The Beetaloo Sub-basin: Communities and environment under threat

The Beetaloo Sub-Basin, around 500 kilometres south-east of Darwin NT, sits in the Sturt Plateau region, between Mataranka to the north, Elliott to the south and Borroloola to the east. Around 70 per cent of the Territory's prospective shale gas resources are said to exist in the 28,000 square km Beetaloo Sub-basin area and this has seen keen interest from a range of gas companies.

Its exploration history dates back more than a decade, but in recent years, Origin Energy (among others) has had its sights set on the region. Origin’s gas licences alone are said to hold gas reserves of around 6.6 trillion cubic feet, according to industry predictions.

Though rich in shale gas, the basin takes in pastoral land and Indigenous communities.

What's At Risk?

Land use in the Beetaloo Sub-basin comprises Aboriginal land, pastoral leases (which co-exist with Native Title rights and interests), horticultural enterprises, cattle stations and remote Aboriginal communities.  This area takes in the traditional lands of the Jawoyn, Alawa, Jingili, Walmanpa, Warumungu, Ngandji and Binbinga among others. Those traditional lands that are directly downstream from planned fracking activities include Mudburra, Garrwa, Yanyuwa and Gurdanji.

Affected communities in the northern area of the Beetaloo Sub Basin include Katherine, Barunga, Beswick, Mataranka, Jilkminggan, Minyerri and Ngukurr.

The central area includes communities in Larrimah, Daly Waters, Dunmarra, Newcastle Waters, Marlinja and Elliott.

Communities affected in the east include Borroloola and Robinson River as well as Tennant Creek in the South.


The Northern Territory (NT), a 1.4 million sq km (540,000 sq miles) expanse of outback extending from the centre of Australia to its northern coastline, had placed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, in September, 2016 amid concerns the drilling method could harm the environment.

The Labor Gunner Government then commissioned an inquiry into the environmental, social and economic risks of the extraction process and in April 2018 accepted the inquiry’s conclusion that the risks were manageable if 135 new recommendations were fully implemented, and lifted their moratorium on fracking.

The NT government said it would tightly regulate the industry after lifting the ban. Almost half the territory would remain “frack-free”, including national parks and reserves.

This decision was seen as a betrayal of the science and of the significant community opposition which had been expressed during the inquiry.

Read more about the NT Fracking Inquiry here.

Risks to Beetaloo Water

Fracking for shale and tight gas is an extremely water-intensive practice that also uses a range of dangerous and toxic chemicals. According to one UN report, a single frack operation on a shale gas well will use between 11 and 34 million litres of water, roughly 360 – 1100 truckloads2. However, in their submission to the NT Fracking Inquiry, Origin put forward a much higher water use figure, suggesting they will require 50 – 60 million litres of water per fractured gas well in the Beetaloo Sub-basin.

Currently there is no public information about where this water is to come from or the implications of it being removed from ground or surface water systems. The risks to groundwater are especially concerning in the Beetaloo area where the Tindal Aquifer provides water supply to towns, homesteads, agriculture and the cattle industry.

There are major concerns from indigenous groups such as the Mudburra people who consider these ancient underground water sources as sacred sites not to be disturbed. Other pastoralists and scientists are concerned that the underground water sources in the NT are interconnected and have warned that a contamination case in the Beetaloo Sub-basin could spread to the Katherine Daly River systems as well as the Roper River.

Existing infrastructure

The basin is close to petroleum industry infrastructure, with two major gas pipelines; the Amadeus Pipeline owned by APA, and the Northern Pipeline owned by Jemena, passing through the region, and power stations at Elliott and Katherine.

Planned Gas and Infrastructure Projects

Unconventional gas exploration and fracking is already underway in the Beetaloo Basin with a number of companies undertaking exploration drilling in the region.

Work has previously been undertaken by a Rio Tinto Group subsidiary company, Sweetpea Petroleum, Hess Australia and Falcon Australia. Sweetpea drilled the Shenandoah-1 vertical well, which was deepened by Falcon Australia. Hess acquired 3,490 kms of 2D seismic data, to date the largest onshore 2D seismic program in Australia.

In August 2014, Falcon Australia completed a $200 million, nine-well farm-out deal with Origin Energy and Sasol each farming into 35% of Falcon Australia’s exploration permits. In 2017 Origin acquired Sasol’s interest, bringing its overall interest to 70% in the Beetaloo.

In Febuary 2017 it was announced that Origin had submitted the results of its drilling of their Amungee NW-1H Velkerri B Shale Gas Pool.

In February 2019 Santos announced the early results from fracking in the Beetaloo with the release of its annual report.

The energy company told investors the "successful stimulation of the Tanumbrini-1 well" east of Daly Waters had encouraged the company to continue with the drilling of two more wells after the 2020-21 wet season.

The success with a four-stage stimulation (fracking) program in the Middle Velkerri shales produced gas flow rates of 1.2 million cubic feet per day had "exceeded initial expectations".

The Tanumbrini-1 well had been previously drilled vertically almost four kilometres deep.

In December 2019 Origin announced it had horizontally drilled its Kyalla 117 N2-1. 

In April 2020, Falcon announced it had executed an agreement with Origin Energy which saw Origin now own 77.5% of the Beetaloo Project while Falcon owned 22.5%.

In June 2020, the NT Government paid CNC Project management $300,000 to begin a pre-feasibility study for a new gas pipeline to run from Tennant Creek to Darwin. This pipeline is to run alongside the proposed HVDC cable from the proposed Sun Cable Project in Tennant Creek.

Current activity – Late 2020

On 14 September 2020, Empire Energy Group announced they had mobilised their drill rig to drill their Carpentaria-1 well just 85 kms east of Borroloola on the Carpentaria Highway. The 2,900-metre well will be drilled, logged, cored, cased and suspended.

On 15 September 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the NT’s Beetaloo Basin would be the first priority for Government funding support in line with a National gas Infrastructure Plan. The Beetaloo Sub Basin has been listed to have priority as the first of five strategic basin plans the Morrison government has earmarked for new gasfield development.

On 2 October 2020, Falcon announced Origin Energy’s completion of an 11 stage hydraulic stimulation program at the Kyalla 117 well just 48 kms north of Elliott NT. Early stage gas flow rates are expected in the coming weeks.

Other companies currently planning to drill exploration wells in the Beetaloo Basin in coming years include Hancock Prospecting’s Jacaranda Minerals owned by Gina Rinehart who want to drill near Mataranka. While the springs themselves are in a national park that is off limits to fracking, an area south of the springs and part of the water recharge area for the springs is covered by an active exploration licence owned by Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting. The company relinquished portions of the licence in 2017 to create a 25km exploration buffer zone from the springs and the Roper river.

Santos also plan to return for more drilling and fracking in 2021. They also relinquished around 1 million hectares of licences in Central Arnhem Land in early 2020, yet hold large gas licence areas across the Beetaloo.

Other petroleum exploration licence holders in the Beetaloo Sub-basin are Pangaea Resources Pty Ltd, Sweetpea Petroleum Pty Ltd and Inpex.