SYDNEY – In a corner of the Australian Outback, a drilling crew will soon try tapping shale rocks that could hold more than three times the world’s annual consumption of natural gas.
Origin Energy Ltd. plans to drill two wells later this year in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin, after the local government ended a three-year ban on fracking — the practice of extracting oil and gas from layers of shale rock deep underground. With an estimated 500 trillion cubic feet (14 trillion cubic meters) of gas, Beetaloo has been compared to famed U.S. shale regions such as Marcellus and Barnett.
But its isolated location, lack of infrastructure and the likelihood of tough environmental opposition make Beetaloo a highly speculative investment.
“There are some big numbers being quoted, and people have to realize this is exploration,” said Mark Schubert, Origin’s head of integrated gas, noting that only some of the total reserves would be extractable.
Origin’s permit area is the size of Wales, but engineers on site are more likely to encounter crocodiles than sheep in the largely barren area. The scrubby bush land, dotted with billabongs, or water holes, would be familiar to fans of the 1986 hit movie “Crocodile Dundee,” which was shot partly in Kakadu National Park in the north of the territory.
Beetaloo is about 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) away from Sydney and even farther from Melbourne, so the project would require pipelines that would connect to and expand the capacity of Australia’s growing gas transmission network.
In 2016, before the exploration ban, Origin drilled a so-called dry gas well — one that contains only natural gas — that allowed it to estimate a recoverable resource of 6.6 trillion cubic feet, enough to support a gas export supply train for 20 years, according to Schubert.