Environmental groups are challenging a federal government decision to award millions of dollars in grants to a fracking company searching for gas buried deep in the Beetaloo Basin.

Key points:

  • The government grants were awarded as part of a $50 million program to speed up gas exploration in the NT
  • Environmentalists will argue the decision did not consider climate change 
  • Minister Keith Pitt says the lawsuit is baseless and will threaten jobs

The Environment Centre NT and the Environmental Defenders Office have filed urgent legal action against Minister for Resources and Water, Keith Pitt, alleging he did not consider the potential risk to climate change or Australia’s obligations under the Paris Agreement in his bid to expedite gas exploration in the Beetaloo Basin.

Earlier this month, the minister awarded three grants totalling $21 million to energy company Imperial Oil and Gas, a subsidiary of Empire Energy, to support three new exploration wells and “create thousands of jobs”.

Documents filed in the Federal Court show lawyers will argue Mr Pitt failed to act in a way that was “reasonable, rational and logical”.

Co-director of the Environment Centre NT (ENCT), Dr Kirsty Howey, said the grants were an irresponsible use of public funds.

“Granting $21 million to a private fossil fuel company should only be done after all care is taken to examine the impacts on climate change, the environment and the community.

Head shot of Kirsty Howey, wearing glasses, with a park behind her.

Environment Centre NT co-director Kirsty Howey is asking the government to pause the grants program while the legal challenge takes its course. (

ABC: Dane Hirst

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“The law requires the minister to be satisfied that the expenditure is a proper use of money … we say that means inquiries into the risks of a heating climate if the heart of the Northern Territory was opened up to fracking.”

Minister Pitt condemned the lawsuit as a threat to thousands of jobs.

“This is another example of activists using the courts with baseless allegations to try and delay a nationally important resources project,” he said.

The Environmental Defenders Office, running the case on behalf of the ECNT, said the court battle would examine if proper process was followed when awarding the grants.

“Before making a decision to grant these funds, the relevant minister needed to make reasonable inquiries into a range of risks, including climate and economic risks, that may arise from the expenditure,” Environmental Defenders Office chief executive David Morris said.

“We will argue on behalf of our client that the federal government did not make these reasonable inquiries, and thus the minister’s decision is invalid.”

Federal Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia Keith Pitt, pictured with NT Environment Minister Eva Lawler.

The decision by Minister Keith Pitt, pictured with NT Environment Minister Eva Lawler, is facing a new legal challenge from the Environment Centre NT.(

ABC News: Michael Donnelly

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The Beetaloo Basin is one of five Australian gas fields the federal government plans to accelerate development under its “gas-led recovery” from coronavirus.

The grants were awarded as part of the $50 million Beetaloo co-operative drilling program, first announced by Mr Pitt and NT CLP Senator Sam McMahon in December last year.

Mr Pitt said the grants were administered in line with proper process.

“Grants are provided to companies that possess the highly specialised skills to meet the challenges of developing the Basin as determined by an expert assessment panel,” he said.

Empire Energy declined a request by the ABC to comment on the legal action, but at a senate hearing on Wednesday said it had not yet received the grant money.

The Environment Centre NT has called on the minister to halt the grants until the matter has been considered by the court.

Environmental groups take federal minister to court over multi-million dollar fracking grant
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