SOME are calling it the Battle for Beetaloo.
Beetaloo is an energy-rich El Dorado, a little known region in the remote Australian outback which, according to miners, can solve Australia’s natural gas problems for the next 30 years if not longer.
Energy poor Asia is also hungry for its hidden riches even if caring even less where or what Beetaloo is.
The Beetaloo basin is home to vast Northern Territory oil and gas rich shale fields, as much as 18,500 square kilometres in extent.
Brittle rocks lay in a thick carpet underground, as far as four kilometres deep but, with modern mining methods, ripe for the plucking.
With a total ban on unconventional gas mining in the southern states and the election of an anti-fracking Labor Government in Western Australia, enormous pressure has been brought to bear on the new Labor NT Government.
Australia badly needs more natural gas, both for export and for domestic use, households and factories are still hooked on burning fossil fuels.
The massive three export terminals in Gladstone, Queensland appear to be sucking the nation dry meeting the needs of their Asian customers.
Prices are rising and gas production is falling.
The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association says onshore exploration activity in Australia was at its lowest level in more than three decades.
Victoria is switching off the Soviet-style Hazelwood station which power produces a quarter of the state from its still enormous but dirty brown coal deposits.
South Australia wants its own gas burner to control its own power destiny.
All states are racing fast towards renewable dependence but not so fast they can risk a South Australia-type meltdown and storm-induced blackouts.
The thousands of coal seam gas wells in Queensland are not producing as they once did, the NT is the great white hope.
Origin Energy managed to drill a half dozen deep holes into the Beetaloo before a territory-wide moratorium came into effect earlier this year and found what they expected, there’s oceans of gas down there locked in the rock.
Shale gas is like any other gas, and can be used in cooking, heating, powering factories or sending overseas for export dollars.
Hydraulic fracturing, a mining process which turned oil-poor USA into a net exporter, is called fracking for short.
In the coal seams, or the NT’s shale rocks, the gas is trapped in the rocks and has to be coaxed into letting it go.
Artificial stimulation, using a fluid made up of mostly water and sand is injected under into the wall to break the rocks open and release the gas.
It is the remaining 0.5 per cent of the fluid which scares the environmentalists and above ground landholders the most.
A mix of chemicals has to be injected through water aquifers and into the land to make fracking work, not a vision of clean and green which typifies NT exports so far.
The NT does not do dams, its citizens rely almost completely on tropical rains which replenish their groundwater to feed into rivers and bores, punching holes into their aquifers fills them with collective horror.
Fracking is a process used across the world, environmentalists debate whether it is a safe process or not, but there is no doubting it works.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is convinced fracking is both safe and efficient and has urged the NT to get on with the job.
The new NT Labor Government has ploughed ahead with a moratorium on fracking and has appointed a panel of experts to advise whether Mr Turnbull is right or not.
For every one cent NT citizens send to Canberra in GST revenue, they get five cents in return, the territory is only possible through the generosity of the other states.
The NT Government would love to get its hands on some more export dollars and especially the jobs the mining industry has promised from the start of gas mining.
Conveniently, there is already a pipeline in the works running across the backdoor from Tennant Creek to Mt Isa to connect the NT to the eastern seaboard.
All the ducks are lined up, it’s just that most of the NT’s citizens, are just as hesitant as the people of NSW or Victoria to have fracking on their land.
There is only about 250,000 territorians living across across 1.35 million square kilometres, the least populated of any of the states and territories.
To outsiders, certainly to politicians from the southern states, this means even if fracking proves as nasty as most of the regional communities’ fear, people are that sparse in the NT it won’t do too much harm.
So the eyes are on Beetaloo, where Origin brought in those successful wells.
Almost midway between Katherine and Tennant Creek, there are many experts who believe the Beetaloo could be among the richest shale gas fields on the planet.
Prof Peter Flood, one of Australia’s best credentialled geologists, stood before a meeting of most anti-frackers in Katherine earlier this month and talked of the differences of the proposed fracking on the NT’s shale, as distinct from Queensland’s coal seam.
The NT’s shale is deeper, the fracturing will have to be done horizontally as well as vertically to release enough payable gas.
The horizontal drilling could reach 10 kilometres from the central well, and would also be fracked.
“One drill hole can access 100 square kilometres,” Prof Flood said.
He said the fracking of shale was in layman’s terms “more energetic” than CSG.
The NT’s panel of scientists are due to present their final report to the Government in December.
There is terrific pressure now for the NT Government to act earlier, but for now, Chief Minister Michael Gunner is holding firm.
Australia’s best and richest miner Gina Rinehart has been buying up NT cattle stations in a shopping frenzy these past two years to become the NT’s biggest private landowner.
She has appointed former NT Chief Minister Adam Giles, a man with little obvious expertise with Brahman cattle, as her lieutenant in this part of the world.
Many expect her to ditch the uncomfortable Akubra for her more familiar hard hat once the NT Government signals the all clear so she can mine her new land heavily for gas.
But for now, the gas battlelines have been drawn over the Beetaloo.