Health and medical leaders sounded a loud alarm in Canberra this week about the health impacts of gas and fracking developments in the Northern Territory, describing the Federal Government’s support for the gas lobby as “shameful” and “irresponsible”.
“We are trying to prevent a climate catastrophe,” said a NT paediatrician, Dr Louise Woodward.
Jennifer Doggett attended the protest and reports on concerns raised by a range of health professionals and community members.
Jennifer Doggett writes:
Health and climate groups have reacted angrily to a decision by Labor and the Coalition to block a Senate inquiry into the proposed Middle Arm gas hub in the Northern Territory.
In a media release announcing the vote against her motion in the Senate on 8 August, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Spokesperson for the Environment, said it was extremely disappointing that the Labor Government had lined up with Opposition leader Peter Dutton to block an inquiry into the Middle Arm gas hub.
“Last election Australians voted for climate and integrity, but last night Labor broke its promise for a public inquiry into the Middle Arm gas expansion project and voted with the Coalition for more gas and fossil fuel subsidies,” she said.
The motion for an inquiry was introduced after a day of action against the Middle Arm development on Tuesday, including an early morning protest outside Parliament House attended by a broad range of health, medical and environmental groups.
Climate and health experts have repeatedly raised concerns about the impact of the proposed Middle Arm development, following a raft of evidence demonstrating the links between this project and further gas production and fracking activities in the Northern Territory.
The Environment Department is reported to have briefed Minister Tanya Plibersek last month that the project would facilitate an expansion of gas production in the NT’s Beetaloo basin.
Despite global warnings that there should be no more fossil fuels projects or subsidies, the NT and Federal Governments are supporting the project, with the Commonwealth committing $1.5 billion in funding.
Independents support health lobby
In contrast, the Greens and independents are supporting the campaign to halt the development with a number of parliamentarians, including Senator David Pocock, Dr Monique Ryan, Dr Sophie Scamps, Zoe Daniels and Zali Steggall, attending the protest.
Pocock told Croakey that the rally drew attention to the health impacts of Middle Arm, both the direct impacts for people living around the Beetaloo Basin and in Darwin, and for people across the country the longer term impacts of climate change.
“We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can go for short-term economic gain at the expense of young people’s health and the health of people in Darwin, the medical system has to pick that up and we all have to pay for that eventually,” he said.
“We should be standing alongside Territorians, also recognising that Middle Arm opens up Beetaloo, Barossa and other offshore gas projects and the scale of them is huge. Beetaloo is over 3,000 years of household gas use in Australia, so it makes any other decarbonation efforts that we make pointless. It is really important that we stop it.”
Dr Monique Ryan, Independent MP for Kooyong, spoke to Croakey about the importance of putting pressure on government to stop putting billions of dollars into fossil fuel subsidies.
“There are so many people here passionate about what we are trying to do – doctors, parents, vets, other healthcare professionals have all come here because they feel so passionately about the need to stop the fracking in the Beetaloo Basin and the development of the Middle Arm Precinct,” she said.
“They going to hear personally from people directed affected by it today, and I think it will affect their decision making. It is unconscionable that the Government would prop up fossil fuel industries the profits of which will go overseas, when Territorians are struggling to the extent that they are.”
After the rally, a delegation of doctors – thought to be the largest ever to visit Parliament House – spent the day meeting with political representatives to raise their concerns about the health, climate and environmental impacts of the proposed development.
Northern Territory paediatrician, Dr Louise Woodward, led the delegation and spoke to protesters about the health and climate impacts of proposed gas developments.
“..there is certainly no safe way to frack the Beetaloo Basin, or process gas at Middle Arm so close to the population of Darwin,” she said.
“I work as a child health specialist in the NT, and I’m part of a delegation of parents and health professionals who are raising the alarm about the devastating impacts of gas developments. We are supported by medical colleges representing over 100,000 doctors from all over the country, including the AMA.
“As doctors, we will do anything to spare our patients and their families from disease and the suffering it causes. We do this with health education, vaccines and medicines, and care. Prevention, however, is better than cure. We are trying to stop Middle Arm and Beetaloo to prevent exposure of people to toxic chemicals released by these harmful gas projects. We are trying to prevent a climate catastrophe.”
The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM), the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) all sent representatives to the event.
Dr Lai Heng Foong, emergency medicine doctor and ACEM representative, highlighted to Croakey the importance of doctors speaking up on climate concerns.
“As doctors, we realise that we are in the middle of a climate emergency and we need to act now,” she said.
“As leaders of our country, politicians have a duty of care to protect our children and grandchildren. The evidence is clear – to have a habitable future we need to stop new fossil fuels projects.”
Representing the AMA (ACT) was President Elect and GP Dr Kerrie Aust, who described the impact of climate-related events on health and health services.
“It’s important to recognise that the health system is absolutely stretched thin at the moment and there is very little capacity for it to deal with those events. During heatwaves there are increases in hospital emergency department presentations, ambulance call outs and hospital admissions,” she said.
“We also see increases in exacerbations of COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and heart failure, people with diabetes and kidney disease find it more difficult to manage their conditions.
“We see more people presenting to clinic with skin damage and pressure sores. We don’t talk enough about all these health impacts of extreme heat. Increase in the frequency of heat wave events will put what is already a fragile health system under even more pressure.
“The fact that doctors and nurses, who are already so exhausted, took time out of their operating theatres, hospitals and clinics to spend time in parliament advocating for the environment, says something about how important this issue is to us. It’s not about benefitting doctors, it’s about our patients and about the future of our health system,” Aust said.
Also attending the protest were representatives from Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA). Dr Kate Wylie, GP and DEA Executive Director, told Croakey that Middle Arm and the associated gas developments pose an unacceptable risk to the health of all Australians.
She said doctors, parents and academics from the NT and across Australia met with more than 40 of our federal representatives explaining the significant health harms that Middle Arm, Beetaloo and other gas projects will cause.
“We explained the effects of local pollution and its severe health impacts like increased leukaemia in children, pregnancy complications, heart disease, asthma and other respiratory disorders,” she said.
“We discussed how the addition of further greenhouse gases adds fuel to global heating and the climate crisis, with its heat waves, fires, droughts and floods, and how all these things are bad for the health of the people of Australia.
“Yet it seems they didn’t hear us. Despite the Beetaloo Basin inquiry recommending further scrutiny of Middle Arm, on the very day that we were in Parliament House, when a Greens motion was put to the Senate, both the ALP and Liberals voted against it.
“Don’t they understand the harm they are causing? Don’t they want a liveable planet? It’s hard not be upset. It’s hard not to be angry that our elected representatives are failing in their duty of care to the people of our country, failing to act in our best interests.”
Wylie said doctors would not stop fighting for the health of patients and communities.
“We will keep trying, because we know we need a healthy planet to have healthy people and we will exercise our duty of care to protect their health,” she said.
A real threat
Among the NT delegation was Dr Mark de Souza, Emergency Specialist at Royal Darwin and Palmerston Hospital. He told Croakey that the delegation came to Canberra to speak out against the risks to human and planetary health from Middle Arm and the Beetaloo fracking plans, and also to highlight that the Barossa LNG project is filtering into Middle Arm.
“There is no doubt that this cluster of projects is a real threat to human health,” he said.
“We’ve just presented multiple members of parliament and senators with comprehensive evidence from around the world of the threat to planetary and human health that are posed by fracking and petrochemical industries.
“This is happening at a time when we are entering a phase of global boiling – the events that are happening in the northern hemisphere with the culmination of global warming and El Niño are showing us that just around the corner Australia is going to have its turn at another horrific summer.”
Professor Nicholas J Talley AC was not at the protest in person but expressed his support on social media, and told Croakey that political leaders should pay attention when doctors publicly raise the alarm about a serious health issue, as this is not something they do lightly.
“The planned fracking in the Beetaloo basin and the proposed over $1.5 billion dollar taxpayer investment in the Middle Arm gas processing project on Darwin harbour is frankly irresponsible in a time of dire global warming that will, we know for sure, greatly worsen and impair health and cost lives,” he said.
“Both the major parties remain locked into short term, outdated thinking here as demonstrated by the recent vote in the Senate. The sustainability argument is unlikely to hold up to rigorous scrutiny so presumably an external inquiry would be embarrassing.
“No one would dream of appeasing cigarette companies in 2023. Why is appeasing the coal and gas company lobby still acceptable in 2023 when we must all bring down emissions urgently or pay a terrible price? It’s shameful. We need to do much better and make our politicians accountable,” Professor Talley said.
The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) was represented at the protest, and PHAA policy adviser Lily Pratt spoke to Croakey about the importance of the event for all Australians.
“At the end of the day the climate crisis is a health crisis. It’s no longer a matter of ten or twenty years from now; we’re seeing the impacts today – 60,000 people died of heat stress in Europe last year,” she said.
“The expansion of the fossil fuel industry exacerbates this issue and for Australia to be part of this is just embarrassing. It’s not just Middle Arm, it’s not just the Northern Territory, this is a vital issue for all of Australia.”
Protesters heard from a range of speakers, including Antonia Burke, a Yanyuwa/Garrwa (Borroloola) woman who grew up on the Tiwi Islands and Darwin in the Northern Territory.
Burke described how mining companies exploit the fact that governments are not meeting the needs of Indigenous communities by offering them basic services, such as dialysis machines, in return for access to their lands and waters.
“We are living in a state of grief and loss and we are not even allowed to mourn, because when we ask Santos not to come while we are practising our spiritual practices, they still came. We had to take them to the Federal Court and the offshore regulator, just to be considered relevant people to be consulted about their plans…
“Santos’s project is in Commonwealth waters, there are no royalties, there is no money for our communities. So why isn’t the Government supplying us with the things we need in our communities, why do we have to wait for mining companies to come along and use that [money and services] try to sway people to say yes to their projects.”
Scaring young people
Anjali Sharma, environmentalist and climate activist, spoke powerfully about the impact on young people of the ongoing lack of action by political leaders on climate change.
“The past July was the hottest in 120, 000 years. The world’s oceans hit a record high temperature last week. I am 19. These are all longstanding records that are being shattered before I’ve even left my teens,” she said.
“I don’t want to think about how many more will be shattered as we move into this predicted El Niño summer and how many more will be broken this year, this decade and throughout my lifetime. Despite these horrific facts that are scaring us young people, our Government is continuing to funnel public money towards the expansion of fossil fuel extraction.
“Our Government sees no problem in enabling the export of gas from the Beetaloo Basin, greenwashing it as a sustainable development project, all the while this is opening the floodgates to the climate crisis.”
Representing Parents for Climate Action was parent and former teacher Suki Dorras-Walker, who warned that if Middle Arm goes ahead, it will enable fracking, onshore and offshore gas projects and commit us to a path of climate collapse.
“For Darwin, this will mean that by 2070 we will have 275 days over 35 degrees. Decades ago we only had a week over 35 degrees. Combined with humidity, 275 days over 35 degrees will make our city and every community around it unliveable.
“This is the future the NT Government is promoting for our communities. This is what these supposed proud Territorians want for Territorian children. It’s shameful to see such parochial arguments like ‘you are not from here’ being weaponised in a debate that should see all of us coming together to face the biggest challenge we have ever faced.”
Animals – forgotten victims
Animals are an often forgotten casualty of climate change and extreme weather but Dr Angela Frimberger, Deputy Board Chair, Vets for Climate Action, spoke to Croakey about how changing climate conditions have profound impacts on the world’s animals.
“Vets for Climate Action represents over 2,000 vets and other animal care professionals across Australia because vets know that animals suffer and die due to the problems caused by climate change,” she said.
“Climate change is an animal welfare problem and we want people to know that if you love an animal, you should be concerned about climate change,” she said.
“Whether it’s pets affected by heat stress, production animals and livestock who have suffered desperately from heat stress and natural disasters, wildlife suffering from habitat loss and heat, food and water stress, marine animals threatened by rising water temperatures, there’s not a habitat anywhere in the world that isn’t in some way vulnerable to the effects of climate change.”
As the world experiences its hottest month on record, with record ocean temperatures, wildfires in Europe, devastating floods in South East Asia and unprecedented low levels of ice in Antarctica, it seems as though Australia’s major parties have little will to act with the urgency required to minimise the impacts of climate change.
It has been left to the Greens and Independents to raise this issue in parliament, through using their limited powers to add pressure and scrutiny to government actions. Today in the Senate, ACT Independent David Pocock, tabled two documents:
- An open letter from Australian Parents for Climate Action to Federal parliamentarians concerning the expansion of new gas projects in the Northern Territory; and
- A letter from 2,281 health professionals to the Prime Minister concerning the health impacts of fracking and the expansion of the gas industry.
These letters urge the Government to consider the health and climate impacts of fracking and the expansion of the gas industry, underscoring the messages already sent through the protest and delegation.
More from Twitter
• Croakey thanks and acknowledges Kelly Dargan for contributing to photographs and research for this article.
See Croakey’s extensive archive of articles on the climate and health crisis