Santos wins fracking approval for Towrie gas development

February 23, 2023
Communities want the Queensland government to protect the Lake Eyre Basin floodplains from coal and coal seam gas mining. Photo: Lock the Gate/Facebook

At 4.55pm on February 20, Tanya Plibersek approved another Santos fracking project to go ahead in Queensland’s Surat Basin. No announcement or fanfare, and only a single researcher keeping a close eye picked it up.

Roderick Campbell, The Australia Institute’s (TIA) research director, just so happened to be taking a look at the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act’s (EPBC)notices website when he saw the announcement that the federal Minister for the Environment and Water had issued Santos a 54-year approval to develop a 116-well coal seam gas project in Queensland’s Surat Basin.

“Having been a long-time researcher of fossil fuel projects and having a background as an economist in major project assessments I do sometimes just happen to look as the EPBC notices,” Campbell said.

This time, Campbell found an approval for a project that he had never heard of before: “It’s not that big, but it’s a discrete new approval that would feed into Santos’ LNG export terminal at Gladstone.”

The project is located within the Surat Basin, approximately 50 kilometres north of Injune and 350 kilometres south west of Gladstone. It will be located within the Comet River catchment, which forms part of the larger Fitzroy Basin.

The development is operated by Santos and has been undertaken through a joint venture with Australia Pacific LNG, PAPL (Upstream), Total E&P Australia III and KGLNG E&P.

The development of the 116 wells, each requiring up to 2.5 hectares of land to be cleared, will be in an 8678-hectare area and have an operational life of approximately 30 years.

While almost everyone was in the dark, someone has clearly been interested in the project, filing a freedom of information request showing the federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s July 2021 assessment of the project.

Environmental concerns

The assessment details significant environmental concerns by the department: “The department considers that the proposed action is likely to have significant impacts on listed threatened species and communities and water resources.”

It was recommended that the project be subject to environmental assessment before approval by the minister.

Public comments, as part of the assessment, noted impacts on water resources, threatened listed species and communities and underestimated risk to migratory species. The department noted further that “without appropriate management the proposed action is likely to result in significant impact to water resources. The department notes that there are existing management frameworks that may be suitable to apply to the proposed action”.

While the environmental assessment opened the project up to public submissions, Plibersek has appeared to let Santos change the wording of their assessment after submissions were closed.

According to Campbell: “What I noticed was that they’ve let Santos change the wording from just vertical wells to just wells.”

For people who are interested in groundwater quality, vertical drilling is less of a problem from a disturbance perspective.

However “after public submissions had closed, the department was happy for them to change it from we’re drilling vertical wells to we’re drilling wells and we might do a whole lot of horizontal drillings as well”, Campbell said.

This recent federal approval comes as grassroots activists in Queensland are petitioning the state government to halt further fracking near vital water habitats.

Coal mine approved

Lock the Gate Alliance, Western Rivers Alliance, The Wilderness Society and their supporters will soon present a petition with more than 10,000 signatures to the Palaszczuk government, demanding it ban new gas projects on the fragile and pristine floodplains of the Lake Eyre Basin, east of Surat Basin.

Lock the Gate says that despite repeated election promises to protect Lake Eyre Basin floodplains, the Annastacia Palaszczuk government has instead given petroleum companies authority to survey for gas across hundreds of thousands of hectares in the region, while Plibersek has also given approval out to 2063 for the new Lake Vernon Coal Mine owned by Bowen Basic Coal.

[Callum Foote is a journalist and Revolving Doors editor for Michael West Media. He has studied the impact of undue corporate influence over Australian policy decisions and the impact this has on popular interests. Reprinted with permission.]

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