Traditional owners angry after Beetaloo gas company Empire Energy fails to report stone tools find to regulator: ABC

By Jane Bardon

Cain O’Keefe and other traditional owners helped to find and identify Aboriginal stone tools near Empire Energy’s exploration wells.(Supplied: Cain O’Keefe)
  • In short: Empire Energy has reported it did not tell the NT heritage regulator that Aboriginal stone tools were found near a well and then moved.
  • Traditional owners are calling for the NT government to explain how it will respond to this and other breaches of the company’s gas project conditions.
  • What’s next? The NT Heritage Branch has told the ABC it is investigating and the environment minister says the matters raised are being assessed.

Traditional owners are calling on the Northern Territory government to not allow a fracking company to move from exploring the Beetaloo Basin to selling gas, after it failed to report a find of ancient Indigenous stone tools near one of its exploration wells to the territory’s heritage regulator. 

Empire Energy is planning to move from exploration fracking to selling gas from its Carpentaria Pilot Project, situated 160 kilometres east of Borroloola, next year.

Under its project conditions, the company was required to check for Aboriginal cultural heritage sites to be avoided.

A photo showing a man wearing a denim jacket with a royal blue t shirt and crossed hand
Cain O’Keefe has asked the NT Heritage Branch to commission a new cultural heritage survey of Empire Energy’s EP187 gas lease.(Supplied: Cain O’Keefe)

Karranjini traditional owner Cain O’Keefe said he had been excited to join Empire Energy surveys which found that its archaeologists determined was a “significant” “medium density archaeological site”, containing stone tools, near its Carpentaria 4 exploration well named Balbirini 3.

“I found them – a stone axe head and other pieces [were] in lines in a few trees, and 100 metres from that, a few spearheads,” Mr O’Keefe said.

“It was so emotional. It took them that long to make a stone head axe from hand – it was a nice piece you hold with either your left or right hand.”

a man holding an ancient aboriginal spear head
Cain O’Keefe was excited to accompany Empire Energy’s archaeological survey team when it found the Aboriginal spearheads and other stone tools.(Supplied: Cain O’Keefe)
A photo showing a hand of a man holding a stone tool.
Cain O’Keefe holding another one of the tools from the site.(Supplied: Cain O’Keefe)

He is now angry Empire Energy has reported to the NT environment department it has breached its project conditions, by failing to notify the government’s Heritage Branch that stone tools were found at Balbirini 3 in August 2022, until January this year.

Mr O’Keefe said he was also devastated Empire Energy has reported grind stones, a spearhead and scraper were moved from the site to another area – a rock shelter named Balbirini 2.

A photo showing a cave with small tress surrounding it.
Traditional owners helped Empire Energy to identify Aboriginal stone tools found in areas on its EP187 gas lease.(Supplied: Cain O’Keefe)

“I’m disappointed – it’s disgraceful,” Mr O’Keefe said.

“Someone left them there maybe 60,000 years ago, things can’t be moved from where they’re left.”

Mr O’Keefe and other traditional owners, including Joni Wilson, have written to the Heritage Branch asking it to stop the gas expansion project, and to commission an independent archaeological survey of Empire’s EP187 gas lease.

“It’s heartbreaking that there’s been cultural artefacts that [have] been moved,” Ms Wilson said.

“They shouldn’t be touched — all the Aboriginal people know that, and they haven’t been touched for centuries until the mining company [came] to do exploration.”

A photo showing a woman looking directly at a camera with a tree and silver car in background
Joni Wilson says archaeological artefacts should have remained undisturbed due to their significance to the land’s traditional owners.(Supplied: Asman Rory)

Empire Energy responded in a statement that it was “committed to genuine concern for cultural values” and the stone artefacts were moved to another site by some traditional owners “under their own initiative”.

The Heritage Branch has told the ABC it is investigating.

However, Ms Wilson wants a wider NT government investigation of all the breaches Empire Energy has reported to the environment department during the project.

A photo showing a waste water storage facility surrounded by trees and hill
Traditional owners are worried that Empire Energy has allowed wastewater storages to become too full during the wet season. (Supplied: Nurdalinji Aboriginal Corporation)

Over the past four years, they include spilling drilling mud, allowing wastewater storages to fill up too high, storing wastewater in dams and tanks with leaks and tears in linings, building gravel pits outside approved areas, and not checking for endangered Gouldian finches before land clearing.

“They said that none of this would happen, and it’s happening, and we don’t know what the solution is,” Ms Wilson said.

Ian Wright
Ian Wright has carried out water testing that has made him worried about fracking chemical use.(Supplied: Ian Wright)

Ian Wright, an associate professor of environmental science at Western Sydney University, said he thought the drill mud and wastewater breaches in particular could threaten the NT’s environment.

“It’s an enormous worry. The chemicals used for the hydraulic fracturing process, or even just the drilling muds, are hazardous to human health and also to the plants and animals in the environment as well,” he said.

Empire Energy responded that “none of these issues resulted in material environmental harm,” “no fluids were spilled from tanks” or dams and “no finches have been harmed”.

A woman wearing a black top looks towards the camera.
Kate Worden says the NT government is “comprehensively assessing the matters”.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

In a statement, NT Environment Minister Kate Worden said the government was “doing its job of comprehensively assessing the matters raised”.

The NT’s Environment Protection Authority (EPA) last month decided the Empire Energy expansion project did not need a full environmental impact study because it “doesn’t have the potential for significant impacts on the environment”.

Ms Wilson said she felt the NT government’s response was inadequate.

“The government needs to be more alert to Empire Energy and know what’s going on on the country, they need to do more work on protecting it,” she said.

“Because our home is this bush, and we want it for the next generation.”

Read the original story here on the ABC News website.