind activities, including traditional hunting and gathering, relies on cash for supplies. The cashless debit card makes this exchange much harder.

Yet traditional hunting and gathering is a fundamental element in Indigenous environmental management and plays a significant role too in feral pest control.

It is also crucial to community food security – and as our sources point out, food gathered locally is beneficial in terms of the emissions and materials footprint of consumer food product supply chains that otherwise replace traditional food sources.

The nutritional value of traditional food supplies has never been accounted for either, nor the economics around the role traditional food plays in improving community health and wellbeing.

Robertson agrees that governments have failed to properly address Indigenous issues in the NT.

“The track records of governments in looking after Indigenous rights in Australia is pretty appalling,” he says.

From an ecological, moral and social perspective, it is obvious this needs to change, not only because it benefits Indigenous Australians, but because it has benefits for every Australian.

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