The online hearing into the Narrabri Gas Project is now running, with EDO acting for the North West Alliance and its member groups, having engaged independent expert witnesses to provide advice to the Independent Planning Commission (IPC).

The hearing is the final hurdle for CSG proponent Santos before the Commission decides whether to approve or refuse the application for the project, which involves 850 gas wells in the Pilliga Forest, near Narrabri in north-west New South Wales.

Counsel Robert White presented to the panel for the NW Alliance on Thursday 23 July 2020. This is a summary of his introductory submission to the Panel. He was followed by several expert witnesses throughout the day.

Read the detailed submissions on groundwater, climate change and ecological impacts which follow on from this introduction:

The NWA case

The Narrabri Gas Project has aroused substantial and unprecedented community interest. The Department’s assessment report notes that it has received nearly 23,000 submissions, including 133 from special interest groups and 22,721 from the general public. 98% of the submissions are opposed to the Project.

NorthWest Alliance (NWA) and its member groups seek a determination that the Narrabri Gas Project be refused development consent. The production of coal seam gas (CSG) carries with it significant environmental risks which have not been adequately addressed in the proponent’s EIS. The production of CSG requires the extraction of large volumes of ‘dirty’ water in order to allow gas to flow. The evidence shows that this will worsen the state of groundwater resources which are already under pressure from current users.

Also, given that CSG is composed primarily of methane, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG), direct emissions to the atmosphere will exacerbate anthropogenic climate change. The extent of knowledge around environmental impacts from CSG production generally, and from this project in particular, remains poorly documented and highly contentious.

In summary, NWA’s case is that the Project should be refused approval on the basis of the following issues:

Groundwater impacts: The evidence demonstrates three major environmental risks associated with the Project. These are

  • (i) long term risk of depressurisation and leakage from key water supply aquifers;
  • (ii) groundwater and surface water contamination, particularly with CSG produced water and/or other wastewater produced as a result of the Project and
  • (iii) fugitive gas migration into aquifers overlying the target coal seams (a groundwater contamination and safety hazard).

These are significant and real risks which have not been adequately accounted for in the EIS. Further, the independent expert reports raise significant concerns about the inadequacy of the groundwater modeling carried out in the environmental assessment, and the significant risk that this means impacts to groundwater remain insufficiently quantified.

The Project is contrary to the public interest and the principles of ecologically sustainable development (ESD), including the precautionary principle, and the principles of intergenerational equity and intragenerational equity.

Climate change: The Project is not in the public interest and contrary to the principles of ESD because, in order to ensure that the rise in global temperatures will be limited to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre- industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the Project should not be approved at this time;

Social and economic impact: The Project will have a significant negative social impact on residents and the local communities, contrary to the public interest and the principle of intergenerational equity. The Project assessment has overstated the economic and jobs benefits of the Project.

Ecology: The Pilliga forests and woodlands represent the largest, relatively unfragmented stand of temperate, semi-arid forest and woodland in eastern Australia. As such they provide a crucial refuge for biodiversity in a landscape largely cleared for agriculture, a matter that has been inadequately considered in the environmental assessment. The EIS does not provide an appropriate and adequate assessment of the likely impacts of the Project on terrestrial and aquatic fauna or groundwater dependent ecosystems.

Precautionary principle

The application of the precautionary principle in particular, when applied to the potential groundwater impacts, dictates that the Project should be refused development consent. The precautionary principle is squarely engaged in this case because there is a threat of serious or irreversible damage to groundwater, including significant aquifers, and there remains scientific uncertainty as to the environmental damage.

The evidence will demonstrate that the proponent has been unable to demonstrate that the threat of environmental damage does not exist or is negligible. Having regard to the significance of the threat of irreversible damage to vital groundwater resources, the most proportionate response is to refuse development consent.