The NSW Department of Planning & Environment admitted on June 7 that it had been inundated with more than 23,000 mostly oppositional submissions to corporate giant Santos’ plan for a gas field in the Pilliga region in north-western NSW.
The department has now totalled the figures: more than 18,000 “form submissions” were sent in — meaning that many people took advantage of anti-fracking groups’ efforts to broaden the anti-gas campaign, by signing a form and adding their personal view to a statement of concern.
This was a unique type of protest as, based on past experience with this project, there is very little confidence in the department acting to protect the environment.
But given the relative remoteness of the region and the concern this project could potentially destroy Indigenous sites, contaminate the Great Artesian Basin and wreck the Pilliga state forest, people were determined to have their say using the department’s own, limited, framework.
Mike Young, in charge of Resource Assessments, said on June 7 this was “the most submissions the Department has ever received on a development application”. He added that “it reflects the high level of public interest in coal seam gas in general, and in this project”. He is not wrong on that. The form objections came from across NSW, interstate and almost 200 came in from overseas.
On May 26, Santos vice-president Bruce Clement was quoted by the ABC as saying that Santos was “confident” it would get approval for its project, 60% of which is located in the Pilliga Forest. He also said the company would respond to the 10,000 submissions that had been logged by that date.
Local farmer Sarah Ciesiolka said: “We are overwhelmed by how many people from around the state and far afield have supported our efforts to prevent the Pilliga forest being turned into an industrial gasfield. This is a mandate the NSW government cannot ignore. They must reject this unacceptable gasfield.”
The region’s irrigator body Namoi Water said, based on the information provided in Santos’ EIS, it did not support the project due to the significant uncertainty of the predicted impacts on ground and surface water resources.
“The concern we have about the gas project is going to be about the connectivity between the geological layers, and also the well integrity to make sure there isn’t any possible contamination, now [and] into the future,” Namoi Water board member Matt Norrie told the ABC.
Coonamble farmer Anne Kennedy said: “We are not surprised that so many people have made their objection to this project clear. Experts have reviewed Santos’ Environmental Impact Statement and found this project presents profound risk to the recharge of the Great Artesian Basin.
“The Pilliga Sandstone is effectively the headwater of the aquifer we rely on for our existence and Santos wants to drill straight through it and depressure the aquifers below it. It’s not on.”
Megan Kuhn from Lock the Gate Alliance said this “unprecedented response” must be ringing alarm bells for the government. “Over 100 communities in the area and around the region have declared themselves ‘gasfield free’ and people far and wide have now also swarmed to support us … The NSW government will ignore this movement at its peril.”