Santos gas project opponents overwhelm NSW planning body

July 29, 2020
Sydney Knitting Nannas and Friends take their message to the streets of Sydney on July 15. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The NSW Independent Planning Commission (IPC) has heard an outpouring of opposition to Santos’ Narrabri Coal Seam Gas (CSG) project in the Pilliga Forest, near Narrabri in northern-west New South Wales.

The NSW government wants the IPC to approve the unconventional gas project, which would be the first unconventional gas project to get the go-ahead in 19 years.

The IPC had set aside five days for the hearings from July 20 but, due to widespread concerns about the first of what Santos hopes will be many CSG projects in NSW, it had to be extended to 7 days.

About 405 oral submissions were given, 98% of which opposed the $3.6 billion gas project. Written submissions far outnumber supporting submissions, and more are being lodged at a rapid rate. Submissions close on August 10.

Santos wants a licence for 850 wells in the Pilliga Forest — the largest dry woodland temperate forest on the east coast of Australia. But the Gomeroi people, farmers, townsfolk, climate change and health experts, hydrologists and sociologists are opposed.

Narrabri farmer Sally Hunter, a spokesperson for People for the Plains, described Santos CEO Kevin Gallagher’s oral presentation as being like a “television advertisement”.

David Kitto from the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPI) and Narrabri Mayor Cathy Redding spoke in favour of the gas project, but presented little scientific data nor did they mention any risks.

When a commissioner questioned Kitto about the discrepancy between the water experts and Santos’ modelling of the connection between the Pilliga sandstone, the Great Artesian Basin and the Naomi River alluvial groundwater, Kitto struggled to answer.

Professor Stuart Khan from the University of NSW questioned Santos’ calculations of 430,000 tonnes of contaminated salt the gas project would produce. He said as much as 850,000 tonnes could be pumped up from underground aquifers.

There is nowhere to put this liquefied salt, even after reverse osmosis has removed much of the water. No waste depot in Narrabri is licensed to take this liquid brine and hazardous waste cannot be contained in landfill, as rain will allow it to seep back into underground water supplies, Khan said.

The danger to the Great Artesian Basin is great as the Pilliga Forest is a recharge zone. It is hard to see how salt will not contaminate the sandstone overlay. Santos has released a few of its own studies, but the data is inadequate.

Khan told the IPC: “The salt won’t disappear and would have to be managed forever. None of these issues have been considered in the guidelines.” Santos told the IPC it had been investigating “beneficial uses” for the salt waste for nearly a decade.

No permission from Gomeroi

Dolly Talbott, representing more than 600 Gomeroi Traditional Custodians, told the IPC that Santos had not asked permission to explore or mine. The Gomeroi first asked Santos to leave the Pilliga in 2013. Men’s and women’s sacred business is still carried out and there are many burial places throughout the Pilliga Forest.

Talbott said it is very difficult for Traditional Owners to talk about these sites publicly, as it violates their lore. She said they asked Santos to consult them but were ignored. The DPI even violated its own requirements to comply with the NSW Heritage and Native Title Act, she said.

Another concern is the quality and supply of water, upstream and downstream, which has been made worse by drought. “Towns have not been able to access water and bottled water had to be trucked in. Water must be protected and no more water should be taken out of the Great Artesian Basin,” Talbott said.

Farmer David Watt slammed the Department of Primary Industry’s characterisation of his property as “low” quality. Blairmore, which is adjacent to the Santos project site, produces canola, wheat, barley and runs beef.

He said groundwater extracted with the gas would lead to the depressurisation of the Great Artesian Basin and faults in the underlying sandstone rock will contaminate the water supply. The property relies on two bores, without which it could not work. Santos has not once contacted Watt to discuss its CSG project, he said.

Farmer Rosemary Nankivell from Yarraman in the Liverpool Plains was also concerned about the contamination of aquifers. She said Santos said it would use 450,000 litres of drilling fluid in each well to extract the gas. But, in 2008, Santos was asked how much drilling fluid it recovered from each well and, after a long pause, replied between 0–100%!

Nankivell said farmers were able to stop coal miners in the Liverpool Plains and are committed to stop gas mining in the Narrabri.

Fahimah Badulhisham, spokesperson for the multifaith organisation Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, argued for an ethical approach to all life on earth, saying the gas project would be a disaster for the Traditional Owners, farmers and wild life.

Emma Stilts, from Manilla Community Renewable Energy, spoke about a renewable solar-powered centre, which will create jobs and help revitalise the region’s economy. Manilla is 100 kilometres south-east of Narrabri.

Wilderness Society spokesperson Eleanor Lawless expressed concern about the fragmentation of the 1000 hectares. A broken forest could lead to the loss of the Pilliga mouse, unique to the area.

Lessons from Queensland

Dayne Pratzky, from Smiths Lake near Chinchilla in Queensland, spoke of how the CSG industry’s endless noise, continual flares from burning excess methane and the 24/7 reverse osmosis factories 3 kilometres from his house caused him to suffer nose bleeds, chest problems and migraines. His rainwater tanks became undrinkable.

He showed the IPC the deeds from the forced sale of his 101 hectare farm, which he had to sign with a confidentiality agreement. Twenty more of his neighbours were forced to do the same. The anger and fury in his voice was palpable.

Leonard Tesoriero discussed the problem of the rare plants in the Pilliga that are susceptible to Phytophthora water mould, which would be brought in by the roads Santos would build deep into the forest. Unknown species of mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, essential to the health of the forest, would also be lost. He said none of these problems have been addressed by the NSW government’s assessment report.

Another issue is the organic certification of farms. Anne Ciesiolka, who had owned an organic orange tree farm in the Gold Coast, Queensland, said it would be hard for anyone in the Boggabri or Narrabri area to get organic farming certification due to the risks of chemical contamination from the CSG extraction process.

Naomi Hogan from Lock the Gate Alliance spoke of the importance of the recharge area, dismissed as “not significant” in the government’s assessment report. There are not many places where the Great Artesian Basin is recharged from rain water entering the basin, she said.

Melissa Gray, from Healthy Rivers in Dubbo, said the misuse, depletion and depressurisation of underground water over 150 years had caused more than 1000 natural springs in NSW to dry up. She said First Nations people had been able to live in the great desert of central Australia for more than 65,000 years because of the health of the Great Artesian Basin.

Educated communities

Pip Hinman from Stop CSG Sydney answered Narrabri Mayor Redding’s complaint about the interference of “out of towners” in a project that she said would bring jobs to the region. Hinman told how Sydney people had educated themselves about CSG after they became aware, in 2010, of Dart Energy’s efforts to drill for CSG in St Peters, 6 kilometres from the CBD. City and country groups had built the pressure, and the NSW government appointed the Chief Scientist to hold an inquiry, later cancelling most CSG exploration licences, which then covered 60% of the state.

Financial analyst with the Institute of Energy Economics Bruce Robertson challenged the economics of gas mining. Right now, there is a gas and oil depression, he said, and Santos has written off a further $950 million from its failed CSG investments in Australia. Globally, renewables have grown by 148% while fossil fuels have declined by 38%.

Robertson said that gas is not a “transition” fuel, and that Australians pay more for gas than the Japanese do. It is not possible to reduce the cost of gas by producing Narrabri gas at a cost of $7.80/Gigajoule, whereas the average cost for on the east coast is $3.05/Gigajoule.

Professor Bryce Kelly from the University of New South Wales said that, if approved, the project would become one of the top 100 greenhouse gas emitters in Australia. Kelly is part of an international team investigating the world’s largest study on methane emissions from CSG. Kelly provided the IPC with data from the federal government’s National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Scheme, which showed that Santos is already the 20th largest greenhouse gas emitter.

[The Independent Planning Commission is taking written submissions until August 10. You can find material on the Santos Narrabri Gas Project at Lock the Gate Alliance. A transcript of the oral hearings can be found here, where the written submissions can also be found.]

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