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Forestry initiative to transform desert in carbon credit offset push

Diversified hydrocarbon explorer, Central Petroleum, may be looking to discover and extract large volumes of hydrocarbons from the parched deserts of Australia’s “Red Centre” – but in at least two small corners of its vast exploration acreage, the story is quite the reverse.

The Perth-based explorer has announced a commitment, via its wholly-owned subsidiary Central Green Pty Ltd, subject to the outcome of various trial plantings, economic analysis, regulatory regime maturation and Government assistance to aim at the planting over the next decade of up to 100,000ha of Centralian desert with drought-resistant hybrid eucalyptus saplings and other species. First plantings have already taken place.

The decision will potentially increase the in-ground carbon storage profile of the arid areas targeted for planting and deliver Central Petroleum what the company says will be a “natural carbon credit offset” against its future petroleum product program which may include the production of ultra-clean synthetic diesel, jet fuel and naphtha as well as LNG.

The company has recently announced that exploration would re-commence in early December 2009 with the drilling of five fully cored coal seam gas (CSG) exploration wells south-east of Alice Springs in the Pedirka Basin.

An area near the town of Ali Curang, 350 kilometres north of Alice Springs, has been selected for additional plantings, following the success of a trial program by Central Petroleum to plant and raise hybrid eucalyptus trees at Ilpurla, 250km south-west of Alice Springs.

As well as carbon credits, the company said the initiative could provide employment for local communities and establish a fledgling commercial timber industry in the Centre.

“The program may provide employment and training for dozens of jobless or vulnerable indigenous youths – and potentially, a secure long-term source of income for the many of the residents of central Australia,” Central Petroleum’s land access manager Bob Liddle said.

“As well as making absolute sense environmentally, we think this is an optimal contribution that we can make for our indigenous neighbours, with whom Central Petroleum has been working very closely on a number of our projects,” he said.

“With Commonwealth support for Aboriginal communities shrinking and the growing drift of people from rural communities to regional centres, it is essential that resources companies like ours get involved in promoting indigenous employment in these marginalised areas.”

The planned new eucalypt acreages – believed to be the first such large-scale planting scheme to be sponsored by a petroleum exploration company in the NT – follows the successful plantings at Ilpurla and a second, similar-sized plantation planned a few kilometres to the south at Tempe Downs.

First plantings at Ali Curang, close to the Stuart Highway, were scheduled to start late November when the first 7000 eucalyptus saplings were due to arrive in time for the beginning of seasonal rains.

“Subject to ongoing trials, the take-up rate of the plantings, and a comprehensive social and economic evaluation of our first mainstream plantations, it is our goal to encompass a 1000 km² area in Central Australia with eucalypts within a decade,” Central Petroleum’s area operations manager Doug White said.

“Because the water table is relatively high at Ali Curang, we believe the trees there should do well. The local community that took over caring for the trial plantings at Ilpurla, delivered a tremendous outcome, and those trees may start providing residents with an additional source of income in as little as 7-8 years.”

Barry Abbott, an Aboriginal elder who supervised the tree-planting at Ilpurla, said the project had given his community a new lease of life – and a new reason to welcome hydrocarbon explorers to their relatively unexplored part of the Centre.

“It has been an incredible success for us. With the support of the community, we have brought in about 15 local boys – some of them on court orders – and trained them how to plant and look after the trees, and to maintain the bores and the drip-feed system,” Barry said.

“Since we planted our original trees late last year, we have only lost 12 or 13 – and some of the trees are already four metres high.

“Central Petroleum is the only company in this area that has really given us a chance to establish our own project. The company provided us with the fencing materials and the drip-feed pipes; they gave us advice and training on installing the system, and then they left us to make the project our own but with ongoing technical advice.”

“No one has ever done anything like this for us before,” he said.

The Ilpurla community is now fencing off a second area for planting, and is planning to expand its plantation to 4000 trees over the next two-to-three years.

“What we would like to do eventually is to set up a furniture factory, making tables, chairs and beds, as well as providing timber for building materials,” Barry said.

“We are always looking for ways to improve life for local communities, which is challenging in such regions,” Bob said. “A viable timber industry could go some way to linking these communities with the mainstream economy and to creating more equitable and sustainable socio-economic conditions across the Centre.”