A multimillion-dollar grant contract by the Morrison government has been slapped down by the Federal Court, but it’s still likely to proceed.
A multimillion-dollar plan by the Morrison government to develop an onshore gas field in the Northern Territory has be slapped down by the Federal Court following months of outrage from environmentalist groups.
Federal Court judge John Griffiths on Thursday ruled that three $21m grant contracts commissioned by Resources Minister Keith Pitt for a gas exploration program in the NT’s Beetaloo Basin were invalid and void.
Justice Griffiths ruled the contracts were “legally unreasonable” as the Morrison government had signed off on them while they were still subject to court proceedings.
Mr Pitt signed the contracts in September – a month after Environment Centre NT had launched a legal challenge to the government’s decision to award the three grants to Australian oil and gas company Empire Energy.
Environment Centre NT said the ruling was “critically important” and put the government’s environmentally destructive decisions in the spotlight.
“Fracking in the Beetaloo Basin would see a significant increase in global emissions, so it is critically important that government is held accountable for any decisions to use public funds for new gas in the Beetaloo,” ECNT legal director Elaine Johnson said.
“This decision underscored the primacy of the rule of law, highlighting the need for the federal government to act appropriately and respectfully when litigation is on foot.”
But the ruling will not protect the Beetaloo Basin from future fracking projects.
The court’s decision to void the grants was based on the government’s failure to fulfil its litigant obligations – not a failure to protect the environment.
This means that new contracts are likely to be signed in the future allowing mining companies to begin gas exploration in the basin.
Mr Pitt confirmed on Thursday that he still intended to proceed with the grant funding.
“This is a commonsense decision that will allow grants for the development of the Beetaloo Basin to proceed, which has the potential to deliver thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity to the Northern Territory,” he said.
“The instrument under which the grant program was written and the approval decision to award grants to Imperial Oil and Gas were both valid and we welcome that decision so that we can move forward with the program.”
ECNT said it would continue to fight to stop the government’s plans to frack in the region.
“This doesn’t close the door on the scrutiny of fossil fuel grants,” ECNT co-director Kirsty Howey said.
“The Northern Territory is already suffering significantly from the impacts of climate change, and this will only worsen unless we take drastic action.
“The public has an expectation that taxpayer money will not be used to accelerate climate catastrophe by funding projects that will release vast amounts of emissions without due consideration of these risks.”