NIT: Traditional Owners critical of $28.8million federal funding for Beetaloo Basin research

February 21, 2024 1:33 PM

Traditional Owners from the Beetaloo Basin have criticised the federal government after it confirmed a probe into whether millions of dollars of public funds were given to oil and gas companies through a research and development scheme that explicitly excludes fossil fuel exploration.

Oil and gas company Empire Energy was singled out in a Senate estimates hearing last Thursday over its alleged use of $28.8 million in R&D funding from the Department of Industry, Science and Resources' Research and Development Tax Incentive Scheme.

The company is exploring for gas at the Beetaloo Basin site, 500km south-east of Darwin, but the estimates hearing in Canberra saw department heads questioned over the funding given to Empire via the scheme.

"Empire's financial reports state that it accessed the scheme in relation to drilling and fracking gas exploration and appraisal wells in the Beetaloo [Basin], even though gas exploration is excluded from the R and D [Research and Development] tax incentive scheme," Queensland Greens Senator Penny Allman-Payne said.

The department has since confirmed it would investigate claims oil and gas companies were using the taxpayer-funded money for fracking through the scheme, which states funds cannot be used for "prospecting, exploring or drilling for minerals".

The R&D Tax Incentive was introduced to encourage R&D investment to support companies innovate and grow.

The Beetaloo Basin site encompasses Indigenous land, pastoral leases that co-exist with Native Title rights and interests, horticultural enterprises, cattle stations and remote Aboriginal communities.

The NT government has long held aspirations to be Australia's major gas hub, with most of the NT covered by exploration permits and Beetaloo key to its ambition.

Empire Energy was first granted $21 million in July 2021, as part of the Morrison government's 'gas-fired recovery' to explore for gas, and has recently commenced consultation on its Carpentaria pilot project, which involves 10 new fracking wells.

Djingili Elder Samuel Janama Sandy, the chair of Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation that represents native title holders from the Beetaloo Basin, said Empire was putting "public money in their pocket" that was better spent on the community.

"$28.8 million could fund housing, roads, health and put solar on roofs, using the sun which is free," said Mr Sandy, who lives in a housing commission flat in Katherine, 400km from his home town of Elliott, in order to access the dialysis he needs three days a week.

"The money would build a new dialysis clinic in Elliott, helping me and other Aboriginal people who are forced to live away from family to get dialysis," he said.

"Empire is talking to the government and getting money under the table. It should be happening on the table. We need to switch the light on so we can all see what's happening.

"Communities don't see jobs or economic benefits from this gas company's drilling. It's all about company profits."

The NNTAC includes native title holders from the Amungee Mungee, Beetaloo, Hayfield, Kalala, Newcastle Waters - Murranji, Nutwood Downs, Shenandoah, Tandyidgee, Tanumbirini, Daly Waters Township, Ucharonidge native title determinations.

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