Big job in a big land … the NT Environment Centre's Stuart Blanch says the territory has some of the country's weakest laws and only a handful of staff to ensure compliance. Photo: Glenn Campbell
HAVING fracked parts of NSW and Queensland, energy miners are now looking to drill deep into Australia's red heart as a gas rush engulfs the Top End.
A map of mining interests compiled by landowners, obtained by the Herald, shows a sea of exploration permits and applications spread across tens of thousands of square kilometres, including around some of the Northern Territory's most distinctive national parks.
The prospectors are hunting gas trapped thousands of metres deep in shale using techniques similar to those involved in controversial coal seam gas mining.
Large US energy companies are among the applicants who want to extract the gas using new horizontal drilling technology and hydraulic stimulations, or fracking - pumping sand, water and chemicals underground to force out the gas.
The rush has concerned environmentalists who say the techniques are linked overseas to earthquakes and the drilling could contaminate the shallow aquifers providing the territory's key water supplies. They also say NT laws do not properly control the use of the vast quantities of water required in the process as miners are exempt from water restriction laws applying to other consumers.
''It's like an unregulated 1850s-style gold rush. It needs to be paused,'' Australian Conservation Foundation spokesman Dave Sweeney said.
The Environment Centre NT director, Stuart Blanch, said the territory had some of the weakest laws in the country, only a handful of staff to ensure compliance and what seemed to be applications around many national parks and all over Arnhem Land.
The government however says while the miners are not bound by the same water use rules applied to farmers, they will still be regulated by the Mineral Titles Act and Mining Management Act.
One application has been lodged by Palatine Energy to explore near the Red Centre's Watarrka National Park, which includes the Kings Canyon region - renowned for its gorges. Chairman Andrew Bursill said last week the NT application was in the earliest stages.
Last year at Hayfield Shenandoah cattle station, a pastoral lease about 500 kilometres south of Darwin, US company Falcon Oil and Gas undertook three fractures during exploration. The vertical well ''stimulations'', or fracks, used 3,406,870 litres of water, equivalent to nearly 1½ olympic swimming pools, and involved pumping hydrochloric acid down the drill hole on the property, the company said.
A company spokeswoman said the ''slickwater and antibacterial agents'' produced had been returned to the well bore - considered ''the most environmentally effective method of disposal''. She said any prediction on hydraulic fracturing was premature. Falcon is not undertaking any fracking in Queensland or NSW.
The NT government said last week all mining applications are thoroughly assessed against the relevant laws including the Parks and Wildlife legislation before being granted. A spokesman said affected stakeholders would have the opportunity to object and or comment.
Energy mining industry representatives the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association Ltd said members had contributed to a code of practice in the Northern Territory relating to fracturing to protect water promote transparency and ensure open engagement with local communities
An APPEA spokesman said there were no examples of fracturing causing an adverse impact on the environment and that drilling for shale gas involved a large physical separation between potable groundwater and target oil and gas formations.