Labor’s support for Narrabri gas will do nothing for energy crisis

Protest outside the Federal Court in April demanding Santos withdraw its bid to override Gomeroi opposition to CSG in the Pilliga Forest. Photo: Zebedee Parkes, Social justice filmmaker & photographer/Facebook

The Gomeroi people, farmers and climate activists have slammed new federal resources minister Madeleine King’s decision to fast-track the controversial Narrabri coal seam gas (CSG) project, saying it is no solution to the energy crisis.

King claimed on June 15 that the energy crisis would grow if new gas fields, like Santos' Narrabri project in northern New South Wales, did not proceed. Despite Native Title and environmental decisions still pending, King said she hoped the 880-well project in the largest remaining temperate woodland in eastern Australia would proceed and that critics should accept the need for gas as part of the transition from coal to renewable energy.

First Nations people have been resisting the CSG project for more than a decade because it will cause lasting environmental harm to the country, the climate, water supplies and wildlife habitat.

Gomeroi elder Polly Cutmore urged King to meet with her people, saying the project continues the “exploitation of stolen land”.

Gomeroi Traditional Owners voted 162 to 2 in March to oppose Santos’ plan to drill 850 coal seam gas wells in and around the Pilliga Forest.

Karra Kinchela, a Gomeroi Traditional Owner from Narrabri, said King’s support for the project was “disrespectful”. “We are respecting the tribunal process, we’re waiting patiently, there hasn’t been an outcome yet and Madeleine King should likewise be respectful.”

“What gets me the most is that if we had started the transition to renewable energy 10 years ago, the Pilliga wouldn’t be at risk now. The government wouldn’t be putting our Pilliga, our climate, and our water at risk.

“There has been resistance to Santos’ project for more than a decade, and that’s not going to change … She’s underestimating the determination of groups who are opposed to the gasfield if she thinks we’re just going to let Santos bulldoze the Pilliga.”

Liverpool Plains farmer Scott McCalman, whose property is covered by a recently renewed Santos-owned CSG exploration licence, said King’s comments were disappointing.

“People want change; they want commitment to address climate change and they want our energy network to facilitate that change, and not be reliant on CSG. Drilling for gas and supporting Santos’ project at Narrabri is extremely short-sighted.”

He said the gasfield would be “years off production” so that it would not play any role in the current energy crisis. “King only needs to look to Queensland where land is slumping, there’s groundwater drawdown and a massive, unresolved problem with salt waste, all thanks to CSG.”

Nature Conservation Council chief executive Chris Gambian said King’s push to fast track Santos’ gas “ignores the obvious need for domestic gas reservation”.

The new minister said gas shortfalls would hurt industry and households and that Narrabri gas was slated to flow to the domestic market.

Gambian replied that fossil fuel companies “must not be allowed to profit from this temporary energy crisis by locking in a long-term increase in their emissions”.

“Even the International Energy Agency … says if governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from this year.

“Australia has plenty of gas — we just need to prioritise domestic use. Gas as a ‘transition fuel’ is a myth. We also need to accelerate efforts to get out of gas, because gas is fuelling climate change,” Gambian said.

The Santos gas project is positioned in the largest forest remnant left in the heavily cleared wheat-sheep belt west of Narrabri. The area has recognised wilderness significance, with more than 117,698 hectares meeting the criteria for the National Wilderness Inventory.

“There has been resistance to Santos’ project for more than a decade, and that’s not going to change just because Ms King wants it to,” Karra Kinchela said. “She’s underestimating the determination of groups who are opposed to the gas field if she thinks we’re just going to let Santos bulldoze the Pilliga.”

Lock the Gate Alliance’s national coordinator Georgina Woods said Santos had contributed to creating “the gas supply crisis we now face”. “Santos and other gas companies had been exploiting the high gas prices and tight market they engineered to exert political pressure for more damaging gasfields for years.”

Sacrificing the beautiful Pilliga will do nothing to reduce the high price of gas, she said, adding the country needs “a pathway to zero emissions and a government that puts people and the environment first”.