The fight to stop the state government from helping Santos get approval for its Narrabri Gas Project in north-west NSW has taken a new twist with planning minister Rob Stokes pushing the planning bodies to hold public hearings even during the COVID-19 crisis.
Stokes has requested the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) consider a new format using video and telephone conferencing for its “public” hearings, and that they occur within the next 12 weeks.
This may sound reasonable, but it is not. Many who would have attended the public hearings to object to the 850 coal seam gas wells in a Great Artesian Basin recharge zone are disadvantaged by online platforms, not least because the NBN is so weak.
Stokes knows that Santos’ project is widely opposed by Indigenous communities, farmers and city folk: more than 97% of the 22,700 submissions to the Environmental Impact Statement opposed the project.
Stokes did not have to trigger a public hearing during the COVID-19 crisis, but he has used his powers under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 to do so.
According to the North West Protection Advocacy campaigners: “This discretion has been used irresponsibly and in defiance of the NSW Chief Scientist’s recommendations of the prerequisites needed to establish a safe coal seam gas industry in NSW”.
Last month, a parliamentary committee savaged the hopes of the industry with a damning report. It stated the NSW government had not enforced 14 of the 16 recommendations made by the NSW Chief Scientist that are necessary safeguards against an industry notorious for damage to groundwater, greenhouse gas emissions, human health implications and toxic waste problems.
Stokes told the IPC on March 3 that it needed to find other ways of conducting the hearing, including limiting the number of attendees. Constraining scrutiny and limiting or removing the ability of IPC commissioners to question submitters serves the interests of Santos.
Despite assurances from the IPC that a written submission has the same weight as a personal appearance, this is not the case. A persuasive speaker with facts and ability to respond effectively to Commissioners’ questions carries more weight than a document with photos and charts.
In any case, NBN connection speed means that regional communities will not be able to fully participate in any public hearing.
Stokes knew communities were planning to protest outside and inside the IPC hearing. If the hearing is conducted his way, there will be no such public spotlight.
Launching the public hearing process during the COVID-19 crisis is a brazen exploitation of the current crisis to favour a mining giant.
[Contact Rob Stokes at the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, Locked Bag 5022, Parramatta NSW 2124. Alternatively, send him an email or a tweet to @RobStokesMP.]