Controversial Narrabri gas project gets ‘green light’ from NSW development authority

Article by Amanda Jasi

SANTOS has received “phased” and strictly conditioned approval from the independent planning commission of New South Wales (NSW) for its controversial A$3.6bn (US$2.58bn) Narrabri coal seam gas project, which could supply up to half of the state’s gas demand.

Approval comes despite widespread opposition from the public, and the potential for adverse environmental impacts.

Santos sought approval for up to 850 gas wells and associated infrastructure across 95,000 ha (950 km2) encompassing the Pilliga State Forest and privately-owned farmland, southwest of Narrabri. Operations will be located on around 1,000 ha of the project area.

After a “thorough” examination of all of the evidence, which lasted more than 15 weeks, the NSW Independent Planning Commission (IPC) announced it had granted project approval on 30 September. IPC is the consent authority for state significant development in NSW. In its Statement of Reasons for Decision, IPC said that it concluded “the Project is in the public interest and that any negative impacts can be effectively mitigated with strict conditions”.

In public hearings and more than 11,000 written submissions received by IPC, issues raised included those relating to groundwater impacts, climate change impacts from greenhouse gases, biodiversity impacts, impacts on agriculture, bushfire impacts, employment impacts, health impacts, impacts on Aboriginal cultural heritage, and management of waste (including salt).

IPC’s phased approval comes subject to 134 stringent conditions, which are designed to prevent, minimise, and/or offset adverse environmental impacts; set standards and performance measures for acceptable environmental performance; require regular monitoring and reporting; and provide for the ongoing environmental management of the development.

The conditions include those recommended by the NSW Government’s Department of Planning, Industry and Environment which the department proposed when it recommended the project for approval by the IPC in June. The department recommended the Narrabri project for approval despite opposition demonstrated by 98% of 23,000 public submissions. Of the more than 11,000 written submissions received by IPC, 10,720 were objections.

The development of the Narrabri project is divided into four phases: appraisal, construction, production, rehabilitation. The phased approval that is subject to stringent conditions means that Santos must meet specific requirements before it can progress to the next phase of development.

Once work on the project begins, it is expected that it will create 1,300 construction jobs followed by 200 operational jobs, and that it will boost supply for the east coast domestic gas market. The project has the potential to produce 200 TJ/d for at least 20 years, which is up to half of the gas demand of NSW.

Santos welcomed the IPC’s approval and thanked the Narrabri community for its strong support over many years. The company accepted the conditions and said it will work with the federal Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment as it considers its recommendation to the Federal Minister for the Environment on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. The Act is Australia’s central piece of environmental legislation. Santos still has to gain approval under the EPBC as well as subsequent approvals for the Narrabri project.

Kevin Gallagher, CEO and Managing Director of Santos, said: “Santos is excited about the prospect of developing the Narrabri Gas Project, a 100% domestic gas project that can provide the lowest cost source of gas for NSW customers.

“As the economy recovers from Covid-19, game-changing projects like the Narrabri Gas Project are critical to creating jobs, driving investment, turbo-charging regional development and delivering more competitive energy prices.”

Workforce union Australian Workers Union (AWU) considered the IPC’s approval a “huge win” for manufacturing workers and urged politicians at state and federal levels to ensure the “enormous” potential benefits to workers and their families.

Daniel Walton, National Secretary of AWU, said: “New South Wales should be a thriving global heavy manufacturing hub, and that’s exactly what we can become if we better harness our gas wealth. This approval is an excellent step.”

Project opposition

Despite potential economic and energy security benefits, the Narrabri project faces major public opposition including from scientists, farmers, and conservationists.

Penny Sackett, Honorary Professor at the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, said in an expert report on the potential implications of the project that approval is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement. In the report, dated 9 August, she also said the project should not proceed “on grounds of environmental and climate considerations, responsible stewardship, and social equity for and safety of future generations”.

Campaigning group Lock the Gate Alliance, which opposes the project, said that farmers and the Gomeroi Traditional Owners would “ramp up” the fight against the project despite the IPC’s “disastrous” decision. Gomeroi people are the traditional owners of Gomeroi Country, which includes Narrabri.

According to Lock the Gate, the opposers will take aim at the Berejiklian (NSW) and Morrison (Australian) Governments, which they say have failed to listen to their community and to protect groundwater from coal seam gas.

This recent approval for Santos comes as other oil and gas companies work to move away from oil and gas investment. Earlier this year, BP announced a commitment to net zero by 2050 or sooner, adding that it would invest in more non-oil and gas businesses “over time”. Santos says it aspires to achieving net-zero emissions from its operations by 2050. Oil and gas majors with net-zero commitments include Repsol, Shell, and Total.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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