Battle to save the Pilliga

~iris ray nunn
July 30, 2020

The Independent Planning Commission (IPC) for the NSW government, who will make the final decision on the Narrabri Gas Field development, have heard hundreds of concerns over the last week about the plans to drill 850 coal seam gas (CSG) wells in and around the Pilliga State Forest in the northwest of NSW.

Public hearings into new developments have, historically, taken an average of two days. The Narrabri Gas Field public hearing has been extended from five to seven days. This is indicative of the level of public interest in and concern about this contentious development.

Experts object

Numerous Australian experts Australia, in the fields of waste management, water management, extreme disaster management, ecology, economics, and climate science have addressed the commission; all strongly object to the plan to drill the CSG wells, citing extensive scientific data and information relating to the future direction of our nation.

They claim that Santos Ltd, the mining company seeking approval for the gas field, have failed to address multiple issues related to the development. They argued that Santos has not clearly mapped the aquifers under the forest, that detailed field surveys of flora and fauna have not been done, that they have grossly underestimated their ability to manage the enormous amount of salt waste from the project, and that they have not taken into account the increasing fire risks in the Pilliga Forest owing to climate change, and have not included the latest data collected from the disastrous Black Summer fires of 2019 and 2020.

Facts were presented to the commissioners by experts in finance and economics that demonstrated that claims of ‘NSW running out of gas’, ‘prices being lowered for the consumer upon approval’ of further gas extraction, and that ‘unconventional gas is an economically viable fuel to transmission into renewables’ were unsubstantiated claims generated by the gas industry.

The critical state of the health of our Earth was laid out by Professor Penny Sackett, former Chief Scientist to Australia, who now works for the Climate Change Institute. Professor Sackett told the IPC that if we approve any new fossil fuel developments in Australia, we will not meet our Paris Agreement targets to keep global temperatures at, or below, 1.5 degrees.

Gas demand decreasing

The IPC heard from experts that the demand for gas in our country is decreasing, while the economic and environmental costs to produce gas are increasing. They highlighted that owing to advances in renewable energy technology the costs of sustainable energy practices are decreasing as demand increases.

There are 70 existing CSG wells in and around the Pilliga Forest. A third are capped, a third are inactive, and a third are active. From this small number of wells there have already been multiple toxic spills from polluted waste water used in the extraction process. One example cited is the known spill at the well site at Bohena Creek. The efforts to rehabilitate this spill zone have failed. Ecologist David Paull, a resident of Pilliga Forest, stated that ‘the toxic water, which has seeped into the clay bed, has created irreversible damage to the surrounding ecology.’

Santos Ltd bought the lease to mine in Pilliga Forest from Eastern Star Gas in 2011.

Manipulation of process

The process by which the existing 70 wells were approved to drill into an area of high cultural significance to the Gamiliaraay people, a recharge zone for the Great Artesian Basin (GAB), and an area of unique Australian flora and fauna, is contentious.

Eastern Star Gas was chaired by former Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson. Historically the Pilliga was presented by mining advocates as useless ‘scrub’ that had already had a level of disturbance from logging and other mineral extraction. Therefore, they argued, there was little value in the area. It has been alleged that a small number of traditional owners were mobilised by Eastern Star Gas and paid an undisclosed amount of money to sign off on mining of their Country, while the majority of Gamiliraay Elders and their families were unaware of the deal.

Gone forever

Crisscrossing the last remaining woodland forest of its kind in NSW, (which is an island for wildlife in an ocean of agriculture) with mining roads and well pads will be like cutting up a Persian rug, said ecologist David Milledge, from Landmark Ecological Services, to the commissioners. The delicate interconnectedness of the entire weave will be destroyed forever.

A final decision is expected in early- to mid-September.