What's going on in the NT?

The NT Primary Industries Minister put the breaks on carbon farming on Friday when he suggested that a permit was required for carbon farming on pastoral leases.

What is going on? 

Well, the Minister's comments arose in the context of Henbury Station, near Alice Springs, coming up for sale this week. Henbury was previously sold to R.M. Williams who wanted to destock the property and manage it for conservation and carbon. The company went broke.

The Minister said he wanted the property returned to pastoral production and that carbon farming was "off the table" until he saw value for the pastoral sector.

Everyone watching the pastoral sector in the NT knows that the industry is slow. Many stations are up for sale. Before R.M. Williams bought it, Henbury was on the market for a couple of years. No one bought it.

As early as 2002, the Productivity Commission recognised problems for the sector and recommended changes to broaden the use of pastoral land. Pastoral administration tended to discourage rather than promote diversified land use. 

In 2011, the previous NT Government released a paper on amendments to Pastoral Land Act for the "economic viability" of the industry. Amendments are now in the Parliament. At heart they propose that the Pastoral Board may grant a permit for a "non-pastoral purpose" for up to 30 years, with provision for extensions. There is no ban on carbon farming, but the Board must take into account "current Government policy". Not much change really, but the extension of time from 5 years is important for long term projects.

Despite the Minister's comments, carbon farming has already been taken up in the NT with 11 savanna burning projects already approved on pastoral land - clearly, the NT Government thinks this is an okay use of pastoral land, without a permit.

But carbon storage projects, like previously proposed on Henbury, are perhaps another story as they require the carbon rights to be held and the project carried out over the long term. Savanna burning, on the other hand, is an emissions reduction project with no requirement to hold the carbon. Henbury ran into the problem of having to change the lease, or have the carbon rights granted, or both. And all without any carbon rights legislation in the NT. It's not clear what exactly happened.

So we will be interested to see how things develop. But I would be surprised if the Government got in the way of a struggling pastoralist who wanted to run a rangelands carbon project alongside their cattle operation. Or traditional owners who want to do the same.

As the savanna projects show, permits are not always required and carbon farming looks alive and well in the NT. 

Jeremy