Government handling of Narrabri Gas Project leaves future uncertain

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants Santos to drill up to 850 gas wells in the region (Screenshots via YouTube)

A proposed gas project in NSW is raising a lot of questions concerning the project's management, writes David Paull.

PRIME MINISTER 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 and opposition to the Narrabri Gas Project — in short, issues that have created considerable unrest in the once conservative electorate, now filled with discontent over resource mismanagement 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.

Yet Santos’s Narrabri Gas Project will remove 37.5 GL of water over the lifetime of the project, according to Santos’s 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.

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 Mr 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 per cent 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 Department of Planning counts only 6,000 of these on their website, being the submissions 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.

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 a memoranda of understanding (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 suggest the development process be somehow circumvented. This, in the end, came to nothing. A previous MOU signed between the NSW Government and Santos in 2014 also came to nothing.

Santos signed yet another MOU last year with Brickworks and Weston Energy (and a non-binding agreement with Perdaman Fertilizers). The Brickworks and Perdaman deals would see a loss of 18 PJ (petajoules) from the Narrabri Gas Project’s total annual volume of gas production. So, the mooted 70 PJ per year would not all be going to the NSW electricity market after all. What can we believe?

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 is due to make a decision in the near future, though no announcement of the hearing date has been made. The IPC is now a separate agency and the sole consent authority, following a review by the Productivity Commission, putting any decision at arm’s length from the minister.

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

Despite Santo’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’s future still looks shaky.

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 western NSW.

The position taken by our Prime Minister on this matter seems to be very much at odds with reality. It is clear to many that wrapping a $3 billion renewable deal with the NSW Government in this “brown paper” is a tactic designed to circumvent process and the will of the electorate. Perhaps it’s time Mr Morrison has another chat with his bureaucracy, particularly those outside the PM’s office.

David Paull is an Australian ecologist. You can follow David on Twitter @davesgas.

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