This is an extract from the submission presented by Counsel Robert White to the Independent Planning Commission panel for the NW Alliance on Thursday 23 July 2020.

The introductory presentation is here.

Environmental issues: Climate Change

In summary, NWA’s case on this issue is that approval of the Narrabri Gas Project at the current time is not in the public interest and contrary to the principles of ESD (ecologically sustainable development), in particular the principles of intergenerational equity and improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms, because the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including potential fugitive emissions, from the proposed development would adversely impact on the environment, including the environment of NSW, and hinder measures to limit dangerous anthropogenic climate change.

Emissions associated with the production of CSG and its processing arise from both use of fossil fuel derived energy for these activities and fugitive emissions of CSG at various points along the supply chain.

CSG, like all natural gas, is composed primarily of methane (CH4). Direct emission of methane to the atmosphere during production and distribution needs to be minimized because methane is a powerful GHG, 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when its atmospheric warming impacts are considered over a 20-year time period, and 34 times more powerful over a 100-year time period. The concentration of methane in the Earth’s atmosphere has tripled since pre-industrial times and continues to rise rapidly. It is responsible for about a quarter of total atmospheric warming to date. In Australia at present, there are no regulations that directly limit methane emissions from oil and gas production. Potential fugitive emissions from CSG are potentially so great that any benefits from the burning of gas for electricity generation compared to coal are negated.

Bowerman, Frame et al. (2013) showed that, under a scenario which is equivalent to a 1.5°C increase in global mean surface temperature at the end of this century), the climate will benefit most when methane emissions are reduced early, together with strong reductions in carbon dioxide. The commitment to the Paris Agreement implies strong reductions in carbon dioxide emissions in the near term. Reducing methane emissions will therefore have the greatest effect on peak temperature when done in the near term. This is inconsistent with approving significant CSG production.

The effects of adding new methane sources in the atmosphere arising from the fugitive emissions, and the burning of the gas extracted from the CSG, are inconsistent with a carbon budget and internationally agreed policy intentions to keep global temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and would have a cumulative effect on climate change effects in the long term. In light of that substantial environmental harm, and the critical importance of combatting climate change now, the Project should be refused.

There are multiple statutory pathways under the EP&A Act by which the IPC must have regard to the impacts of the Project on climate change, and which permit the IPC to refuse the development on this ground. These are:

  • s 4.15(1)(a), which requires the IPC to take into consideration the provisions of the State Environmental Planning Policy (Mining, Petroleum Production and Extractive Industries) 2007 (Mining SEPP), which requires the decision maker to have regard to the downstream impacts of the Project (including fugitive emissions) (s 14(2)) ;
  • s 4.15(1)(b), which requires the IPC to take into consideration the likely impacts of the proposed development, including environmental impacts (which includes the impacts of GHG emissions on climate change); and
  • s 4.15(1)(e), which requires the IPC to take into consideration the public interest, including the principles of ESD.

As set out above, section 4.15 of the EP&A Act makes any applicable EPI a mandatory relevant consideration. Coal seam gas development is defined in clause 3 of Mining SEPP and falls within the definition of ‘petroleum production’. Consequently, the Mining SEPP applies to the determination of the Project.

Clause 14 of the Mining SEPP relevantly provides:

14 Natural resource management and environmental management

  • Before granting consent for development for the purposes of mining, petroleum production or extractive industry, the consent authority must consider whether or not the consent should be issued subject to conditions aimed at ensuring that the development is undertaken in an environmentally responsible manner, including conditions to ensure the following:(c) that greenhouse gas emissions are minimised to the greatest extent practicable.
  • Without limiting subclause (1), in determining a development application for development for the purposes of mining, petroleum production or extractive industry, the consent authority must consider an assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions (including downstream emissions) of the development, and must do so having regard to any applicable State or national policies, programs or guidelines concerning greenhouse gas emissions.

Accordingly, clause 14(2) of the Mining SEPP makes the downstream greenhouse gas emissions of the Project a mandatory relevant consideration to be taken into account by the IPC when determining the Project.

In the Rocky Hill decision at [513], Preston CJ, having reviewed the authorities, concluded that the consideration of the impacts of a project on the environment and the public interest justify considering not only the Scope 1 (including fugitive emissions) and Scope 2 emissions but also the Scope 3 emissions of the Project (downstream burning of the gas resource). The contribution of the Project to the potential impacts of climate change in NSW must be considered in assessing the overall merits of the development application.

The Department’s assertion that total project-related Scope 1-3 emissions would be low relative to Australian emissions is irrelevant for the purposes of the s 4.15 assessment process. That is because all of the direct and indirect GHG emissions of the Project (including potential fugitive emissions) will adversely impact the NSW environment. The IPC accepted this argument in the Bylong Coal Project determination,[1] agreeing with Preston CJ in Rocky Hill that:

“Nevertheless, the exploitation and burning of a new fossil fuel reserve, which will increase GHG emissions, cannot assist in achieving the rapid and deep reductions in GHG emissions that are necessary in order to achieve “a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century” (Article 4(1) of the Paris Agreement) or the long term temperature goal of limiting the increase in global average temperature to between 1.5oC and 2oC above pre-industrial levels (Article 2 of the Paris Agreement).” [525]

The argument should be accepted in this case.

Approval of the Project would breach the obligation of intergenerational equity in that the development of a new greenfield CSG development would have an adverse impact on climate change, in particular the internationally agreed policy intentions to keep global temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Approving this CSG Project will worsen the impacts of climate change, thus contributing to the burden that will be borne by future generations in living with, and addressing, the consequences of climate change.

NWA will adduce expert evidence from Professor Penny D. Sackett. In her report, Professor Sackett will document the current serious impacts of climate change and summarise the science of anthropogenic climate change and its impacts. In addition to this summary, NWA and its members rely upon the helpful summary of the science and the international framework on climate change set out in the judgment of Mallon J in Sarah Thomson v The Minister for Climate Change Issues (2018) 2 NZLR 160; [2017] NZHC 733 at [8]-[42].

Further, the Professor Sackett will demonstrate that Australia is not on track to meet its NDC target for 2030. Further, if every country followed Australia’s level of action, the world would be on a trajectory to reach a 3- 4°C temperature rise by 2100 and would thus face extremely damaging levels of climate change impacts.[2]

In order to address the issue of dangerous climate change, Australia, along 196 other Parties, is a signatory to the Paris Agreement, which entered into force on 4 November 2016. The Paris Agreement aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, including by, inter alia:

Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

In Professor Sackett’s opinion, the carbon budget approach, as adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is the most robust way to determine the cumulative amount of carbon that can be emitted into the atmosphere to stay within the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.

In Professor Sackett’s opinion, under any reasonable set of assumptions regarding probabilities of actually meeting the carbon budget and the sensitivity of the climate system to the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, fossil fuel combustion must be phased out quickly, and most of the world’s existing fossil fuel reserves – coal, oil and gas, including CSG – must be left in the ground, unburned, if the Paris Agreement temperature targets are to be met. It therefore follows that no new fossil fuel development, including the Project, can be permitted because its approval would be inconsistent with the carbon budget approach towards climate stabilisation and the Paris Agreement climate target.

The approval of the Project at the current time is contrary to the principle of intergenerational equity because of the cumulative impact of GHG emissions from the Project, which is inconsistent with the carbon budget approach towards climate stabilisation and the Paris Agreement climate target. The Project’s contribution to cumulative climate change impacts mean that its approval would be inequitable for current and future generations.

Because the Project will contribute to cumulative anthropogenic GHG emissions that are currently projected to exceed the carbon budget, any conditions to be attached to the Project that do not require it to be carbon neutral will be insufficient to address its cumulative GHG impacts.

Accordingly, approval of the Project at the current time would be irrational, is not in the public interest, is contrary to the principles of ESD and should be refused consent.

  • [1] at [690]
  • [2] Professor Will Steffen, Expert Report, [27], [36].