Climate activists continue to challenge push for gas

September 14, 2021

After Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced more than a year ago that his pandemic recovery plan would be based around a “gas-led” recovery, Labor quickly fell into line.

The major parties are both committing a huge amount of public funds to gas projects they deem “essential” as a “transition” to renewable energy (although the projects look permanent).

Even under lockdown, climate activists have continued to pressure the government and Labor to heed the climate science and pull back from their irresponsible gas plan. They point to the August Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that reiterated that delays in curbing fossil fuel emissions will lead to catastrophic global warming.

The Climate Council, backed by 55 climate organisations, is pushing for no new fossil fuel developments and for carbon emissions to be cut by 75% by 2030 to reach net zero by 2035. However, the pressure has to grow to stop the major parties’ gas plans. While that has been harder under the pandemic, activists are organising.

Narrabri Gas Project

Santos’ controversial Narrabri Gas Project (NGP) in New South Wales was the first major gas project to receive the go-ahead in the new push for gas. The NSW Independent Planning Commission (IPC) agreed to it in September last year, despite overwhelming opposition from the Gamilaraay / Gomeroi people, the National Farmers Federation and regional communities.

The NSW Department of Planning received the biggest number of objections to a project: 22,484 or 98% of all submissions it received opposed the NGP.

Santos first proposed drilling for coal seam gas (CSG) in the Pilliga State Forest in 2011 and concerns about how it could damage the Great Artesian Basin groundwater have grown since the salt waste from its pilot projects have killed off sections of the forest.

The NSW government and Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration have been backing Santos to the hilt.

The state government’s recent 16-page Future of Gas Statement reveals it may be feeling some pressure from regional communities.

It agrees with the federal government's push for gas, stating that the plan “will deliver” on the agreement between it and the federal government to increase gas supply in NSW. It affirms that new Port Kembla and Newcastle LNG gas import terminals are essential to this.

While the plan extinguishes a number of old, unworked Petroleum Exploration Licences (PELS) in the north west, and rules out expanding gas in the far west, a large area remains open to gas exploration, from Willow Tree in the south, to Wee Waa in the west and beyond Narrabri in the north.

The government desperately wants the PELS surrounding the NGP to be worked because this will be the only way Santos will be able to get its gas to either Newcastle or the Moomba-Sydney pipeline.

Because the NGP depends on the construction of thousands of kilometres of pipelines across prime agricultural land, it is yet to make a final decision on whether or not to proceed.

Hunter Power Project

The Gas Free Hunter Alliance is organising to stop the federally-funded Hunter Power Project at Kurri Kurri. This 750 megawatt (MW) gas-fired power station has been deemed a “state significant” project, which means local councils have no planning jurisdictions.

Activists are also organising to oppose the Kurri Kurri Lateral Pipeline Project, another "state significant" piece of infrastructure, costing around $600 million in public funds.

The Hunter Power Project needs this 17- to 21-kilometre underground pipeline, from the existing Sydney to Newcastle gas pipeline to the proposed Kurri Kurri Gas Plant. It also needs a compressor station and 14 kilometres of underground storage pipeline.

Legal challenges

The push for gas could, however, be derailed by recent and current legal cases.

Late last year an appeal was lodged against the IPC’s approval of the NGP by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) acting for the Mullaley Gas and Pipeline Accord. The hearing began in the NSW Land and Environment Court on August 31.

The EDO argues that the NSW IPC was “legally irresponsible” when it approved the NGP because it did not adequately consider the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. A decision is expected later this year.

A Land and Environment Court decision on August 26 may have a bearing on the Santos appeal. Bushfire Survivors For Climate Action took the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to the Land and Environment Court over its climate change policy, arguing the authority had failed to stop pollution with greenhouse gases. Justice Brian Preston ordered the EPA “to develop environmental quality objectives, guidelines and policies to ensure environment protection from climate change”.

Nature Conservation Council chief executive Chris Gambian said the judgment put the state’s biggest polluters on notice. EDO legal advisor Elaine Johnson said, “It’s a really big win. It means [the EPA] has to do something to ensure there is protection against climate change.”

In a world first, a case in NSW will challenge the accuracy of gas corporations’ net zero emissions targets. The EDO said on August 27 that the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) is challenging Santos’ claims that gas provides “clean energy” and that it has a credible plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2040. It is the first Australian case against the oil and gas industry to question “greenwashing”.

The ACCR will argue that Santos has misled or engaged in deceptive conduct in a potential breach of corporate and consumer laws. The EDO stated that such actions are “putting the gas industry on notice”.

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