Features, Oil & Gas Leaks

Under our feet: A future for the Narrabri Gas Project?

Santos security patrol at Bibblewindi Water Treatment Facility. Image by Jake Holroyd

By Dave Paull

Fossil Fool Bulletin • 4 February 2020

Scott Morrison claims he knows his constituency better than the bureaucracy could, because politicians get out into electorates and have intimate knowledge of people’s hopes and fears.

However, when it comes to the Narrabri Gas Project, it seems he is way off the mark. The seat of Barwon fell to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party in 2019, the Nationals losing it after 50 years of political control. The new member, Roy Butler, crushed the opposition in no small way due to discontent over neglect of regional services, management of water, problems associated with mining, opposition to the Narrabri Gas Project, in short issues that have created considerable unrest in the once conservative electorate. Barwon is now filled with discontent over resource mis-management and National Party corruption.

Our Prime Minister said we should dig up the resources under our feet, but there is a more precious resource down there – water. The devastating drought has wreaked havoc over surface water and shallow aquifers and has placed a greater reliance on groundwater throughout western NSW. Several towns, including even the major centre of Dubbo are facing a water crisis this year with questions raised as to how the town will survive even following a major diversion of water from the central west Windamere Dam to Burrendong Dam which is at record low levels and normally provides flow down the Macquarie River.

Santos’ Wilga Park Power Station has recently been upgraded to make use of royalty free ‘beneficial re-use gas’. Image courtesy of Wando Conservation & Cultural Centre

Community lifeblood – water threatened

Yet Santos’ Narrabri Gas Project will remove 37.5 GL of water over the lifetime of the Project, according to Santos’ own estimates, if allowed to proceed, although there is considerable uncertainty here. This is water from the coal-bearing Gunnedah Basin which underlies the inflow zone of the Great Artesian Basin (GAB), the lifeblood for communities into the future.

Gas industry advocates, such as Kevin Gallagher, CEO of Santos as well as being the Chair of the APPEA Board, the industry’s main lobby group, contend that these overlying water sources are not connected and this level of water take will not affect the GAB. This however is a contention heavily disputed by groundwater experts, given the porous nature of the sandstone bedrock, its high level of fracturing, which Santos have somehow failed to adequately map.

Dodgy export deals cut domestic supply

Santos themselves predict a drawdown of surface water tables up to several metres from the Narrabri Gas Project, one wonders how this could happen if the water sources are not connected.

But there are many things about this rush for gas which do not make sense. As Butler pointed out, how can we need new gas fields when so much is exported? Of course, this all goes back to the dodgy gas supply deal which was signed with China back in 2006 by then Labor Governments of Australia and Queensland. And consumer gas prices have never been the same ever since.

Enough gas under the Pilliga forests to supply half of NSW needs? A claim repeated ad nauseum for many years, particularly by of course John Anderson while he was head of Eastern Star Gas who sold the licences to Santos. This has never been substantiated, as these estimates are not based on any kind of in situ quantification, such as obtained by coal miners, as quantities can only be measured AFTER appraisal by drilling is conducted. After almost 20 years of ‘exploratory’ drilling in the Pilliga and surrounding farmlands, Santos still cannot substantiate these claims with any publicly available data.

But it is not just the local electorate which remains opposed to this Project (96% of landowners in the north west do not support the project according to Lock the Gate surveys), submissions to the environmental impact statement a few years ago recorded over 22,000 objections from across Australia, a record number for any development in New South Wales. However now, the NSW Dept of planning counts only 6,000 of these as the ones coming from the Barwon area.

The community opposition to this Project has been long-standing. Back in 2001, when the exploration drilling was still confined to 13 sites, the first anti-gas protest occurred in the Pilliga against the American exploration company FirstSource Energy. This was moved on by police.

Since then, the Project has seen considerable protest action from 2011 onwards with local landowners, indigenous and town people united with a considerable number of groups from around Australia in a series of ‘lock-ons’ and protest actions, which saw many arrests and some police violence. It is a sign of things to come if this Project is pushed through the approval process with a thumbs up, given the current state of local opposition and disquiet on this matter.

L-R Stuart Murray, Aunty Mimmie Humble, Kim Revell, Anne Kennedy & Cherie Robinson on World Water Day 2015 at Santos Leewood. Image by Johanna Evans

How has this invasive gas project survived for so long given this lack of social licence? The answer is obvious, through industry lobbying, political donations and political interference. The recent claims by the Prime Minister following his signing an MOU with the NSW Government that this project should proceed is not the first time such heavy-handed pressure has been applied. One only has to go back a few years to similar statements made by the then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that seem to suggest the development process be somehow circumvented. This in the end came to nothing. A previous MOU signed between the NSW Government and Santos has also came to nothing.

The truth is, Santos have not ticked all the boxes and the decision on this process now rests with the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) who are due to make a decision in the near future, though no announcement of the hearing has been made. The IPC is now a separate agency and the sole consent authority, following a review by the Productivity Commission.

Santos fails to tick the boxes

Besides having not yet obtained statutory approval, some of the other unticked boxes include:

• Not meeting the NSW Chief Scientist’s recommendations for the industry (still subject to an ongoing Upper House Inquiry);

• Not providing information to satisfy the ‘Water Trigger’ (IESC) scientific committee;

• A litany of unaddressed health concerns; and

• And so far, no agreement has been reached with the Gomeroi Native Title Applicant Group, despite months of pressure, the group are now demanding the matter go to the Nation in an open community meeting. Something Santos are not going to relish.

Despite Santos’s arrogance and new-found public confidence that the project will proceed, (in no small part due to its desire to assure its shareholders, such as Chinese owned ENN), the Narrabri Gas Project still looks doubtful.

But given it somehow manages to stumble through and get approval, there is no doubt it will be met with a wave of protest not seen in north-western NSW.

Its time for Scott Morrison to have another chat with his bureaucracy.

• Dave Paull is an ecologist who has previously worked for NSW Planning.

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