Santos has won conditional state environmental approval for its controversial $3.6 billion Narrabri gas project in northern NSW but opponents have immediately vowed to ramp up their battle to prevent it ever going ahead.
The ruling from the NSW Independent Planning Commission, which dictates a phased development under 134 conditions, sits neatly with the federal government’s push for a gas-led economic recovery.
Santos has yet to respond to the decision from the IPC, which comes more than six months after NSW planning minister referred it to the body.
The environmental impact assessment for the project drew a record 23,000-plus submissions, about 98 per cent of which were in opposition, while thousands more were made to the IPC, whose public hearings included several hundred participants.
The IPC noted that the number of objections alone “is not in and of itself the sole measure of the public interest nor necessarily a determinative reason for refusal” but said the submissions had been taken into account.
It also noted it was unable to take into account concerns about broader government policy and regulatory issues that fall outside its role and had to limit its consideration of the project based on prescribed criteria “which do not include deciding broader questions on legislation and policy”.
“Following its detailed deliberations, the Commission concludes the Project is in the public interest and that any negative impacts can be effectively mitigated with strict conditions.” the Commission’s Statement of Reasons for Decision reads,
“The Commission has granted a phased approval that is subject to stringent conditions, which means that the Applicant must meet specific requirements before the Project can progress to the next phase of development.”
Anti-gas group Lock the Gate Alliance described the decision as “disastrous” and promised that farmers and Gomeroi traditional owners fighting the project will ramp up their battle to protect precious land and water resources.
“We will never stop fighting to protect the Pilliga and protect Gomeroi country from coal seam gas,” said Gomeroi woman Polly Cudmore.
“The Pilliga is Gomeroi land and Santos is not welcome there.”
Coonamble stock and station agent David Chadwick said the IPC “has made the wrong decision”, putting the groundwater resources farmers rely on in the firing line of the coal seam gas industry.
The ruling effectively dictates the future of the gas industry in the state, influencing whether NSW can develop its own plentiful coal seam gas resources or whether it will rely on imports from Queensland, South Australia and overseas for future supplies.
The gas resource lying up to 1200 metres beneath the Pilliga scrub in the state’s north could supply up to half of NSW’s gas needs.
But during the IPC’s public hearings process, several scientists raised serious concerns about inevitable risks to water resources through the extraction process, as well as about salt waste, fugitive emissions and the climate change impact of new gas production in a world aiming for net-zero emissions.
Those concerns have been addressed in the conditions imposed by the IPC around the project development. They include a four-phase development structure, as well as additional conditions around the modelling and monitoring of groundwater impacts and the reporting of fugitive emissions, and new conditions on biodiversity, offsets, waste storage and treatment and consultation on Aboriginal cultural heritage.
The IPC’s approval doesn’t include consent for the proposed gas-fired power station at Leewood, for workers accommodation or for flaring infrastructure.
The Morrison government’s gas-fired recovery plan, released earlier this month, raised the political heat on the independent planning body’s decision – the culmination of a planning process that Santos kicked off in April 2014.
But the NSW state government has run cool on the project, despite the planning department’s recommendation to the IPC that the project be approved.
On the eve of the IPC’s decision, NSW energy and environment minister Matt Kean said gas had no future in NSW.
“[T]he business case for gas is on the clock,” he told the launch of the conservative youth wing of the Coalition for Conservation.
Gas “may be useful in the short term” but the economics don’t stack up, the minister said, adding “we should be making decisions based on the economics [and] gas is a hugely expensive way of generating electricity.”
“[A]s we get cheaper technologies, cheaper ways to deliver energy, we should be moving towards that,” he said.
A party opposing the IPC’s ruling has three months to make an appeal but this is limited to a judicial review, with a merits review not possible because public hearings have taken place.