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Mining in the NT: part of the Australian psyche?

The Annual Geoscience Exploration Survey occurred in Alice Springs on the 20 and 21st of March. The event is an annual meeting of geoscientists, miners, industry bureaucrats and executives discussing the latest in mineral and petroleum exploration for the Northern Territory. I was able to attend on behalf of ALEC as the policy officer to gain an insider’s view into the world of geoscience and energy. It was enlightening, disappointing and concerning.

The vibe of the event was optimism for the years ahead, albeit a slightly forced optimism. The Department of Primary Industry and Resources is very keen to return the Territory to its boom times of exploration investment. While there is an increase in revenue going into exploration, it is far too early to say any boom is on the horizon. Its surprising that they still talk of boom and bust. Boom and bust is so obviously unsustainable.

Over two days I heard the results from many exploration companies on their latest seismic, gravity and drilling programs. This provided an overview of the most prospective areas in the NT for Mineral and Petroleum production. The Amadeus basin, south of Alice Springs, was a key focus with several presenters, including SANTOS outlining their aspirations for the area in terms of conventional gas exploration. Gas was also key to basin surveys in the South Nicholson basin, South of the Beetaloo. This area is much larger than expected and may hold significant reserves of gas.

Exploration for petroleum seems utterly absurd at a time when we know we must keep the vast majority of known fossil fuels reserves in the ground. Why are we spending millions of dollars, including tax payer dollars to discover more reserves? These must become stranded assets in our efforts to keep global warming below 2oC.

Industry is yet to prove that we can trust them to clean up their environmental mess and provide an equitable economic benefit to all who are affected by their operations. There are no guidelines or regulations to ensure that exploration companies rehabilitate the land impacted by seismic lines. These are 100’s of kms of lines of clearing that scars the country all through the NT. The only topic up for discussion was the importance of this work in creating value and reducing risk. Risk was only understood to mean financial, not environmental, cultural or social.

Both the Northern Territory and Federal Governments are investing in geoscience mapping and surveys to de-risk exploration. One of the key scientists with the Commonwealth government spoke of the importance of mining in increasing median wages and its role in the Australian economy. He ended the speech with an enthusiastic call for action: “So go out there and find a tier one deposit, Australia needs you”. This sentiment is so blatantly playing into the image of the industry promoted by the minerals council. They have seriously exaggerated the role of mining in terms of employment and opportunity. They want to ensure mining is considered part of the Australian psyche so that they can continue digging up the country with minimal pesky interruptions by what they see as naive environmentalists.

Just yesterday Matt Canavan, Federal Minister for Resources and Northern Australia delivered an impassioned but inaccurate speech to the National Press Club outlining a new crusade he will fight on behalf of the mining industry in Australia. It is scandalous, but not surprising, that Government is doing industry’s bidding. Canavan is fighting for the coal and mineral lobby by arguing concerned environmental groups are anti-Australian and anti-scientific.

I heard this same criticism from executives at the AGES conference when we discussed the mineral councils campaign against environmental NGOs. Powerful mining interests are constructing a narrative that undermines our work to hold companies accountable to their environmental responsibilities and ensure our resources are used sustainably and equitably. Our work is impacting profits, which shows environmental groups are effective.

A responsible conversation about environmental issues was completely missing from the two days at AGES. Climate change was unsurprisingly never mentioned. Sometimes industry is eager to show they care about more than just money, but when they think no one is looking they couldn’t care less. Environmental law and Indigenous rights are simply thought of as unnecessary green and black tape. The environmental approvals process is merely a process of gaining approval.

It is important that we counter the narrative pushed by the mining industry, supported by government. Mining is not the backbone of this country and it certainly has a long way to go in terms of proving its commitment to legitimate environmental commitments. All petroleum reserves must stay on the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic warming. A sustainable economic future for the centre cannot be guaranteed with mining. We must look towards conservation and land management, carbon sequestration, ranger groups and sustainable agriculture and tourism.

Alex Read, ALEC Policy Officer