Has the NSW government implemented its strict guidelines for extracting coal seam gas (CSG) and required oil and gas giant Santos to comply with them at its Narrabri gasfields? This was the subject of a second hearing at NSW Parliament on February 4.
After questioning witnesses from the Department of Planning and Santos, upper house MPs established that nine of the NSW Chief Scientist's 16 recommendations had not been implemented in an appropriate or adequate manner.
This means Santos has been able to extract significant amounts of gas in the Pilliga Forest for years without adequate regulation and monitoring, as part of the project's “exploration phase”.
Santos’ “strategic adviser” Tracy Winter told the hearing the company supports all of the Chief Scientist’s recommendations and that only two recommendations are yet to be implemented: cost recovery and rehabilitation.
NSW Department of Planning officials said three recommendations had not been implemented: recovery of government costs related to the monitoring and administration of the project; an insurance scheme for landholders; and a rehabilitation fund by gas miners.
Evidence emerged that the department completely ignored other recommendations, including the establishment of a standing expert advisory body to monitor the overall and cumulative impacts of CSG mining. Community witnesses said the department had not established the necessary communication channels, nor the data repository called for in the Chief Scientist’s 2014 report.
People for the Plains spokesperson and farmer Sally Hunter told the hearing that neither Santos nor the government were fulfilling their obligations. She said for the past 10 years the group has “experienced continual derision and belittlement of people who question the industry”.
“With over 100 valid outstanding questions remaining unanswered by Santos, we finally resigned our seat on the community consultative committee (CCC) late last year.”
Hunter said the government had failed to fulfil the recommendation to “ensure clear and open communication on CSG matters at all times”. She said former Nationals MP for Barwon Kevin Humphries would “tell us that there was nothing to worry about and that everyone wants a gasfield”.
Hunter tabled a new report containing data collected over the past five years that showed a clear majority of locals oppose the Narrabri project and CSG mining in general. She said neither the government nor the Chief Scientist had addressed the economic justification for CSG.
“Imported gas is more economically viable than Narrabri gas,” she said.
“The NSW government’s buy-back of expired and unused petroleum exploration licences (PELs) [between 2015 and 2018] did not extend to the north-west.
“This meant our PELs remained, even after they had expired. None of our farmland, towns or water resources were made off-limits to CSG, even while these types of areas were declared ‘no-go zones’ in the North Coast, Hunter and the Illawarra.”
Hunter said the big risks from the gasfield noted by the Chief Scientist — including that Santos could not guarantee water in the Great Artesian Basin would not be impacted — had been accepted by the company.
“Santos has also not been able to give a guarantee that sulphate-reducing bacteria, which has been found in the bore water of test holes in the gasfield, would not erode the well casings," Hunter said. "Our landholders have been told insurance companies will not insure them against the risks of contamination.
“With the recent bushfires and terrible drought, plus predictions of increased frequency of more major natural disasters, we cannot afford for CSG to risk our water or release obscene levels of methane into the atmosphere.
“The government’s failure to implement the Chief Scientist’s recommendations is putting our water and our future at risk.”
Santos told the inquiry that gas from its Narrabri Project would be reserved for NSW consumption. It said it could provide 70 petajoules a year, the same amount as that detailed in the recently signed federal-state memorandum of understanding, in which NSW will receive $2 billion for energy infrastructure in return for providing more gas.
A report of the inquiry’s findings, which will be available in a few weeks, will provide an opportunity for the community to again call for CSG production in the Pilliga to be halted and the assessment process put on hold until all the Chief Scientist’s recommendations are implemented.
[Marie Flood and Pip Hinman are Stop CSG Sydney activists.]