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Urgent plea for Plibersek to step in as NT fracking company’s environmental breaches exposed

Northern Territory community groups are calling for Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to urgently apply the water trigger to fracking projects underway in the Beetaloo Basin, following disturbing revelations that Empire Energy has committed numerous environmental and compliance breaches.

The compliance breaches include:

  • Failing to report a significant finding of Aboriginal artefacts;
  • Failing to safely store dangerous fracking wastewater and associated fluids, including a leak between the liners of an open wastewater treatment tank;
  • Using more groundwater than licensed;
  • Clearing habitat without authorisation for a well pad in a creek-side exclusion zone, and two gravel pits.

Using publicly available information, research conducted by Lock the Gate Alliance and Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation identified 16 breaches or reportable incidents at Empire Energy’s exploratory fracking in the Beetaloo Basin, including on the site of the “Carpentaria Pilot Project.”  A full list of incidents, fully referenced, is available here.

Some of the incidents appear to stem from Empire Energy’s failure to prepare for the recent wet season.

The revelations come a week after the NT’s Environment Protection Authority decided Empire Energy did not need to submit an Environmental Impact Statement for its latest Carpentaria exploratory fracking project, which would involve the drilling and fracking of an additional 10 wells, the installation of a new gas plant, and new pipelines. The Minister is currently assessing Empire Energy’s latest expansion plans, and a final decision could be made any day now.

The new project includes further drilling at the site where the cultural artefacts were found and not reported and where the unauthorised clearing took place. 

Territory community groups are also calling on the NT Government to clarify what, if any, penalties have been given to Empire Energy, and to take strong disciplinary action in relation to fracking breaches.

Katherine vet and Protect Big Rivers founder Dr Sam Phelan said, “The Territory’s EPA is clearly not up to the task of properly regulating the fracking industry. We desperately need Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to call these polluting projects in for full environmental assessment under expanded water laws.

“All these extremely concerning incidents are from relatively small exploratory fracking projects. The NT Fracking Inquiry predicted a likely production scenario of 6,000 wells. These revelations show a development of that scale would leave us with long term contamination of our country and water.”

Frack Free NT spokesperson Phil Scott criticised the NT Government over a lack of transparency.

“These breaches were all self-reported by Empire Energy. Who knows what detail may have been left out. Territorians have no way of knowing whether the government has penalised Empire in response to any of these incidents, or let this company completely off the hook.

“Many of these breaches are serious, and Empire Energy ought to be prosecuted.

“These breaches and the EPA’s unwillingness to require an environmental impact statement for Empire’s new frack project show that the NT Lawler Government is selling Territorians and our environment down a polluted river in order to appease multinational fracking companies.

“It is absolutely outrageous that the EPA has not, at a bare minimum, required an environmental impact statement for Empire Energy's new frack plan - these compliance breaches clearly show this company’s activities are having an undeniably negative impact on the environment.”

Central Australian Frack Free Alliance spokesperson Hannah Ekin said, “Water is so important to the Territory and its communities. This disturbing list of compliance breaches reveals fracking at the exploration stage is already putting this precious resource at risk.

“It’s really worrying that the NT’s EPA has decided not to request an environmental impact statement for Empire’s new fracking project, despite this litany of compliance breaches.

“But it's also unsurprising. We know the Territory Government is captured by the fracking industry, and that’s why it’s so important that Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek step in to protect the Territory’s communities, precious water, and unique environment.”


Some of Empire’s most serious reported breaches and incidents include:

  • Failed to notify the Heritage Branch of the NT government, which is responsible for managing archaeological finds, of stone artefacts found near Carpentaria 4 wellpad, until almost 18 months after they were found. These artefacts include grindstone, grind base, axe and spearhead. The artefacts were moved to another site, according to Empire’s archeological survey prepared as part of its EMP, before the Heritage Department was notified.

  • Leak between the liners of an open wastewater treatment tank at Carpentaria 1 wellpad.

  • Built two gravel pits at a place they were not given permission to build (Carpentaria 1 and Carpentaria 4). Land would have been cleared for these pits, without approval.

  • Wrongly built a well pad (Carpentaria 4) within 100 metres of Relief Creek when it should have been at least 200 metres from Relief Creek, putting the waterway at higher risk of poisoning from drilling and fracking chemicals during big rains. This waterway leads to the sacred site known as ‘Mermaid Pool’.

  • Failed to properly prepare for big flooding and possible overflow of hazardous material, for example during Cyclone Meagan, at the end of the 2024 wet season, not complying with requirements to keep levels as low as required in waste storage units to stop overflow.

  • A mud sump, used to store dangerous fracking wastewater, had a tear and holes in its liner (Carpentaria 1).

  • Took more groundwater than allowed to by its water licence (Carpentaria 1).

  • Did not ensure a qualified ecologist conducted Gouldian finch ground-truthing as required before site work began.

  • Failed to properly store and use chemicals and hazardous materials, for example spilling drilling mud and cuttings on the ground, pooling liquid near chemical storage area and no bunding to catch hazardous spills or leaks (Carpentaria 1).

  • Failed to manage possible sediment runoff from its works, for example a pile of topsoil was too high and not properly covered or fenced to stop the risk of pollution of land and waterways (Carpentaria 1).

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