Conservationists and indigenous communities in northern Australia are gearing up for a fight, as some of the world's largest energy companies line up to frack the region for shale gas.
Santos, Sasol, Inpex and, more recently, businessmen who have made billions from fracking in the United States have all been lured to the McArthur Basin in Australia's Northern Territory.
American Energy Partners (AEP), the company established by US fracking pioneer Aubrey McClendon — who died two weeks ago — has sealed four deals that cover a total area of 55 million acres of oil and gas properties. Texas-based private equity firm Energy & Minerals Group, meanwhile, has snapped up an 18 percent stake in a venture with Australian company Pangaea Resources.
While production is still at an exploratory stage, prospecting is causing concerns among the four main Aboriginal communities in the Gulf of Carpentaria region.
The area is one of the most remote parts of Australia's northern tropical savanna, a highly biodiverse region home to substantial areas of Aboriginal-owned and managed land.
Traditional owners and activists fear fracking could contaminate ground and surface water supplies and the unique natural environment.
"We need clean water, we need clean country," Gadrian Hoosan, a spokesman for the Garawa people, said. "We need sustainable jobs in the community that will last for a lifetime — fracking doesn't provide that."
Traditional owner and pastoralist Jonesy Anderson, whose land falls within an exploration permit held by Armour Energy and AEP, said he was worried about how fracking could impact water sources on his cattle station, southwest of Borroloola township. "It will kill the cattle business," he said. "We're going through drought now."
There is already pressure on water sources in the Gulf region, according to Lauren Mellor, an organiser with the Territory Frack Free Alliance. She said given the water intensity of the fracking process there are concerns that it could become worse.
"They are big cattle grazing areas out there. It would just be impossible, basically, to do either traditional fire management practices around gas fields or run cattle in the existing eco-cultural tourism businesses that people already have out there," Mellor said.
Fracking, which has been banned in several countries and two US states, injects large quantities of water, chemicals, and sand into the ground under high pressure to release oil and gas. The volume of water varies with geology, but fracking in shale gas reservoirs — like the McArthur Basin — typically requires large volumes, according to a study by the US Geological Survey released last year.
Up to 36,620 cubic meters — more than 14 Olympic-sized swimming pools — of water was used per shale gas well annually in the US between 2000 and 2014, the study said, putting strain on public water resources and aquatic ecology.
Another concern among indigenous residents is potential harm to revered spiritual sites.
"We have sacred sites in that area. We've got dreaming sites," Hoosan said. "All our elders here are still teaching us. If they damage our dreaming and our story in the land, that's just like ripping a page out of the book."
The Northern Territory government agreed to review environmental laws last year following a report from Dr. Allan Hawke, who was commissioned to assess the potential environmental impacts of fracking in the territory. The independent report outlined areas where environmental regulation could be strengthened, but concluded that the environmental risks associated with fracking could be managed effectively with "robust regulation."
The government recently released draft regulations that ban fracking in residential and intensive agricultural areas. The Northern Territory's water regulations are being reviewed, including current exemptions for the oil and gas industry, and there will be strict regulations around flow back waste and the use of chemicals.
The Northern Territory's Department of Mines and Energy said pastoralists and residents should have no concerns about water supply or contamination. A spokesperson said "robust" regulation was already in place, which was the key to water protection.
The government is emphatic about exploiting the territory's fossil fuels. Australia's shale gas reserves are estimated to be immense, but remain untapped. Developing the Northern Territory's shale gas industry to capitalise on Asia's shift to cleaner energy is seen as an opportunity too good to miss.
But many people in the Gulf region are still skeptical about the promised economic spinoffs, according to Dr. Seán Kerins, from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at Australian National University. The Gulf's history of environmental contamination from its legacy mining has made people wary.
Mines like the McArthur River Mine and the now-closed Redbank copper mine have caused contamination of waterways, some of which are extensively fished by indigenous residents.
A petition calling for the closure of the McArthur River Mine was signed by 3,600 residents from Borroloola and presented to the Northern Territory government last year.
"Aboriginal people are saying 'We know what mining looks like in this region already, and you're trying to put more mining on us across other areas of the country that we rely for our livelihoods,'" Kerins said.
While the opposition Labor party has promised to put in place a moratorium on fracking if they take control of parliament in August, there are few other avenues for opponents to halt drilling. The Garawa Land Trust has rejected fracking on their land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, but for land held under other types of leases there are no veto rights. More than 90 percent of the Northern Territory is under application or has already been licensed for exploration.
That gives little comfort to Garawa spokesman Hoosan.
"We're surrounded by licensed exploration — we'll still be affected," he said. "But, we're going to fight for it. We have beautiful country here."
Follow Harry Pearl on Twitter: @Harry_Pearl
Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect that 90 percent of the Northern Territory is under application for fracking or has been licensed.