Santos’ Pilliga gas hopes under fire

The Sydney Knitting Nannas gave Labor MP Trish Doyle more than 11,000 petitions opposing Santos' plans to frack in the Pilliga Forest on March 4. Photo: Pip Hinman

A New South Wales parliamentary committee investigation into the regulation of the coal seam gas (CSG) industry has found that the Coalition is failing to enforce the Chief Scientist's recommendations to ensure that the industry’s practices are made safe.

The Legislative Council report, released on February 27, said that only 2 of 16 recommendations from Professor Mary O’Kane’s 2014 report had been implemented in full, and half had not been implemented at all.

The committee heard from industry representatives, including Santos, which is pushing for approval of its application to drill 850 wells in the Pilliga Forest near Narrabri, a recharge area of the Great Artesian Basin. In the hearings, it pledged its project could provide 70 petajoules a year, coincidentally the same amount as detailed in the recently signed federal-state memorandum of understanding.

The Santos representative and the industry lobby group APPEA made light of concerns expressed by farmers, health workers and the Lock the Gate Alliance. Nevertheless, Santos said it is committed to implementing the Chief Scientists’ recommendations.

Lock the Gate’s George Woods, who also addressed the hearing, said the inquiry showed government and industry have yet to resolve critical issues, including that famers “are left to bear ‘uninsurable’ risks posed by coal seam gas activities”.

Woods said the NSW government must set up a Standing Expert Advisory Body to “review all new findings in relation to health impacts and include them in any new assessment of coal seam gas activities”. Further, it should reassess 12 expired Petroleum Exploration Licences — covering 5 million hectares — in north-western NSW, using its own “Strategic Release Framework”, to ensure gas exploration activities do not take place in environmentally sensitive areas. If this were applied, Santos’ project would not be approved.

Independent MP Justin Field said the “government has had 5 years to fix this and they’ve failed”. He wants parliament to debate his private members’ bill for a moratorium on the coal seam gas industry this month. He said the bill would be a test for the Nationals.

“Right now NSW taxpayers are paying $3.75 million a year to regulate the industry when the clear recommendation of the Chief Scientist was that this industry should pay the costs of its own regulation,” Field said on February 27.

Field said the regulatory system that is supposed to protect precious groundwater, communities and nearby farmers “is full of holes” and that this means the “Narrabri project should not go ahead”.

Sydney Knitting Nannas and Friends delivered another 11,000 signatures to the NSW parliament on March 4 demanding MPs not approve the Santos CSG project. The NSW Department of Planning is expected to make a recommendation on the project this month. It will then go to the Independent Planning Commission to determine whether the project should be approved.

[Pip Hinman is an activist with Stop Coal Seam Gas Sydney.]

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