‘Disastrous’ Coal Seam Gas Project Gets Green Light From Australian Government

The approval comes just a week after Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to commit to a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050.
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU
gas well
A warning sign for methane gas is displayed near a Santos Ltd. pilot well operating in the Pilliga forest in Narrabri, Australia. Image via Getty

Australia’s New South Wales Government has been given the thumbs up to build a proposed 850 coal seam gas wells in the state’s north as part of a controversial, $3.6 billion development.

The coal seam gas project in Narrabri, some 270 miles northwest of Sydney, was approved by NSW’s Independent Planning Commission (IPC) on Wednesday despite vocal concerns from the public that it could damage crucial groundwater aquifers used for domestic and agricultural water supplies, lead to a loss of pressure in Australia’s Great Artesian Basin, affect biodiversity in the nearby Pilliga forest and release significant greenhouse gas emissions.

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Santos, the company behind the project, claimed the development could provide up to 200 terajoules of gas a day for domestic use for 20 years—equating to about half of NSW’s demand. The project is seen as central to the Federal Government’s push for a “gas-fired recovery” from the COVID-19 recession.

The announcement of the extensive coal seam gas development—which environmentalists have called “disastrous”—seems to be at odds with Australia’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement, and comes just a month after a study found that sea level rise from melting ice sheets is matching the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's worst-case climate warming scenarios.

Last week Prime Minister Scott Morrison also refused to commit to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a decision that puts Australia out of step with more than 70 other countries that have adopted the target. Moreover, a recent analysis found that the government’s emissions accounting underestimates national emissions by about 10 percent, mostly due to a failure to properly account for methane’s effect on global heating.

The decision to green light the Narrabri coal seam gas development has been met with outrage from environmental experts and academics, many of whom accused the Australian government of dismissing the urgent threat of climate change and recklessly investing in “dinosaur” technologies.

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"Approving the Narrabri gas project is criminally irresponsible,” Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Griffith University’s School of Natural Sciences said in a statement. “Climate change is accelerating. To avoid catastrophic consequences, we need to be reducing our use of fossil fuels, not expanding. Every credible assessment of our energy future shows that we will be using less gas, not more. There are cleaner and less expensive alternatives.”

The 850 coal seam gas wells will be drilled on 1,000 hectares of a 95,000 hectare site in Narrabri, which includes Pilliga forest and nearby grazing country. The IPC said approval of the project would be phased, meaning Santos would need to meet "strict conditions" before advancing to construction and production phases. These included the need for further information on ways to improve the groundwater impact modelling before construction starts.

The project still needs final approval under Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Protection (EPBC) Act—but Georgina Woods, NSW coordinator for environment group Lock the Gate, told The Guardian that “I think we can expect the federal EPBC Act decision on this to be a fait accompli, and that is a really damning indictment on our system of government and our environmental laws.”

There is no right of appeal to the decision under NSW planning law.

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