Just days after school students across Australia declared that gas is not a solution to the climate crisis, and after overwhelming opposition from First Nations and farmers, the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) declared on September 30 that it had given a “phased” approval to Santos for its Narrabri Gas Project in the Pilliga Forest in north-western New South Wales.
This is the first major unconventional gas project that has been given approval in NSW since Metgasco was forced out of the Northern Rivers of NSW in 2015, after a widespread and long-lasting community campaign.
Communities in the north-west had been preparing themselves for this shameful decision, given the direct intervention of the prime minister into the deliberations of the IPC.
Scott Morrison made it clear early on in the coronavirus pandemic shut-down that gas would power Australia’s economic recovery and energy needs. He set up a COVID-19 “recovery” commission headed by gas corporation executive Nev Power to make sure that it would preference gas.
More recently, energy minister Angus Taylor announced on September 22 that the necessary gas pipeline infrastructure for all the new gas hubs would be built by the private sector, or the government would step in to do it.
The IPC claims that the conditions it has put on Santos will protect the Narrabri and the Great Artesian Basin. But hydrologists and geologists who spoke at the commission’s public hearings disagreed.
John Williams, former head of the CSIRO's Land and Water division and a founding member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, said not enough is known about fractures and faults in rock formations separating the deep coal seams, from which gas would be extracted. Nor is there enough information about the shallow groundwater aquifers, which are crucial for domestic and agricultural water supplies. His conclusion was that the project is not worth the risk.
The IPC said it has imposed 134 “stringent conditions” on Santos’ project for 850 gas wells in the Pilliga Forest. It concluded that the project is “in the public interest”.
Yet, in just the last few months, the commission received about 11,000 submissions, mostly opposing the project on the grounds of potential damage to groundwater, biodiversity and agriculture, the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, fugitive emissions, salt waste, bushfire, and not least, that the Traditional Owners had not given consent.
All of these were disregarded by the commissioners.
Even the unreliability of Santos’ cost estimates and pledge to lower gas prices was brushed aside by the IPC.
According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the price of gas would have to rise to make the Narrabri project commercially viable. “The gas industry has been suffering write-down after write-down, even before the pandemic hit. They are sinking hand over fist yet the government is intent on throwing public money to an industry that itself says it can’t deliver cheap gas to Australian consumers,” IEEFA spokesperson Bruce Robertson said on September 29.
Campaigners had been expecting bad news, given the politicisation of the Santos project. They are, however, determined to fight on.
Farmers and Gomeroi Traditional Owners will ramp up the battle to protect their lands and precious water resources. Gomeroi woman Polly Cutmore said: “Our people don’t want this gasfield and we are here to tell the government, Santos and their investors that we will keep on fighting it. The Pilliga is Gomeroi land and Santos is not welcome there.”
Lock the Gate spokesperson Georgina Woods said that information about leaks and spills occurring now in the Queensland coal seam gasfields “were ignored by the commission. Experts warned the commission that this gasfield threatens underground water supplies, farmland, and the stressed koalas of the Pilliga, that it will create dangerous amounts of greenhouse pollution and fuel climate change, that Santos’ modelling and assessment were flawed and superficial.”
The NSW Farmers Federation's spokesperson James Jackson said the project was “too risky". He pointed to the government's own Independent Water Expert Panel's report that warned of “groundwater depressurisation and drawdown of aquifers” that may occur.
Marie Flood from the Sydney Knitting Nannas and Friends, which has done much to raise awareness of the dangers of the Santos project in Sydney, said the fight is not over.
“Our message if the project is approved is that we are proud to have been a part of this long campaign in which city and rural communities have gone to great lengths and worked with inspiring creativity in fighting Santos.
“We will not give up fighting this project: the game is far from up.
“Farmers have always said that ‘This is a fight we cannot afford to lose’. We know that Santos needs a pipeline to get the gas out of the Pilliga Forest. It has the most hope in the 833-kilometre Queesland-Hunter pipeline to do that. That is a long way off.
“We see stopping Santos in the Pilliga as being important to the broad opposition to the Morrison government’s plan for a massive infrastructure boost to prop up the gas industry, thereby building gas into Australia’s energy system for years to come.
“It is not only unscientific, it is reckless in the extreme when we need to be working for a safe climate and sustainable jobs into the future.
“The fight against unconventional gas continues, regardless of the IPC’s decision.”