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FOR – Matters of Urgency — Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct

Sue Lines

I inform the Senate that I have received the following letter from Senator David Pocock:

Pursuant to Standing Order 75, I propose that the following matter of urgency be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

"The climate and health risks from the Middle Arm development which will recei ve $1.5bn in Commonwealth funding. Noting the project's proponents have confirmed it will be used as a major processing and manufacturing centre for gas fracked out of the Beetaloo Basin rather than the 'Sustainable Development Precinct' the Commonwealth a nd NT governments have falsely claimed. Also noting that the expansion of the fossil fuel industry is contrary to advice and warnings from the International Energy Agency, IPCC and UN."

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required b y the standing orders having risen in their places—

With the concurrence of the Senate, the clerks will set the clock in line with the information arrangements made by the whips.

David Pocock

I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

"The climate and health risks from the Middle Arm development which will receive $1.5bn in Commonwealth funding. Noting the project's proponents have confirmed it will be used as a major processing and manufacturing centre for gas fracked out of the Beetaloo Basin rather than the 'Sustainable Development Precinct' the Commonwealth and NT governments have falsely claimed. Also noting that the expansion of the fossil fuel industry is contrary to advice and warnings from the International Energy Agency, IPCC and UN."

In 2022 Australians voted for climate action. They voted against the shameless promotion of fossil fuels in a climate crisis. It is here. We are seeing the effects of climate change. The 2019-20 bushfires will be seared into Australians' memories. We look at what's happening in Canada; this is the new normal. We are entering a climate that is unprecedented and not well suited to support humanity. Yet we have a new government that continues to back the fossil fuel subsidies of the Morrison government.

The most problematic of these decisions is the $1.5 billion for what they are now trying to call the Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct. Let's be very clear: Middle Arm is far from sustainable. The driving force behind the whole development is gas extracted from new fields in the Beetaloo—and maybe Barossa, and maybe other offshore projects—and yet the details of why and how this decision was made remain shrouded in secrecy, and some of what has happened is truly bizarre.

I asked the department of infrastructure and Infrastructure Australia if they were aware that the whole site at Middle Arm will likely be underwater by 2100. They had not even considered this risk. So why is this going ahead? How much of this precinct will be driven by gas projects? And what studies have been done to consider the potentially horrific health impacts that will flow from a petrochemical plant so close to Darwin? We just don't know. We don't know how much of this has been looked at.

I've been asking questions about the project in estimates. The Environment and Communications References Committee, chaired by Senator Hanson-Young, has considered the issue as part of an inquiry into oil and gas exploration and production in the Beetaloo basin. In fact, they saw fit to recommend that there be a separate inquiry into the project, and I look forward to the government supporting that inquiry and participating in it.

One thing is clear: that federal funding for Middle Arm so that it can become a gas processing and export hub will be bad for the climate and bad for the health of Darwin residents. The Beetaloo basin, according to the Northern Territory government, has 500 trillion cubic feet of gas. That's the equivalent of 3,177 years of household use in Australia. The scale of these projects that Labor is promoting and using our money to fund is just extraordinary when we know that the International Energy Agency is clear, the IPCC is clear and the UN is urging countries, particularly developed countries like Australia, to stop expanding our fossil fuel industry.

You're going to hear from Labor that we need gas for the transition and this is about jobs and development. You'll hear from the coalition that this is about creating a new industry in the Northern Territory. What good is a new industry in the Northern Territory when Darwin and other parts of the NT will likely be unlivable within the next seven years if we continue down this path? Look at the heat. Look at the humidity. There are a number of peer reviewed papers saying that in large parts of the NT, if we continue down this path of expanding fossil fuels, humans will not be able to live there.

The immediate health impacts on people in Darwin look dire. We have a huge amount of research from the US looking at Cancer Alley, the notorious section of the Mississippi River where petrochemicals have led to the deterioration of so many communities in the area. There are 2,000 papers published on this topic. We know that the processing of gas in the heart of Darwin will cause increased cardiovascular disease, asthma presentations, leukaemias, pregnancy complications, congenital birth defects and stillbirths and generally higher rates of premature deaths. How can we do this as a Senate? How can the government go ahead with a project like this when we know the impacts? We know the impacts on people in Darwin and we know the impacts on the health and wellbeing of all of us and on the future of us and of future generations.

Anthony Chisholm

I thank Senator Pocock for moving this urgency motion, and I rise to speak on it. The Albanese government will provide $1.5 billion in planned equity to support the development of the Middle Arm precinct, together with $440 million for regional logistics hubs along key transport links to connect Katherine, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek to Darwin. I would point out that this is an election commitment that the government made prior to the election last year, so we very much see this as delivering on an election commitment that we made to the Australian people.

I would add that a couple of weeks ago I was in Tennant Creek on some government business and I had the opportunity to talk with locals there about the opportunity that the Middle Arm precinct will provide but also with those regional logistics hubs at the same time. There is really strong interest in the local community, amongst traditional owners, in the Sun Cable project and the tremendous opportunity that renewable projects will provide in the Northern Territory. So I think that there is strong support for this project within the Northern Territory and they do see it as an important part of creating the jobs of the future and long-term sustainable industries that can create reliable jobs that people know they can rely on to build a long-term future for themselves and their families in that area.

To be clear, the government's investment in Middle Arm is an investment in common-user marine infrastructure that supports industries critical to achieving the government's commitment to net zero, including specialist product wharves, modular offloading facilities for manufacturing and dredging of the shipping channel. It will also help position the Northern Territory and northern Australia to take advantage of international demand for Australian clean energy. We are confident that there is enormous opportunity across the Northern Territory when it comes to creating both jobs and economic opportunity.

This is infrastructure that will support industries critical to meeting our commitments to net zero while generating jobs and economic opportunities across the Territory. The proposals include developing a hydrogen facility using solar energy to produce green hydrogen for domestic use and potentially for export; developing a green hydrogen hub, which comprises green hydrogen and green ammonia production—again there are plenty of opportunities for jobs and economic development—and a processing facility for critical minerals, which are to be used in energy storage batteries and precursor battery materials, and the manufacturing of these products. Again this is a key priority of the federal government. The truth is that gas remains an important energy source for Australia and our trading partners during the transition to net zero and decarbonisation. A lower-CO2-emissions liquefied natural gas export facility is also one of the proposals.

The projects linked to Middle Arm will provide significant economic benefits and create an estimated 20,000 jobs in the Territory. It is, however, deeply disingenuous to ignore the facts, as some people have continued to do, and claim that this is an investment in fracking. It isn't. It is also disappointing that those people fail to engage in the detail of the proposition that the Australian government has put to the Northern Territory government.

I understand that there are a range of views and perspectives on this project. While the government remain committed to the projects, we are also committed to working with the Northern Territory government and the community to ensure the necessary assessments take place before the project proceeds. The Australian government is committed to working with traditional owners and First Nations communities as the proposal is developed further.

The Australian government's decision to make an equity investment in this project will allow us to work in partnership with the Northern Territory government to ensure our vision is met. This is particularly important as new markets to process and export green hydrogen and energy transition components are established. Instead of giving handouts to private companies, we are investing in common-use infrastructure to give all potential users in the market the opportunity to grow and thrive. The government know how important it is to deliver on our commitments to the Australian people, by investing in enabling infrastructure that creates economic opportunity and jobs of the future in renewable energy and manufacturing. We think that the Northern Territory deserves those opportunities as well.

We know that we can take action on climate change and work towards our net zero commitments while creating jobs and opportunities. Despite attempts by others to ignore the facts and the reality, this is the record of the Albanese government. It is one we are proud to deliver on, particularly for those people in the Northern Territory who rely on good-quality jobs.

Helen Polley

Thank you. Senator Duniam.

Jonathon Duniam

Acting Deputy President Polley, I do feel for you with your current lost voice, although it probably means that the interjections can't be reined in.

Australian Greens senators interjecting—

Anne Urquhart

That is true. Look out, Senator Duniam!

Long debate text truncated.


Date and time: 4:49 PM on 2023-06-21
Senator Pocock's vote: Aye
Total number of "aye" votes: 12
Total number of "no" votes: 28
Total number of abstentions: 36

Adapted from information made available by