The resources industry could receive millions of dollars in additional taxpayer-funded grants from the federal government as exploration for gas approaches a tipping point in the Beetaloo Basin.
Late last month the Northern Territory government unveiled a list of proposals it had pitched to Infrastructure Australia, an independent statutory body that advises governments and industry on how to best use public funds to deliver positive outcomes for communities.
The list included road upgrades, new housing to address overcrowding, and recreational fishing infrastructure.
It also proposed that infrastructure necessary for oil and gas companies to reach production in the Beetaloo should be prioritised for public funding. That proposal has now been added to Infrastructure Australia's national priority list.
Backers of the industry have said the Beetaloo Basin would be vital for shoring up Australia's energy security.
Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) director Cassandra Schmidt said an expanded industry could also boost local manufacturing or feed a new hydrogen industry.
It has been estimated there is enough shale gas to power Australia for 200–300 years and demand has increased since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
But environment groups and Aboriginal custodians said they were incensed by the decision, which has come only months after a series of grants were successfully challenged in court.
Hannah Ekin from the Arid Lands Environment Centre said it was the kind of thing that private business should be funding itself.
"It's a bit like the equivalent of if I was wanting to start a food truck in Alice Springs and the government was saying that someone should be funding my cooker or the air vents that I need to be up to standard," she said.
Taxpayer-funded subsidies amounting to $50 million have already been released to gas companies in the Beetaloo and $217 million was spent on improving roads for their trucks.
Infrastructure grants could help wastewater challenges
An early stage proposal for Beetaloo Basin infrastructure has already been added to Infrastructure Australia's national list of priority investments. The NT government has been working towards stage two by laying out a case for potential investment options.
Potential projects included pipelines, waste and wastewater treatment facilities — which the industry has cited as one of its biggest challenges — as well as upgrades to roads and an aerodrome.
Gudanji-Wambaya man Johnny Wilson, who lives within 20 kilometres of fracking wells in the Beetaloo and chairs the Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, said federal funding could be put to better use in the Territory.
Mr Wilson said investing in housing would alleviate chronic overcrowding and heat stress in remote communities and infrastructure to speed up the transition to renewables would help ease cost of living pressures.
"Instead they are living in crowded houses as it gets hotter and hotter."
"We don't have good housing, we don't have safe drinking water plans.
"I have to fill three jerry cans [of diesel] every three days at $120 so I can have power."
It has been estimated a fracking industry could create up to 6,000 jobs over the next two decades but Mr Wilson had a different take.
"Government talks about jobs that these gas companies will create but there is nothing," he said. "There are no jobs out here in the communities or out in the bush where I am."
"I see these people every day drive past and there is not one Aboriginal traditional owner or Territorian on these jobs … they are all from interstate."
Infrastructure Australia 'very influential'
The infrastructure for the Beetaloo Basin the state government has prioritised in its infrastructure plan is still at the proposal stage.
But Mark Ogge from the Australia Institute said it was now far more likely the projects would be funded.
"Infrastructure Australia is very influential on what gets funded by Australian governments," he said.
"And the current government haven't ruled out the subsidies that were proposed by the previous government in the lead-up to the election."
He said in addition to the threat of rising emissions from fracking in the Beetaloo that could jeopardise Australia's commitment to net zero emissions by 2050, subsidising the gas industry would deliver minimal economic return.
"There is no justification for Australian taxpayers subsidising the gas industry," he said.
"We get very little in return, They pay very little tax, very little royalties, and they have a big negative impact on other existing industries."
Minister for Territory Development Eva Lawler said the projects included in the NT Infrastructure Strategy 2022–30 underpinned the government’s vision for growing the economy and supporting "the wellbeing and quality of life for all Territorians".
She said planning ahead was crucial for the government to realise its "sustainable and diverse $40 billion economy by 2030" target.
"For example, the Northern Territory government is jointly funding the current upgrades to the Carpentaria Highway with the Australian government.
"Upgrading the Carpentaria Highway benefits many Territorians and Territory businesses, not just the Beetaloo.
"However, without the Beetaloo, it would have been difficult to get the funding required to upgrade this highway."