Pilliga forest new CSG battlefront

Coal seam gas waste water pond in Pilliga state forest. Photo: Kate Ausburn

The Pilliga State Forest in northern NSW will be turned into a gas field if the government approves Eastern Star Gas's (ESG) mining proposal for the region.

The proposal set out by ESG seeks to develop the Pilliga into the state's largest coal seam gas (CSG) project.

The development would include the drilling of more than 1000 gas wells and the clearing of vast stretches of native bushland to make way for gas pipelines and other associated infrastructure, such as a water treatment facility and access roads.

ESG is already carrying out smaller scale gas development in the Pilliga, as the operator of the Narrabri CSG Joint Venture.

In 2006, ESG developed coal seam gas production pilot wells in the Pilliga.

A gas pipeline was also approved and built to carry gas from these wells to the Wilga Park Power Station, which was built by ESG in 2004.

As well as the wells now used to produce gas, some capped, unused gas wells remain behind barbed wire fences in cleared areas of the Pilliga.

At least one expansive pond holding wastewater produced by coal seam gas extraction sits amassing algae on its surface.

ESG’s plans for large-scale expansion of coal seam gas operations in the Pilliga have been criticised by environmental groups and landowners from the region.

The Greens NSW environment spokesperson Cate Faehrmann explained the scale of ESG’s proposal: “The proposed gas field development area covers approximately 85,000 hectares and includes Pilliga East State Forest, Bibblewindi State Forest, Jacks Creek State Forest, and Pilliga East State Conservation Area, plus some small areas of Crown Land and private land.”

Despite the NSW government's recent introduction of “transitional agreements” to regulate the expanding coal seam gas industry, ESG's Managing Director David Casey is hopeful about the future of his company's proposal for the Pilliga.

In a May 25 Open Briefing document, Casey said ESG continues to “monitor opportunities and development pathways with a view to ensuring early commercialisation of the project for the benefit of shareholders …

“Currently, our best estimate is that Federal and NSW regulatory approvals will be in place ... in early 2012.”

However, The Wilderness Society's Warrick Jordan said on June 16 that “given the scale of the project and current uncertainty over NSW mining and planning policy" ESG's timeline would be difficult to fulfil.

“Estimates of state and federal approval being in place in six months appear wildly optimistic," he said.

“The assessment requires full community consultation and proper consideration of environmental impacts on 85,000 hectares of forest, 1600 km of pipeline, a RAMSAR wetland, the marine environment, and the Great Artesian Basin.”

Local community and environmental groups came together on June 9 to tour the Pilliga and discuss campaigning strategy to minimise risks associated with coal seam gas and safeguard the environmental integrity of the region.

The coalition of groups will combine their efforts to campaign against expansion of coal seam gas mining in the Pilliga.

The Wilderness Society said on June 16: “The project area in the Pilliga is a recharge area for the Great Artesian Basin and includes habitat for threatened species, endangered ecological communities, and an area protected under legislation for its natural values.”