When Jingili Elder Pompey Raymond reflects on the Northern Territory’s oil and gas industry, he sees careers for young people, education, community infrastructure, and a path to protect his country.
A ceremonial man born at the Beetaloo station, Mr Raymond believes the debate around the industry is often hijacked by those who should not speak on behalf of the region.
“My dad taught me all about this country…and all of that…the Beetaloo station, all of that ceremonial stuff,” Mr. Raymond said.
“Me and my daughter and my sons, we can speak for this Beetaloo.
“Beetaloo Station, we have all these areas… (so) we can speak… for this story, (these) people… and this whole country.
Fracking is a polarizing issue among the wider Top End indigenous population, but on the country of Warranangku, Mr Raymond said the voices that could legitimately speak on behalf of the country were clear in their support.
In a rare series of interviews, remote community leaders such as Mr Raymond spoke out to dispel perceptions that the Top End Indigenous community was united against industrial development.
The debate centers on the Beetaloo Basin, which contains enough shale gas to power Australia for about 300 years, an attractive proposition given the current electricity problems on the east coast.
Cassandra Schmidt, director of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, boasted in May that industrializing the basin could generate $1 billion in revenue for the territory over the next two decades, create thousands of jobs and completely transform the nearest major city, Katherine.
Those who rally behind companies such as Santos and Origin Energy have staged a high-profile media blitz on the backs of Tiwi islanders suing the federal offshore oil and gas regulator in court and outspoken criticism from the anti-fracking group Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation with respect to this practice.
Their arguments are largely environmental and cultural – focusing on carbon emissions, groundwater health, sewage disposal and risks to sacred sites.
But Jeremy Jackson, a Mudburra-Jingili man, who lives in Marlinja, on the southwest corner of the Falcon-Origin Beetaloo Basin joint venture, said working with industry was the best way to protect the country and improve life under current title deed laws.
Mr. Jackson speaks on behalf of his uncle, Terry Jackson, a senior mangaya (traditional owner) of the Bamarrnganja group in the Beetaloo region.
“Aboriginal title, you say no, the government actually goes around, out the back door, and you say no, and you bring in this whole mining crowd,” Jackson said.
“We say yes, then we benefit from it and we also take care of our country, our sacred sites.
“We want to work with (Northern Land Council) and this mining company to protect our country and our sacred sites.”
Jackson said he was pleased with the level of consultation undertaken by Origin and the NLC on the project.
He said Origin took its community license to operate seriously – funding a football oval in Elliott, providing jobs for remote residents and ensuring traditional owners had first-hand insight into operations.
Mr Jackson’s comments were backed up by Benjamin Ulamari, another Mudburra-Jingili man, who said Origin offered jobs to anyone who wanted to work in the Elliott and Marlinja communities.
“My job is a career job – I can train, then I can move somewhere else and get a job like that,” Mr Ulamari said.
“Helping us give us a better future for us, for our children.
“We want better opportunities, better education, better jobs for our people, (and) we will decide that, not others.”
Origin plans to drill two more wells this year between Daly Waters and Borroloola, about 150 km northeast of Elliott.
Several smaller players operating in the region – including Empire Energy and Tamboran Resources – are also rushing into production, with the former saying at a conference last month that it hoped to generate cash flow in 2024.
Jobs are big – living 250km north of Tennant Creek and about 750km from Darwin, career prospects to date have been slim for residents of Elliott and Marlinja.
But protecting sacred sites and the country is even more important than jobs, which those who support fracking have always been accused of failing.
It’s an unfair claim, Mr. Jackson said.
“Origin drills and stuff, and we see what they’re doing to our country, the country of (Mr. Jackson’s father) Uncle Terry,” he said.
“We asked a lot of questions about the water and then they showed us.
“We asked them what they put under the fracking materials and they showed us a sample and it was really good.”
This willingness by Origin to show traditional owners what they are doing has built trust in the company, and a strong belief that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely.
The Northern Land Council has also been active in its advisory role, providing technical experts outside the oil and gas companies.
For its part, the Territory government has promised to hold the industry to high standards, describing the risks posed by fracking as “negligible”.
Speaking after approving four new Origin wells in the basin in June, and as campaigners cried foul over Tamboran Resources moving to a ranching station without the ranchers’ consent, the Environment Minister of the Northern Territories Nord, Lauren Moss, said strict environmental standards would be met.
“Developers are required to have strict environmental management plans approved, and the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Safety, as the environmental regulator, ensures compliance with the EMPs,” she told the National Indigenous Times.
“With respect to Tamboran, there is a land access agreement as determined by the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal which meets the minimum provisions.”
Ms Moss said she was comfortable with the level of consultation with Traditional Owners undertaken by companies seeking to unlock the industrial potential of the Beetaloo Basin.