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Health professionals urged to join fight against harmful developments in the Northern Territory

More than 300 health professionals have already signed an open letter urging the Prime Minister and his Government to intervene to prevent gas fracking in the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory and to withdraw financial support for gas processing at the proposed Middle Arm development.

Below Dr Richard Yin and Associate Professor Katherine Barraclough, from Doctors for the Environment Australia, outline the health risks involved, and urge doctors, medical students and other health professionals from around the country to support the campaign and sign the letter.


Richard Yin and Katherine Barraclough write:

At a time when the world needs to urgently decarbonise, the plan to develop one of the largest fossil fuel projects in Australia is deeply concerning.

The Northern Territory Government’s approval of fracking in the Beetaloo Basin, along with the proposed development of a large gas and petrochemical hub in the Middle Arm Precinct of Darwin Harbour – just three kilometres from populated areas – will complete a plan that enables extraction, processing, and export of gas from the basin.

At every step, Beetaloo gas poses a serious health threat, a matter that should alarm doctors and all health professionals.

Climate concerns

Estimates suggest that opening the Beetaloo Basin could result in the release of up to 295,700 petajoules of gas, equivalent to 500 times the annual domestic consumption in Australia.

This would result in annual greenhouse emissions equivalent to 117 million tonnes of CO2 (approximately 22 percent of Australia’s current annual total).

As Australia braces for the return of El Nino and another potentially catastrophic bushfire season, Beetaloo will fuel future fires by accelerating climate change. As outlined in a recent paper in Nature Sustainability, climate change may well render parts of northern Australia including Darwin unliveable by the end of the century.

The most recent IPCC report makes it clear that we need urgent action on climate change if we are to limit global warming to 1.5°C. It highlights that every increment of warming multiplies the threat of catastrophic health impacts and climate-related deaths. Most importantly, it reconfirms that there is no room for new fossil fuel projects – deep and rapid cuts to emissions are required this decade.

Fracking harms

Across the Beetaloo Basin, hundreds or potentially thousands of wells could be drilled, accompanied by well pads, storage ponds, road networks and pipelines industrialising the landscape.

Fracking will require large volumes of water to be extracted from aquifers that feed aquatic ecosystems, including the Roper River, Elsey National Park and Mataranka Springs. Many communities living in the area have widespread concerns about the impacts of fracking on water and have little trust in the gas industry.

Numerous countries and territories have banned or declared a moratorium on fracking including England, Ireland, Germany, Canada and several US states. The precautionary principle and the protection of human rights have been the main legal arguments.

Since 2014, over 2000 peer-reviewed papers have found evidence of harm from fracking.

Research from the past few decades has shown higher rates of childhood cancer, adverse pregnancy outcomes, increased rates of hospitalisation from cardiovascular disease and premature deaths in those living near fracking operations. Doctors for the Environment Australia provided a background paper in 2019. Since then, the body of evidence has only grown.

There are plausible pathways to explain the impacts of fracking on health. Hazardous air pollutants detected near drilling and fracking operations include the potent carcinogens benzene and formaldehyde. Other fracking-related air pollutants include toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene (BTEX), particulate matter, ground level ozone, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and diesel exhaust. Exposure to toxic chemicals from fracking can also occur through contamination of groundwater and soils.

Despite this evidence, the conclusion from the Northern Territory’s Strategic Regional Environmental and Baseline Assessment for the Betaloo Sub-basin (SREBA) was that “there has been limited progress made in establishing a more robust evidence base relating to health outcomes and unconventional onshore gas operations. Due to the insufficient and/or mixed weight of evidence in many instances, it is clear from this review that the research is still not adequate to fully understand the implications of hydraulic fracturing”.

Critically, the SREBA was conducted with no input from public health experts. In response to it, rather than applying the precautionary principle and withholding approval until safety is assured, the NT Government has elected to place the onus on proving harm beyond doubt through post-approval monitoring for adverse health impacts.

Middle Arm: unhealthy air, economics and politics

The proposed LNG processing site at Middle Arm will be three km away from suburban Darwin.

The industrialisation of the harbour with petrochemicals and gas processing carries with it significant health risks from air pollution. How these will be mitigated is still unclear.

A recent Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis of the Middle Arm Hub does not believe the project is viable. The development has been earmarked for $1.5 billion in subsidies from the Federal Government.

Public money is effectively being spent to enable a project that will harm human health.

Taking a stand

In protest, 45 NT paediatricians wrote to NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles expressing their concern about the decision to approve fracking in the Beetaloo Basin.

They spoke of the risks to health from escalating climate change, particularly in the Territory where extreme environmental conditions place it on the frontline of the climate crisis. Quoting the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, they stressed the need for every country to “cease all licensing or funding of new oil and gas” to avert climate disaster.

They also highlighted the direct risks to children and communities living in the region from exposure to heavy metals, carcinogens, and other toxic chemicals used in fracking operations.

Responding to the doctors’ letter, Chief Minister Fyles reiterated her view that data from the Fracking Inquiry and SREBA were sufficient to “assess risks and help monitor and mitigate impacts on the Betaloo region”.

Because of this, the paediatricians, now joined by hundreds of colleagues across Australia, are taking their concerns to Canberra in early August. With the backing of Senator David Pocock and independent MP Dr Monique Ryan, they are calling on the Federal Government to:

  • urgently reconsider the decision to subsidise gas processing at the Middle Arm Precinct.
  • intervene to prevent gas fracking in the Beetaloo Basin, acknowledging that the emissions cannot be fully offset.

They are asking doctors, medical students and other health professionals from around the country to show support by signing onto this open letter to the Prime Minister. More actions are being planned.

To protect the health and wellbeing of our children and all Australians, we must join them.

• Dr Richard Yin is deputy chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia; Associate Professor Katherine Barraclough is from Royal Melbourne Hospital/University of Melbourne

From Twitter


See previous articles at Croakey on the Betaloo Basin, fracking and health