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NT Petroleum and Water Legislation leaves NT landholders with significant risk

Northern Territory landholders, pastoralists, Native Title holders and other occupiers are potentially exposed to significant legal risks regarding land access for petroleum activities due to the current legislative framework in the Northern Territory. 

Gas fracking companies, Origin Energy and Santos, have now commenced drilling and fracking a series of wells on cattle stations overlying the Beetaloo Basin. The NT Fracking Inquiry found that these activities have the potential to cause pollution events in both surface and groundwater. 

There is an argument that the current NT petroleum and water legislation gives a potential defence to gas companies for water pollution in certain circumstances.  

Further, owners and occupiers could be liable if they fail to ‘exercise due diligence and take reasonable steps’ to prevent harm in relation to the acts of a petroleum title holder on their land. 

Protect Country Alliance spokesperson, Graeme Sawyer, urged the government to fix these loopholes in the legislation before it was too late.  

“Rigs are now rolling across the NT and the risks are live, but the laws haven't caught up,” he said.  

“Right now the loopholes in the Water Act and the Petroleum Act are leaving cattle stations and other landholders exposed to damage and legal risks, while the fracking companies appear to have legal protections they can use to avoid offences. 

“We will be calling on the NT Government to repeal section 7(2) Water Act and amend s102(1) and s102A to ensure there are no unintended consequences.  

“This fiasco confirms Territorians’ worst fears, that the NT Government is incapable of properly managing fracking activity, and is putting landholders, water security and entire industries like our cattle trade at risk. 

“Gas companies have been given the greenlight to start fracking, yet if there is an accident and pollution event, like inter-aquifer pollution, its landholders who will wear the direct legal and material consequences of the event, and any claims for compensation from neighbours that may arise.” 

“This situation is manifestly unfair. The laws are badly written and have clearly been influenced by the lobbying of gas and other resource companies, to their benefit.” 

It is the view of Ms Marylou Potts, solicitor, who advises landholders, communities and councils in NSW, QLD and the NT in relation to land access, that NT landholders, pastoralists and other occupiers are potentially exposed to significant risks regarding land access from petroleum activities. 

Ms Potts in her recent visit to the NT said, “Currently in the NT landholders carry the risk of the petroleum activities for no benefit, in fact for significant detriment to their business operations, their time and their land.”  

It is Ms Potts’ view that landholders should have statutory immunity from the activities of petroleum companies on their land, as is the case in other jurisdictions.   

Ms Potts argued a landholder should be no worse off as a consequence of a gas company’s activity on the landholder’s land.

Daniel Tapp from Big River Station in the Roper region is among a growing list of pastoralists refusing access to gas companies on their properties. 

“Once fracking companies gain access to our pastoral leases, our rights go out the window and we’re at the mercy of invasive industrial activity, and potential land and water contamination,” Mr Tapp said.

“If contamination issues arise in our water & produce production, these industries will be gone for good.

“What is worse, under current laws it could be the landholder held responsible for any pollution or damage caused by these gas companies on our properties, despite the fact we have been given no choice about them being there. It’s a disgrace.

“My family have run pastoral businesses in the Territory going back generations, and we hope the industry has a strong future going forward. But right now food producers face no bigger threat than onshore gas fracking and the irreversible effects on our land, water and food security. To the Gunner Government I say, if you want a strong and profitable pastoral sector in the Territory, repeal these unjust laws and ban fracking before it’s too late.”

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