It was only five years ago that 95 per cent of the Northern Territory (NT) was covered by oil and gas licences. That percentage has dropped in the past few years but not by much. It seems hard to believe that so much of the vast Territory, home to many First Nation’s communities, has been marked up for exploration. The extraordinary potential consequence of this for climate change is staggering. According to Amelia Telford, National Director of Indigenous youth-led climate network Seed Mob, scientific evidence shows that if the total gas reserves in the Territory were to be fracked and burnt it would limit our ability to keep global warming to less than 1.5 degrees.
Seed Mob is a small but dedicated group of young Indigenous environmental activists who are part of the broader Australian Youth Climate Coalition. More particularly, Seed Mob strives to reconcile its campaigning and advocacy with developing young leaders to drive change in their communities across the country.
“We strive to have impact through two main areas of our work: firstly through campaigning and advocating to protect our land, water and future from the causes and impacts of climate change,’’ Amelia says.
“Secondly, through our movement building – bringing young people together, building their skills, empowering them to take action and supporting them as leaders in their communities. This is how we believe we can create the change our world needs, by building a movement led by those with the most at stake to shift power and build community-led solutions.”
Seed’s recent advocacy is on the hard edge of the political debate: fracking in the Northern Territory, during the recent NT election campaign.
Amelia traces the organisation’s involvement with the issue back to a fracking proposal in the Gulf of Carpentaria five years ago that led to a local community contacting Seed Mob. “They had been learning about proposals for fracking up there and were worried about the risks to their land, water and future of communities who were already feeling the impacts of climate change.’ Amelia says.
“After travelling to Borroloola, meeting with community members and hearing more about the scale of this problem, we knew that Seed had a really important role to play in supporting remote Aboriginal communities to protect country and stop the NT from being turned into industrial shale oil and gas fields,” she says.
Fracking has been a long-running issue in the Territory. Amelia has seen and heard the political debates over the years and knows that the recently returned Labor government received a powerful insight into the dangers fracking poses to many communities during the election campaign. ‘Labor lost seats,’’ she says. “There was a huge swing to independent Aboriginal candidates and fracking was a key issue for them.’’
In the middle of the campaign, an independent poll found that 86 per cent of Territorians were opposed to fracking, and two-thirds claimed the practice was a threat to water security.
The advent of COVID-19 meant the big gas companies, including Origen Energy, stopped sending their fly-in fly-out workers into the Territory to carry on their exploration work. But that hiatus is over, and exploration has now resumed. But the delay hasn’t mitigated the reasons for opposing fracking in the Territory.
“This is a really big part of what Seed is focussing on now,’’ Amelia says. “Collectively, we have an opportunity here to make a really big difference, to not only support Aboriginal communities in the NT but to stop this gas from being shipped overseas and burnt, because if we don’t the climate impacts would be catastrophic…’’
One of the significant problems with fracking is what to do with the wastewater generated from the process. How should it be stored? It can leach into the ground and potentially taint water supplies. It can be stored but not sealed in an evaporative method that poses a toxic risk for birds and wildlife as well as remote communities, especially if and when it floods during wet season.
What compounds the specific fracking issue is the Federal government’s commitment to what Amelia describes as a ‘…gas-led recovery.’’ But this national focus also presents Seed Mob with an opportunity. “We always look for where and how we can have the biggest impact,’’ Amelia says. She has watched the strategic approach environmental advocates took to lobbying the big four banks against their engagement with the Adani coal mine in Queensland. “We can learn from history and use similar tactics,’’ Amelia says.
“Building up and empowering our people to come together in solidarity with one another is really important for us. So with this campaign, not only are we working with communities on the ground in the NT but we are mobilising communities nationally to take action by targeting Origin Energy, who are pushing ahead to be the first company to start fracking,’’ she explains. “Just like successful corporate campaigns in the past, we use tactics to influence Origin Energy by engaging with their customers, staff, shareholders and the broader public to see that fracking in the NT is risky business and goes against their commitments to tackle climate change and respect the rights of Indigenous people who have not given proper consent.
Seed Mob has had its share of funding support from committed environmental philanthropists, but Amelia believes that now is the time to extend support beyond specialised or single interest funders. “Climate change is just not an environmental issue – it’s a social justice issue. So we need a more collaborative and connected approach, to build solutions that are not just seen through an environmental prism,’’ Amelia says. “And we need investment in our core capacity, to support young leaders to continue to have an impact into the future.’’
There is a new campaign coming to life that Seed mob are inspired by: called Our Islands, Our Home: it emanates from the Torres Strait islands where communities are increasingly vulnerable from the rising waters caused by climate change. The campaign will go to the United Nations to challenge Australia’s lack of action to help protect island communities. There is no time for small steps or more discussions – the clock, for every environment advocate, is ticking.
“We’re advocating for leadership of our people on these issues but also bringing voice to those who are on the front lines,’’ Amelia says, “and more often than not it’s black and brown communities around the world who are on the front lines of climate impacts and fossil fuel extraction.’’