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Julia Bergin

Was fracking approval in the NT based on mammoth emission underestimations?

A CSIRO report used by the Northern Territory and federal governments to justify onshore gas exploration in the Beetaloo Basin and Middle Arm precinct “systematically underestimated” emissions by up to 84%, analysis by Climate Analytics has found.

“From well drilling through to transport through to processing, we didn’t find anything that stacked up,” Climate Analytics CEO and climate scientist Bill Hare told Crikey. “At every step it seems to have been systematically underestimated.”

The non-profit organisation’s report “Emissions impossible” — commissioned by the Nurrdalinji Aboriginal Corporation — was published on Tuesday as part of submissions to the Senate’s Middle Arm Inquiry and identified dramatic discrepancies in data used by the NT and federal governments to sign off on gas fracking production in the Beetaloo Basin and its Middle Arm affiliate in Darwin Harbour.

The numbers came from federal government science agency CSIRO’s Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA), which published a report in February that qualified there was “no net increase in the lifecycle GHG emissions” generated by any NT-based onshore shale gas project. These findings put the NT government in line with recommendations from a fracking inquiry, and Beetaloo production was approved to begin in May.

But the Climate Analytics report found total onshore emissions were 84% higher than CSIRO-GISERA projections, upstream emissions intensity was up 44% to 110%, LNG production emissions blew out by 57% to 89%, and the cumulative total emissions over 25 years was 150% of Australia’s 2021 emissions.

The report found that the Beetaloo project alone was projected to produce carbon dioxide emissions on par with 11% of Australia’s total 2021 emissions — some 53.7 million tonnes of CO2 — which landed the project well above 2030 reduction targets.

Hare said it was not uncommon for industry estimates to be substantially out of step with scientific analysis — “You can imagine the motive for that” — but questioned why CSIRO was playing into that: “Essentially, they’ve run the gas industry line, which I don’t believe is CSIRO’s responsibility.”

He said that while in principle a scientific body should be the government’s go-to for reliable numbers on emissions, CSIRO’s outputs indicated it was transforming into a gas “industry consultancy”.

ACT independent Senator David Pocock said disparities were “deeply concerning” and the conflict of interest was “undeniable” when an organisation part-funded by the gas industry was developing data that led to gas project approvals.

“When we’re making decisions that put our climate at risk, we must be able to trust the institutions that provide the basis for those decisions,” Pocock told Crikey, adding that approval decisions should be “reconsidered immediately”.

In a statement to Crikey, CSIRO said it stood by its scientists, backed the quality of its “robust and detailed” research, and supported the integrity of the “intensive peer review process” that endorsed the report. It did not comment on discrepancies in data or differences in methodology between the GISERA and Climate Analytics reports.

Hare said CSIRO’s failure to publish its underlying methodology and emissions metrics with the final report was problematic for verification and required all Climate Analytics analysis to be “reverse engineered”.

“Every time we looked at a particular process, we found the numbers were underestimated. So then, of course, we questioned ourselves, ‘What have we got wrong?’ We drilled further and further and realised we were correct,” he said.

Climate Analytics report author Thomas Houlie told Crikey he’d contacted CSIRO-GISERA report authors back in May to ask them to share the carbon calculations used in the report. Although it’s acknowledged these numbers were derived from a separate life cycle assessment report, the CSIRO-GISERA report offered only an “abridged version”. Readers are directed to read the original study if they want the “full suite of assumptions, inventory inputs and all results”, but that wasn’t published until September — “without announcement”, Houlie said — six months after the CSIRO-GISERA report was released.

The Climate Analytics report will now go before the Senate inquiry into onshore gas projects in Darwin’s Middle Arm precinct. Federal Environment and Energy Minister Chris Bowen, federal Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek and federal Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic all told Crikey that this issue did not sit within their portfolios.

“We need them to come down from Canberra, come off their high horses, and come down and listen to us,” Djingili elder, native title holder and chairman of Nurrdalinji Aboriginal Corporation (the organisation that commissioned the report), Samuel Janama Sandy told Crikey.

“We are concerned that fracking will damage our country, poison our water, and destroy our culture, which they have a responsibility to look after. All we want is this company to stop their digging, pack up and go home.”

Sandy said his organisation had commissioned the report because the NT government and gas companies were not talking or listening to Traditional Owners about the impacts of fracking on Country.

“I’ve been up there with the Aboriginal corporation and I was shocked, pretty horrified and pretty sad also,” Sandy said, adding that even if the project was aborted now, Country might not be able to heal itself.

The NT Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade and Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security told Crikey that all project assessments and approvals were subject to rigorous environmental scrutiny and management, including the use of offsets under the federal government’s safeguard mechanism.

The CSIRO-GISERA report identified that 42% of project offsets would need to be sourced internationally, but this is not possible under current safeguard mechanism regulations.

NT Minister for Territory Development Eva Lawler told Crikey that the CSIRO was Australia’s “premier national science research agency” and its insights had supported the development and implementation of “rigorous sustainable environment approaches” to gas exploration in the Beetaloo and Middle Arm precinct.

It comes as the Central Australian Frack Free Alliance (CAFFA) prepares to take NT Environment Minister Lauren Moss to the Supreme Court next week over her approval of 12 drilling and fracking sites in the Beetaloo Basin that failed to account for the cumulative and future cumulative impacts of the project.

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