The decision to approve a controversial multibillion-dollar coal seam gas project in northwest NSW has been labelled a disaster by energy experts, locals and environmentalists.
The NSW Independent Planning Commission on Wednesday said the Narrabri coal seam gas project could go ahead under a phased approval.
Oil and gas giant Santos wants to develop the $3.6 billion project over 95,000 hectares in the Pilliga forest and nearby grazing land.
It involves drilling 850 new gas wells over 20 years, with Santos saying it had the potential to provide up to half of NSW’s natural gas needs.
The project was recommended for approval earlier in the year by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment before being referred to the IPC.
The IPC recommended the project be approved subject to 134 conditions.
“The commission concludes the project is in the public interest and that any negative impacts can be effectively mitigated with strict conditions,” the IPC said in a statement.
Santos must meet specific requirements before the project can progress to the next phase of development.
The commission received nearly 23,000 public objections with concerns raised about the impact on groundwater, climate change, biodiversity, agriculture, bushfires, health and Indigenous heritage.
The independent planning body argues the potential groundwater impacts can be effectively managed under the conditions imposed which include Santos improving its groundwater impact modelling.
Santos must also fully offset its predicted greenhouse gas emissions.
The commission said it was satisfied with the biodiversity assessment provided by Santos but has put in place conditions to strengthen measures that mitigate impacts on flora and fauna.
Community concerns the project would cause significant physical health impacts were rejected by the commission.
The commission’s approval does not include consent for Santos to build a proposed gas fired power station at Leewood, the Westport workers’ accommodation or non-safety flaring infrastructure.
The IPC says the project will deliver significant economic benefits for NSW residents, including the diversification of the industry, jobs and royalties and tax revenue for the state government.
Many locals are dismayed by the decision while unions have welcomed the job prospects.
Coonamble stock and station agent David Chadwick said the commission had made the wrong decision because of “bad laws” and “bad politics” that promoted coal seam gas.
“The commission has made a terrible mistake and has condemned our region to having to keep fighting this destructive industry. Which we will,” he said in a statement.
Mullaley farmer Robyn King said this is the “fight of our lives” and the community could not afford to give up.
“We owe it to the generations that come after us to stop Santos from wrecking this region,” she said in a statement.
Independent MP Justin Field described it as a “hugely disappointing” decision that fails to recognise public concerns and the economic and environmental risks of the project.
“The fact that this project has been approved in 2020, in the face of a climate and extinction crisis, shows that our planning system is broken,” he said in a statement.
Dr Madeline Taylor from the University of Sydney Law School says the project should have been rejected as it risks becoming a stranded asset as unviable gas fields are able to be propped up with taxpayer funds.
NSW Labor supports the IPC decision but noted the project needs to honour its commitments of creating jobs, lowering gas prices for consumers and business and all gas to be kept in NSW.
The Australian Workers’ Union welcomed the project’s potential to boost jobs and alleviate pressure on households with more affordable gas.
“NSW 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,” national secretary Daniel Walton said in a statement.
The federal government has the final say on the project.