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The Narrabri Gas Project should not go to the Independent Planning Commission

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Public protest has been strong against Santos's planned Narrabri Gas Project (Image supplied)

Based on the NSW Government's failure to comply with safety recommendations, the Narrabri Gas Project is unsafe and should be halted, writes Johanna Evans and Anna Christie.

THE NSW GOVERNMENT has failed to satisfy a raft of recommendations by the NSW Chief Scientist intended to provide a roadmap for the development of a world-class gas industry that is safe and sustainable’. In 2014, 16 recommendations were handed down by then Chief Scientist, Professor Mary O’Kane, which the NSW Government supported in full. The recommendations included implementing ‘strong and certain regulation’ as well as ensuring mechanisms for data transparency and insurance against long-term environmental damage.

However, the state of readiness of the NSW Government to regulate the coal seam gas industry is now concluded to be almost nil, based on the Final Report of the Inquiry into the Implementation of the Recommendations of the Chief Scientist. An eight-member cross-party Committee of the NSW Legislative Council has concluded that only two of the 16 original recommendations have been fully implemented.

The measured words of Mark Banasiak MLC (SFF) in the Chair’s foreword to the NSW Parliamentary Committee’s Final Report on coal seam gas nevertheless speak volumes. The Committee concluded that although, with the two outstanding recommendations (Recommendations 4 and 9) considered as ‘in progress’… ‘for all other inquiry participants the recommendations have not been implemented fully or, in some cases not at all, further exacerbating fears and concerns about the impact of the coal seam gas activities’.

Shortly after the report was released a spokesman for Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean said the Government would “not be taking advice from the Shooters, Greens and Labor on this important issue” and “the Government supported all of the recommendations of the Chief Scientist, and Engineer and developed the NSW Gas Plan to outline how it would deliver the support”.

He added that all 15 of the 16 recommendations “have or are being implemented” with work continuing on cost recovery. This comment shows appalling contempt for a parliamentary process the LNP participated in and does not reflect the findings made by the Committee.

In these circumstances, with the much delayed Narrabri Gas Project on the brink of being referred to the NSW Independent Planning Commission (IPC) for assessment, it is questionable whether it should be referred at all.

Historic support for the Chief Scientist’s recommendations

In 2015, then Premier Mike Baird swore he would come down like a ton of bricks” on AGL if it was found a breach had occurred in regards to the detection of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene (BTEX) being discovered in flowback water from four drilling wells and in a water storage tank.

He also said:

“We need to ensure that any coal seam gas (extraction) that is undertaken in this state is done in the safest possible way.”

Over the last few years, the NSW Government has taken its eye off the ball in regard to coal seam gas regulation and oversight.

Also in 2015, the NSW Department of Industry Deputy Secretary indicated that (referring to then NSW Chief Scientist, Mary O’Kane):

‘All her recommendations are now being legislated with the outcome being a clear and transparent compliance and reporting regime.’

It’s 2020 and we are nowhere near to this high level of regulation and compliance reporting.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian has remained mostly silent throughout her entire tenure; she ignores requests to visit the Project Area and talk to locals who are rightly concerned that their water will be impacted.

She stated in January 2017:

“The community has made their views clear... The community is not comfortable without security of land and water.”

We now call on the Premier to acknowledge the failure of the Government to implement key recommendations that guarantee the security of land and water and halt the assessment process.

NSW Government ‘unashamedly tried to mislead the Committee and the public’

According to the NSW Government and industry stakeholders, they have fulfilled 14 out of 16 recommendations.

Justin Field MLC says:

The Government unashamedly tried to mislead the Committee and the public.

 

Under questioning, their assertions that recommendations had been implemented fell apart. 

 

Critical recommendations around assessing cumulative risks, ensuring landholders have access to appropriate insurance against long-term risks and establishing an expert standing advisory body have not been implemented at all.

Following the release of the Parliamentary Report into the Implementation of the Recommendations of the Chief Scientist, Committee Member Justin Field MLC has flagged urgency around the Coal Seam Gas Moratorium debate signalling it is to be brought forward.

Five years have passed and the industry is now breathing down the neck of a vulnerable Narrabri, a town that’s been romanced by the industry for over ten years. Now with an unimplemented stack of recommendations, there are no assurances for the people of Narrabri who will be located only 6km from the project edge.

Public Health back on the agenda

The Committee has firmly placed Public Health back on the agenda, including as part of their recommendations ‘that the NSW Government review all new findings in relation to health impacts and that these be included in any new assessment of coal seam gas activities’.

2.230 We note that a body of reports on the health impacts of coal seam gas activities has commenced and that further studies of this kind would be beneficial to fully understand the health impacts of this industry. The committee therefore recommends that the NSW Government review all new findings in relation to health impacts and that these be included in any new assessment of coal seam gas activities.

North West Protection Advocacy issued a comprehensive Public Health Communiqué in January 2020, intended to inform health professionals and the public about critical matters concerning the unconventional gas industry in NSW — in particular, the Narrabri Gas Project.

The lead coal seam gas regulator, the NSW EPA, is an especially weak link for the Government. The agency’s poor performance, from the Chair and CEO who were unable to respond to a host of questions from the Committee down to Andrew Cowan, the person in charge of coal seam gas regulation who had no knowledge of the voluminous research currently available linking coal seam gas mining with serious public health impacts. A large amount of work is needed before trust can be placed in the EPA in relation to gas regulation.

No IPC hearing until systemic failures are corrected

It is clear that we cannot continue the assessment process for the Narrabri Gas Project. It has been delayed for years by Santos who have failed to provide information to NSW Planning on various critical aspects of the project, including fire risk, disposal of toxic solid wastes, gas composition analysis and a host of other information needed for assessment of the project.

It was noted by the Committee that:

‘2.4 A number of inquiry participants insisted that approval of the proposed Santos Narrabri coal seam gas project not proceed until all of the Chief Scientist's recommendations were met.’

There has been a systemic failure of good governance around this project, an inability to implement key recommendations and government obfuscation of what actually has been happening. We must now move to the Coal Seam Gas Moratorium debate with haste to ensure that communities are protected from this damaging and uninsurable industry.

The NSW Gas Plan is a failure. It’s time for Minister John Barilaro to call a halt to the Narrabri Gas Project.

Johanna Evans is currently campaigning for the State of NSW to become CSG free and for a statewide ban on unconventional gas. She is a volunteer for North West Protection Advocacy. You can follow Johanna on Twitter @jo_noCSG.

Anna Christie is a founding member of the Wando Conservation Centre and the Leard Forest Research Node, a citizen science group based in Maules Creek, Narrabri and also a North West Protection Advocacy volunteer. You can follow Anna @greekmcchic.

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