Gomeroi say fight to save the Pilliga is not over as National Native Title Tribunal says Santos can frack for gas

December 21, 2022
Rayong 'Bubbly' Weatherall , Nessajune Gamilaroi and Anne Kennedy in 2018. Photo: Supplied

The 118 coal and gas projects in the planning system, identified in the Resources and Energy Quarterly, make a mockery of federal Labor’s commitment to act on climate change.

Lock the Gate Alliance is among many organisations to point out that Australia's ability to meet its (low) emission reduction goals is “severely threatened”.

Lock the Gate Alliance national coordinator Carmel Flint said on December 20: “Even if just a handful of these projects are actually built, they will push climate change dangerously close to a point of no return”.

She said if the federal government’s new emissions reductions rules on big industrial polluters allow for these coal and gas projects to go ahead, “our biggest polluters will effectively get a free pass”.

One contentious project is Santos’ Narrabri Gas project. For more than a decade it has been demanding it be given approval to frack for coal seam gas in the Pilliga state forest, north-west New South Wales.

United opposition from the Gomeroi, farmers and regional and city-based campaigners has stalled the project. But in September 2020, the NSW Independent Planning Commission approved the project. This was despite receiving a record number of oppositional submissions — more than 10,000.

One more obstacle was removed on December 20, when the National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT) ruled that Santos could go ahead — with one condition.

This is despite the Gomeroi people not giving their consent. They rejected a confidential offer in March, prompting Santos to go to the NNTT for a determination.

The Gomeroi applied in 2011 for native title over 111,317 square kilometres, but their claim is yet to be determined.

They were claimants in the NNTT case. The Native Title Act, states that when a dispute between a state or territory government and a group of applicants erupts over a lease, the parties are obliged to negotiate “in good faith”.

Judge John Dowsett noted in his summary that the Gomeroi made “numerous assertions concerning Santos’s participation in the negotiations” but concluded that “it had not demonstrated absence of good faith”.

He also noted that the Gomeroi “submitted that the proposed grants should not be made, asserting that the Narrabri Gas Project would result in grave and irreversible consequences for the Gomeroi People’s culture, lands and waters and would contribute to climate change”.

However, the NNTT concluded that the Gomeroi “had failed to justify its assertions that the proposed grants would have such effect upon the matters identified”.

It “concluded that the proposed grants would provide a public benefit, significantly outweighing the Gomeroi applicant’s concerns”. However, Santos has to undertake additional “cultural heritage research” before moving ahead.

Given state and federal government support for gas, it is not surprising the NNTT, a federal government body, found that there was a “public benefit” for the CSG project, and that it would “outweigh” the cultural and environmental concerns of the Gomeroi people.

Raymond “Bubbly” Weatherall, who has been fighting the oil and gas giant for many years, told Green Left on December 21 that the fight is far from over.

He said that from the early days Santos had never negotiated in “good faith”. Even during the height of the pandemic it had demanded meetings with vulnerable First Nations’ claimants, Weatherall said.

“No amount of royalties would change the Gomeroi’s minds about this project,” he said. “At risk [from coal seam gas] are Liverpool’s ‘black plains’, the Great Artesian Basin and precious water. The produce from this area goes all over the country.”

Weatherall also queried how Santos’ 850 gas wells fit into the federal government’s carbon reduction emission plan of 40% by 2030. “Surely, it’s clear that this is not climate justice?”

“The fight for the Billiga has been going on for many years, and it’s not over yet,” Weatherall said.

Over the years Santos has had considerable backing in its campaign to open up the Narrabri to CSG.

Despite widespread scientific and cultural concerns about likely damage to the Great Artesian Basin, the problem of disposing of salt waste, Santos’ own malpractices, the weight of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), the NSW Coalition government and, since June, the Labor government have helped Santos push ahead.

There is little doubt that if Santos gets the final go-ahead, the Narrabri would be just the first of many gas fields in north-west NSW.

“If Narrabri meets all the environmental standards, and by all accounts it does, then it makes sense for it to go ahead,” resources minister Madeleine King said in June.

“It is an important gas reserve that will help the population of New South Wales address a future power crisis,” she added. “It avoids a crisis, is what it does, because it means more gas closer to your systems.”

The argument about a gas shortage and price reductions if we had more gas has been refuted again and again.

As Richard Denniss of The Australia Institute pointed out, the “big lie” was exposed this winter as energy prices started to soar.

After spending big — $80 billion — on infrastructure on the east coast, the gas companies are looking at big profits.

“Now the Australian gas industry, which is actually 95 per cent foreign-owned, can sell our gas overseas at the world price rather than to Australians at the cost of production. Unsurprisingly, it has been putting the interests of shareholders first ever since,” Denniss said in “Gaslighting Australia”.

Australia’s policy makers did not see high gas prices as a problem to be avoided, Denniss said. “This was the plan all along.”

Meanwhile, Santos acquired the Queensland Hunter Gas Pipeline in November to transport gas from the Narrabri to the east coast. The 200-metre wide pipeline corridor goes through floodplains, productive farming land, horse studs and small lifestyle blocks to the Pilliga Forest.

Farmer Sally Hunter, who leases a property in the Narrabri Lateral Pipeline’s path, said farmers oppose new high pressure pipelines coming through their land. “Farmers, some of who are in the middle of trying to harvest, coming out of months of sustained flooding.”

The pipeline would cause significant environmental impacts, jeopardise and disrupt high-value farmland and would become a stranded asset as the energy sector transforms.

APA Group, Australia's largest natural gas infrastructure business, announced in November it would not go ahead with the Western Slopes Pipeline, Santos’ preferred pipeline, after communities along the route refused to engage with Santos’ contractors.

The same is now happening along the route of the Queensland Hunter Gas Pipeline.

Santos still has a fight on its hands.

[A Coonabarabran Gathering in opposition to CSG in the Pilliga is being held on January 14 at the Coonabarabran Footy Fields.]

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