THE Northern Territory's independent inquiry into fracking has come under heavy fire from indigenous Territorians and other stakeholders following the release of its latest social impact assessment report.
The delayed report was released late last week and also drew criticism from the gas industry.
The draft report's summary outlined 11 key recommendations, which revolved around the need for the "unconventional gas industry” to secure a "social licence to operate”.
The report stated that would be possible with the development and "implementation of a measurement and modelling framework for a social licence to operate”.
The development of that framework should be based on the following principles:
The engagement of a trusted third party - ensuring independence from vested interests.
Protection of community rights and safety - ethical and privacy standards are applied under the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, placing the safety of participants first.
Longitudinal design - placing the experiences of community at the centre of the process, and to identify issues before they become conflicts.
Accessibility of data - transparency of process and data provision back to community and other stakeholders are central to building trust that this is a vehicle for community voice.
Inclusiveness of process - it is important that vulnerable, marginalised and special status groups are included in 'social licence to operate' research using appropriate methods.
The report continued, making 11 main recommendations which included the development of the proposed framework and its implementation "with appropriate lead time allowed for compiling a comprehensive social baseline”.
It also recommended that the gas industry adopt a structured approach to engagement with the Aboriginal community "that incorporates preparatory meetings, dialogue on social values, industry awareness and education meetings, project-specific meetings covering proposed development and implementation issues; and that "the meetings are timed and structured to accommodate the needs of each community noting the different issues confronting communities including the potential need for interpreters”.
However, while those recommendations speak to inclusive participation with indigenous groups if the moratorium on fracking is lifted, many people from communities consulted during the inquiry's social impact assessment have accused consultants of betraying community views on fracking, and "burying opposition” to it in the report.
Indigenous leaders say the report fails to mention the overwhelming support for a ban on high-risk fracking in targeted communities, and "instead offers a blueprint for the gas industry to forge ahead despite strong opposition”.
Vanessa Farelly, an Arrernte custodian from Alice Springs covered the consultations on behalf of CAAMA Aboriginal media association.
"We recorded and reported directly from a majority of the community consultations,” Ms Farelly said.
"The strong views consistently expressed by residents showed a high level of opposition to fracking, plus a distrust of industry and the promises from government to safely regulate.”
"This report buries those views and is simply a recipe for industry to sideline community concerns.”
Gadrian Hoosan, a Borroloola region traditional owner, said people from his region made their views to the consultants very clear, as they have "at all earlier inquiry consultations”.
"We want fracking banned. It's too dangerous for our communities, land and waterways. We won't accept it,” Mr Hoosan said.
"Years of dealing with the impacts of invasive mining in our region have taught us the industry can't be trusted.
"Yet this report fails to mention our strong support for a ban on fracking. Despite this, we are not giving up, we are going to keep fighting to protect country.”
Raymond Dixon organised his community to attend the Elliott consultation, where residents made a strong case for a fracking ban.
"We are very disappointed that this report goes against everything our people are calling for,” Mr Dixon said.
"We do not want fracking gas fields in the Beetaloo, on our homeland.
"This report shows the consultation process has been hijacked to favour the gas industry, at the expense of our people. It's not right,” he said.
Kerrie Mott, a rural supplier from Katherine, said residents in the region expressed anger and a deep mistrust of the inquiry process during the consultations, but their views were largely absent from the report.
"We felt the process was loaded and consultants provided no opportunity to reflect fracking opposition,” Ms Mott said.
"Residents asked for these views to be recorded in the final report, but it looks like another government whitewash on behalf of this contested industry.”
Ross Williams, a senior Warumungu traditional owner from Tennant Creek, said he advised the consultants at the Tennant Creek hearings that his community wanted fracking banned.
"There was no one in the room who supported fracking. Why doesn't the report reflect that? Instead all we get is hundreds of pages of spin,” Mr Williams said.
The Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association's director for South Australia and the Northern Territory Matthew Doman was also critical of the report, stating in an interview that it and other reports released by the inquiry to date often "went too far”.
"We respect the need to get this right ... and ensure that any negative impacts are reduced or eliminated,” Mr Doman said.
"But in the 120 recommendations from the draft final report there are many sensible suggestions, but there are many that really would not apply to other industries.
"The use of water resources for example, the proposed restriction on building anything that would be visible from the road, that is something that certainly does not apply to other industries.”
Mr Doman said the balance needed to be right to encourage the industry to invest on a "commercial basis”.
"That is not an argument that the industry should not be regulated ... we need a robust regulatory regime that the community can have confidence in, but we need to get the balance right.”
Criticism of the inquiry hasn't stopped there.
On the same day as the inquiry released the social impact report, Canberra based think-tank, The Australia Institute, criticised Fracking Inquiry chair Justice Rachel Pepper. In a submission on the draft final report, Australia Institute research director Rod Campbell said that Justice Pepper had made an 'egregious misrepresentation' of the economics of fracking in the NT.
"The draft report ignores its own commissioned research, which says there is 'very high probability' that lifting the fracking moratorium would see the industry 'fail to commercialise',” Mr Campbell said. "The inquiry's commissioned research says there is 'low to very low probability' of a major industry developing, but this is completely ignored in the draft report.
"The 'very high probability' scenario would see zero long-term jobs created in the Territory, while the 'very low probability' development would see around 500 jobs created, according to the inquiry's commissioned research.
"Despite these findings, Justice Pepper claimed in a radio interview that fracking 'had the capacity to create 32,000 jobs'.
"Getting a figure wrong in an interview is understandable, but to be out by a factor of 60 on the best-case scenario suggests the report commissioned by the inquiry had not been read, or the magnitude of possible gas industry employment was completely misunderstood.
"The 32,000 figure didn't come from nowhere. It's right in the back of the consultant's report and is an estimate of the extra 'person years' of population a major fracking industry could bring. It has nothing to do with jobs.
"The draft report also exaggerates job impacts, misrepresenting 'job years' as full-time jobs.
"It seems the inquiry and its staff have misunderstood their own economics report or are just blindly repeating the misinformation campaign on jobs by the gas industry.
"Either way, more care needs to be taken around economic results in writing and communicating the inquiry's final report,” Mr Campbell said.
The final report on fracking in the NT is due in March.