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Narrabri Gas Project like all CSG, too risky

August 8, 2020

By Bonnie Cassen

Right now, we have an ecological disaster on our doorstep with the Berijeklian government pushing forward a gas transition power plan as NSW’s regional recovery revolution. Just why they are doing this, in 2020, amid a climate and ecological emergency, stands evidence to the strong ties and influences of the mining industry in Australia’s and the power they hold.

Pilliga landscape
Photo supplied

Gas is not a transition fuel; it is a fossil fuel just like coal; but made up of methane instead of carbon. If Australia is going to make any serious attempt to do its bit toward keeping global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees; no new fossil fuel projects can go ahead.

While mining projects are flooding the fast track recovery program, the timing coincides with the Narrabri Gas Project licence reapplication which has been referred to the Independent Planning Commission for its final decision.

Many recall the Shoalhaven’s fight against CSG, back in 2013 when O'Farrell’s government recklessly renewed the coal seam gas Petroleum Exploration Licence 469 – that covers an area from Port Kembla in the north, down to just south of Sussex Inlet, and through to Kangaroo Valley and the Southern Highlands.

CSG Free Shoalhaven fought hard to win the battle that saw PEL469 cancelled in October 2014. The group remains active with more to be done to enforce no-go zones for CSG and other mining in all the drinking water catchment areas, near all rivers, on agricultural land and near communities; and until there is a government-supported regional strategy for community based renewable energy solutions.

Wins such as this don’t come easily. Justin Field, Trish Kahler, CSG Free Shoalhaven along with its many supporters, worked solidly for a good 10 months, engaging the community to raise awareness on the issue. Ultimately, 4,600 signatures were collected, confirming the strong opposition to CSG within the community.

And now, with Santos pushing ahead with its Narrabri Gas Project many in the south coast are worried the area may again be under threat. The local PEL may have been cancelled back in 2014, but what that means is the licence is sitting on a shelf at the moment until a new buyer comes along. While no plans currently exist to reactivate PEL469, the south coast does already have a gas pipeline that runs through the area from Victoria to the Illawarra, while Santos doesn’t have this same infrastructure in place in the north.

Stop CSG Illawarra campaigning in 2015
Photo supplied

In the week before the formal referral to the IPC, the NSW Parliament debated a Coal Seam Gas Moratorium Bill introduced by independent MP Justin Field. The bill passed the upper house 20 votes to 17 with Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, Roy Butler taking on the campaign strongly for his newly acquired Barwon electorate. The Greens and Animal Justice Party both have strong climate and energy policy that supports the CSG moratorium, and of course, Labor joined in opposition.

The next day the government suspended business in the lower house to force the bill to a vote. After nearly a full day of debate, the bill narrowly failed 38 votes to 36, as expected, with only the National and Liberal Party MPs opposing the bill. All other parties and all independents voted to support a moratorium on coal seam gas in NSW.

We are seeing these rushing tactics being used more and more in the state parliament as National held seats become increasingly marginal – farmers wising up as to who is and isn’t trustworthy with water. Normally a bill that passes the upper house is scheduled to the agenda of the lower house for the next sitting of parliament. The time between sittings allowing MP’s time to examine the bill properly with their staff and consult with their electorate on the issue for debate. The risk of CSG affected communities lobbying Nationals MP’s and influencing their vote was too great to allow consultation to occur. 

There is strong opposition to the Narrabri Gas Project both locally, across NSW, and across the country
Photo credit: Save the Pilliga

At the time Field said in a statement, "normally legislation would be introduced and be given time for all members to consider the legislation and to hear from their local constituents on the issue,".

Butler voiced the opinion of all farmers across NSW in saying, "the vast majority of people in my electorate do not want to see CSG,".

Concentrating on take-aways, despite the underhanded control of the parliamentary process, and elimination of democracy; the moratorium only lost by two votes, indicating the strong likelihood of wiser voting from regional communities in the next elections.

The Nationals no longer represent farming regions and their interests and haven’t for a long time. Morrison has even threatened states and territories who oppose gas with GST revenue cuts and has the numbers in the lower house, to make pretty much anything happen – a very dangerous situation with the potential to do a lot of damage.

Sustainable energy is far from off the agenda though in NSW. The central-west and north-west have opened up as renewable energy hubs, the state government has committed substantial money to the infrastructure.

Although many good sustainable energy projects are being undertaken across the state and creating plenty of jobs in doing so, all this is now being undermined by the distraction of gas as a transition fuel, which makes no sense at all. Why would the transition to renewables not start now, and recovery investments put into developing this infrastructure further while we have the opportunity.

One of the overly stylised and misleading Pilliga well images Santos uses to indicate the visual impact of CSG wells on the landscape.
Source: Narrabri Gas Project website

The IPC has now finished the public hearings aspect of the process with experts and public testimonials completed last Saturday.

I spoke to Justin Field this week to find out just how much of a risk there is of the Narrabri project going ahead. Field, having been involved with stopping the industry push into NSW from the start, can always provide an intelligent and realistic perspective.

Field is concerned that the lessons learnt from CSG’s sprawling industry in Queensland and overseas, have been forgotten; that the industry cannot be constrained. Area one may be constrained with a couple of hundred wells, but those wells only last a couple of years and then the industry has to march across the landscape every kilometre or so, and it just keeps marching.

Aerial photograph showing the extent of damage to Queensland's landscape by coal seem gas wells. With 40,000 additional CSG wells planned for Queensland, imagine this image multiplied hundreds of times. CSG always marches across the landscape, is unsafe and cannot be contained.
Photo: Lock the Gate Alliance.

“This puts the prime agricultural areas towards the top of the state at risk,” Field told me.

 Most of the Santos claims are in the Pilliga Forest on publicly owned land.

If we do need economic recovery, we need stimulus into natural recovery. Why lose this opportunity to fast track restoration of the forests, green land recovery and revitalisation of our natural landscapes, or creating nature-based tourism for when it can return to the south coast.

It would be a mistake to start such a massive industry when the water crisis is far from over and temperature records continue to rise every year without fail, regular as clockwork. It is getting hard to ignore.

While we have had substantial rain this year in some parts of NSW, the drought in Australia is far from over. Significant areas of the state are still in drought and have received no rain relief, others are in early stages of drought recovery, and still, very much drought affected.

All evidence, including the government’s reports, refer to a hotter and dryer future, regardless of what our leaders voice to the media and of course on to us. We can no longer refer to this as a one in a 100-year event – we have had two bad droughts just in the past 20 years.

Field warns that we can’t be complacent and need to utilise precautionary principles with the CSG industry and the associated risks it places on water; a bridge too far from protecting our water security – not only in terms of water quantities but also water quality.

The Great Artesian Basin (GAB) is one of Australia's most significant hydrogeological entities. Covering more than 1.7 million square kilometres, the GAB underlies parts of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory. The GAB contains a vast volume of underground water (estimated at 64,900 million megalitres) and is the largest groundwater basin in Australia. Groundwater from the Great Artesian Basin (GAB) is a vital resource for pastoral, agricultural and extractive industries as well as for town water supplies, supporting at least $12.8 billion in economic activity annually. It is an essential resource that supports Indigenous cultural values and sustains a range of groundwater dependent ecosystems. Source: Geoscience Australia

The Santos project deals with complex geology – the aqua is quite high up, and there are coal seams that are also aquifers. Gas has mixed with water before. There were connectivity issues in the Gloucester Valley where the water and gas mixed with disastrous consequences. The Narrabri project puts the Great Artesian Basin at risk and the hundreds of communities that rely on its water to survive.

“Maybe technically it can be done and maybe with technology you can reduce the risk,” Field said. “But all industry has a breakdown at some point. In situations like this when the consequences are so extreme, even if the likelihood is small; the risk profile is still unacceptable when you are talking about such precious resources as water.”

The precautionary principle is embodied in our planning laws for a reason. Even if you could do it, that is not a good argument for why you should do it, especially when there is a risk that it could go so very wrong.

The Pilliga
Photo supplied.

It’s now up to the commissioners to test the evidence and make a decision - it is crunch time and they have a very tough decision to make.

While optimistic overall for a good outcome, Field says his greatest fear is that the IPC will give it a ‘Claytons approval’ where they condition the project to such an extent that makes it nearly impossible to be workable. This would be the very worst outcome for everyone.

No one wants a decade of disputes as to whether or not Santos have fulfilled their conditions, and typically the community is left to monitor Santos’s behaviour for decades and have to fight planning departments and environment departments when suspected breaches occur.

“I hope we can just put this whole project to bed and we can move on with what we should be doing, which is transitioning to renewable energy that runs sustainable regional community’s rather than based on boom-bust economics.” 

Field believes it is worthwhile for anyone who opposes CSG, even if they don’t live in an affected area, to submit because it is an issue that affects us all.

We all have an interest in a healthy environment and a safe climate, and a Murray Darling Basin system that can function, not just for rural communities and farmers but for the right of rivers to flow. The Narrabri Gas Project puts all of that at risk

“The weight of evidence, very well-informed evidence from hundreds and hundreds of community members is very compelling. I think any fair independent assessment should probably suggest this project not go ahead on its balance. I really think there is a chance to win”

Decisions by the IPC do not get made in a vacuum. It is not just a dry science and economic argument. There are social considerations which are important and the public sentiment around CSG is a very strong ground.

It says something very meaningful when over 23,000 submissions are received, mostly opposing the project, and only around 300 in support. It adds scrutiny to the project and a more detailed analysis is required.

NSW doesn’t need this gas project; especially as global methane levels are spiking. Increases in methane are very much related to large agricultural activity, but primarily the massive expansion of gas production across the world is to blame.

“You need to have a greater level of consensus in the community. We don’t have that, and I think that in itself should be enough to rule it out,” says Field in conclusion.

“Santos claim they have taken measures to safeguard groundwater, but the scientific evidence tells us the risk is too great to take,” says Shoalhaven’s Trish Kahler. “Case studies of CSG fields tell otherwise – there is no safe level of unconventional gas extraction; not now, not ever.”

Submissions are open until the 10th of August 2020 if you wish to make an objection to the IPC about the Narrabri Gas Project, even a short one can have a big impact. You can make a submission through this online submission form. And you can check the status of the Narrabri Gas Project with the IPC here.

Trish Kahler made a very detailed and personal submission to the IPC and has given permission for us to publish it here, hoping to inspire others to also prepare a submission. She said “It is going to take us all working together to stop this climate wrecking project, so that we can move ahead with a cleaner, safer, renewable energy future. Every submission counts, and every action helps.”

Trish Kahler’s submission to the Independent Planning Commission

My name is Trish Kahler and I reside in Basin View on the south eastern coast of NSW. I am a mother and grandmother who is greatly concerned for my daughter as well as my grandchildren and the future they will inherit in this day and age of climate change. 

I suffer from anxiety and depression due to post-traumatic stress and battle some days just to get out of bed because of fatigue. I have spent many years of my life now, stressing and worrying about the safety and health of the environment that sustains us all, as I have watched with dismay, what has been occurring in the US, as well as here in Queensland, with the CSG industry.

I have travelled four and a half hours each way by train to Sydney on many occasions to protest against CSG and the threats it poses to our health and the health of our environment. I was also awarded an International Women's Day Award in 2017 from the Office of Environment and Heritage for my work on the protection of the environment.

CSG Free Shoalhaven and Illawarra Knitting Nannas Against Gas at a 'knit-in' protest outside South Coast MP Shelley Hancock's office in 2015

I volunteer with Shoalhaven Transition, a not for profit community group who are helping our local community to become more resilient in the face of climate change through localisation, homegrown food production, supporting farmers markets and encouraging waste reduction and energy descent to help sequester carbon and reduce emissions.

I envisage how much more I could have accomplished in my life; had I not been protesting against CSG for the last 10 years.

Just this summer we all experienced the terrifying bushfire season where I was under immediate threat in the Shoalhaven from the Currowan Bushfire. I was sickened to know, that should this project go ahead, that Santos will be flaring 24/7, regardless of fire restrictions, and imagining flares amidst this massive mega-fire, even the thought absolutely terrifies me. 

The Pilliga
Photo supplied.

Just one leaf needs to be blown through these ‘Flare flames’, and we could see even more bushfires occurring during the fire season. I am also aware that our RFS are reluctant to go into gas fields to fight bushfires, due to safety concerns of “methane leaks, exploding” and I cannot say I blame them when caring for gas fields is not a part of their job description. Meanwhile, Santos has a fire plan, and it’s to just shut down their facilities and evacuate.

It greatly concerns me that there is the possibility of the Narrabri Gas Project going ahead, without the Chief Scientists Recommendations being implemented, to ensure that the industry can be run safely

This industry grabbed my attention 10 years ago now and having high anxiety, I researched all I could about Coal Seam Gas, spoke with knowledgeable people and attended many forums including a Scientific Forum on Coal Seam Gas in Sydney’s Parliament House. 

This forum covered lots of topics including, The hydrogeological science of CSGThe adequacy of the laws relating to CSG and Prof. Anthony Ingraffea, Cornell University - Well Integrity in NSW. The event was organised by a steering committee of rural landholders and left me and others who attended absolutely gobsmacked to see how little right our farmers had and the threats that the industry posed to our water and farmland.

I have connected with people in communities already affected by CSG in Queensland and have borne witness to the sadness and distress, even suicides, over water bores becoming polluted or running dry. Our farmers deserve better than this…

Stop CSG protest outside Shoalhaven City Council, in 2013
Photo supplied

I am a horticulturalist and have studied ecology, so realise the importance of interconnection in ecosystems, and that for every cause, there is a reaction, and that one reaction, can cause a cascade of knock-on effects and changes in ecosystems that could negatively affect the healthy biodiversity that we all rely on, for life. 

Coal Seam Gas extraction could cause cross-contamination of aquifers, affecting essential microfauna that could have disastrous consequences for our water quality, as well as the threats of drawdown on our water tables and recharge zones for the Great Artesian Basin.

CSG production would compete for our water and farmland that are necessary for our food security. In this day and age of climate change with crops already becoming harder to grow, I feel that water and farmland should be prioritised over CSG production when there are far safer options for energy production.

I would like to ask what is in the produced water, that they spray on roads, for dust suppression, during CSG operations? 

Have there ever been any tests on this produced water before releasing it into our environment? 

I ask this as I saw that Santos’s trial crops died that were grown with produced water and also because of seeing spill sites in the Pilliga that have never been successfully remediated with vegetation and unable to grow there many years later due to a radioactive spill in 2014. The soil is so heavy with salts that plant roots are unable to penetrate it.

I would like to ask if any baseline data accumulation surveys for water sources that could be impacted by this project have been carried out yet?

Has Santos explained where the produced by-product of salts is to be placed or treated?

How many CSG wells are leaking methane with well integrity in question?

How many water bores have run dry or been polluted due to the industries water requirements?

To witness the Condamine River bubbling up gas due to nearby fracking…

To see Santos fined a mere $15,000 for a toxic spill that will never be completely remediated…

The bottom line for me is protecting the water that we will all, always rely on.

CSG protest dog
Photo supplied

This project poses many risks that are just not worth taking chances with, I feel that the Precautionary Principle should be applied when considering this project, as I have always felt that it is better to err on the side of caution than be sorry at a later stage 

If you are still in the dark about Coal Seam Gas we suggest you check out resources from the North West Alliance (The Risks and Resources) or see Lock The Gates Website 

Page with detailed info https://www.lockthegate.org.au/csg_around_narrabri

You may also like to watch the free films Sacrifice Zone The story of a real Australian Gas Crisis and Fractured Country - An Unconventional Invasion

We would much rather see our Covid19 recovery being a truly sustainable one with renewable energy and would love to see Beyond Zero Emissions, One Million Jobs Plan being implemented, that would benefit us all, into a far safer future with less pollution and help mitigate the impacts of climate change as well as create jobs.

Trust us gas is not a transition fuel, despite what you may have heard.

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    4 comments on “Narrabri Gas Project like all CSG, too risky”

    1. how can these people even consider wrecking the planet drilling for csg??? typical capitalist arrogance...grrr...

    2. Excellent, well informed and interesting article Bonnie. Trish your submission bears witness to the work your have done, your knowledge and your passion. So proud to call your both my sister warrior women.

    3. The state and federal energy ministers all gathered for a 'Commercial-in-confidence' meeting a few weeks ago, and it would be interesting to see who in that group would actually have a conflict-of-interest in relation to coal seam gas extraction for energy production and export, especially when we know the potential damage and the influence it has on the perpetuation and escalation of climate change, let alone the threat to food and water security. I listened to the submissions two weeks ago and admire the many impassioned people, some experts in the field, all of whom opposed the Narrabri project. Why bother when we have energy resources which are free, on tap, and have virtually no impact in their use from birth to winding down, along with the technology which is improving all the time, unlike the evidence already seen and experienced across the planet, with CSG? This insanity must stop!

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