Santos released an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on February 1, declaring it intended to develop a controversial gas reserve in Narrabri, in north western New South Wales.
Farmers, townspeople, Traditional Owners and environmentalists are opposed to the proposed gas field: an overwhelming 96% of landholders, representing 3.2 million hectares of land over which Santos holds leases, have declared their lands “gasfield free”.
Santos wants to drill 850 wells at 425 sites on about 1000 hectares in and around the Pilliga State Forest, near Narrabri.
Ron Campie, spokesperson for People for the Plains, described the Narrabri project as “disaster after disaster” because of toxic spills and other problems associated with coal seam gas (CSG) exploration and processing.
The group, which is challenging the state government’s approval of a wastewater plant at Leewood near Narrabri in the Appeals Court, is worried the first stage of 850 CSG wells in the Pilliga State Forest could eventually expand onto nearby farmland.
Santos has now lost more than $1 billion on the project it bought for $924 million four years ago. The project was effectively written off when it was valued at $543 million last year, after an $808 million write down. Santos also downgraded the Gunnedah gas reserves from “proven” to “contingent”.
The EIS is not yet publicly available, but the state government is expected to place it on public exhibition in coming weeks.
The lodgement comes three years after the project was given “Strategic Energy Project” status to fast track it through the NSW planning system.
The CSG industry has been in retreat in NSW, with the state government buying back most of the exploration licences: they now cover less than 7% of the state.
In February last year, AGL, the only operator of a CSG field in NSW — based in Camden in south-west Sydney — announced plans to exit there by 2023 and immediately from its exploration project in Gloucester on the state’s mid-north coast.
In December Santos told the ASX it had relegated the project to a “non-core asset”, stoking speculation it would be sold.
It left Narrabri out of its five “core” projects, placing it instead among secondary assets, which would have to operate under a “sweat or exit” strategy to “maximise value”.
The EIS could make the project more attractive to prospective buyers who would be aware of the environmental damage the project has already caused as well as the huge protests against CSG mining across NSW.
Santos has pointed to the 2014 NSW Chief Scientist Mary O’Kane’s review of the CSG industry which ambiguously concluded that with appropriate safeguards and controls CSG could be safely extracted.
Santos said the project could proceed “safely with minimal and manageable risk to the environment”. It said water available to farmers and the community would be unaffected and the project would coexist with agriculture.
It also said significant impacts on threatened and endangered flora and fauna would be avoided through a number of mitigation measures and 90 identified Aboriginal cultural heritage sites would be protected after consultation with the Gomeroi people.
However, the company has a history of environmental failure in the Pilliga, with at least 20 toxic waste water spills, including the contamination of an aquifer with uranium and other heavy metals from 20 exploratory wells.
The Pilliga is a major recharge zone for the Great Artesian Basin, an essential water source for inland Australia. It is also a part of the Murray Darling basin, Australia’s biggest and most important food bowl. It is the last great inland forest, home to many endangered and threatened species including the koala, Pilliga mouse, black-striped wallaby and spotted-tail quoll.
Greens spokesperson for mining Jeremy Buckingham said on February 1 that the new premier Gladys Berejiklian should clarify if she supports a development “with no social licence”.
“The community has clearly rejected this unnecessary and unwanted industry because it will lead to the industrialisation of the landscape and the pollution of groundwater resources,” Buckingham said.
“Santos and the APA Group can expect to be met with persistent non-violent civil disobedience and direct action should these projects be approved.
“The last pipeline route met with significant resistance from farmers and APA should respect landholders who do not want them on their property.”