Letter to the Editor || Coal Seam Gas debate || Stuart Murray

Well pads in South East Queensland.
Well pads in South East Queensland.

I refer to the letter from Jack Warnock in the Courier May 31st, 2018 regarding SBS Television’s Insight programme on the impacts of the CSG Industry on the community of our region.

As reported by Mr Warnock, the programme seemed set on highlighting divisions in the community, by seating the pro- and anti-CSG members of the audience on opposite sides of the room. However, this was probably an attempt to achieve balance, giving equal weight to both sides of the argument.

In fact, the weight is all on one side, and is against the project. As mentioned in the introduction to the programme, there were 23,000 submissions to the Santos Narrabri Gas project development application, making it the most protested project in NSW history. Over 22,000 objected to the project with only 296 submissions in favour.

The controversy surrounding the project has spread way beyond the boundaries of the Narrabri Shire as it will impact the publicly owned Pilliga Forest, and the underground water supply in the Gunnedah Oxley Basin as admitted by Santos in its Environmental Impact Statement. To what extent and when the Great Artesian Basin (GAB) will be impacted is not known. When Santos was asked on the Insight programme if it would guarantee that the aquifers of the GAB would not be adversely affected, they would not.

During the programme Santos went to great pains to point out that they will not force people into agreeing to have CSG wells drilled on their property and would only do so if invited. Although this sounds good what Santos did not say was that this does not apply to other infrastructure such as pipelines, compressor stations, water treatment plants, gas processing plants, etc. The Santos commitment to not drill gas wells on a farmer’s property unless invited is of little comfort, when by law landholders do not have the right to say no.

Surveys of over 3.2 million hectares surrounding the Narrabri gas project have shown that 96 per cent of those surveyed would prefer to remain Gas Field Free. With their many concerns such as the risk to their underground water supply which the depend on, and not wanting to live in an industrialised landscape, it is therefore not surprising that farmers outside the proposed Santos CSG project area are, and as stated by Mr Warnock “strident in their objections to the Narrabri Gas Project and the associated APA pipeline.” For the remainder of Mr Warnock’s letter the farmers and three Aboriginal people who spoke in opposition to the Santos CSG project are regarded as “activists” and on one occasion as “protestors.”

In his letter Mr Warnock goes to some lengths to let us know he “relies completely on the access he has to Groundwater resources” and “he knows the value of Groundwater.

 Mr Warnock’s farm is not that far from the Maules Creek coal mines and one gentleman during the programme referring to these mines stated that “all those aquifers that are flowing across that mine are gone forever.” I assume that Mr Warnock would be concerned about the possibility of his ground water being adversely affected if these mines encroached toward the aquifers that he relies on.

The group called “People for the Plains” P4P was criticised, Mr Warnock commenting that “the group was promoted as a forum for sharing information on the Gas Project. However, it became obvious that this was not the real objective, but rather a group that was determined to stop the Narrabri Gas Project at any cost and by any means.

It is true that, after considerable investigation, P4P concluded that the Narrabri Gas Project should not be approved, outlining their reasons in considerable depth and providing supporting references in their 60 page submission to the Department of Planning and Environment.         

It is also true that People for the Plains is regarded as a critic of the CSG industry and has asked the hard questions, looking for answers  to aspects of CSG that the industry does not want questioned. Our success can be judged by the smear campaign against P4P undertaken by out-of-town lobbyists for the gas industry, and the attempts aimed at silencing us, by shutting down venues booked for public forums. These public information forums   with guest speakers had to be relocated at the last minute with considerable inconvenience to members of the public and guest speakers such as Senator Glen Lazarus.      

People for the Plains continue to engage with the community having been involved in two public functions in the last month. We also have a delegate on the Narrabri Gas Project Community Consultative Committee and circulate information widely from these meetings.

We advocate on behalf of the community and the large numbers of people in our shire that oppose this development.  For example- we were recently advised during a (GISERA) presentation that a proposed baseline study into the health impacts of the CSG industry on the community was unlikely to be funded. People for the Plains immediately wrote to the GISERA Regional Research Advisory Committee urging that funding be provided.              

At other times we have been criticised for not presenting the benefits of the CSG industry. We see this as unnecessary as Santos will do this. Santos is unlikely to present the downsides, any more than Coca Cola is going to tell their customers that sugar is bad for them. We need people who are willing to ask questions and present information that the industry doesn’t want you to know about.

In his letter Mr Warnock goes on to trivialise the risks to our underground water resources posed by the Narrabri Gas Project. During the filming of the SBS Insight programme this trivialisation was also evident. Statements such as “business or leisure will not be completely without risk, living is a risky business, walking across the road is a risk.” Most of us during our daily lives do not consciously contemplate these as being risks.

A better analogy would be the decision one would make if contemplating sky diving. We know the risk of something going wrong may be low, but if something does go wrong the results would be disastrous.          

We make a conscious decision whether to jump or not.

This can be compared with the decision on whether or not to proceed with the Narrabri Gas Project. Proponents of the project claim the risk to the underground water supply is low but on the other hand if it does go wrong the consequences could also be disastrous. Someone has to make this decision.

Couple this with the fact that Australia is soon to be the biggest exporter of gas in the world, proving that we do not have a shortage of gas, and there will be no domestic shortage as long as our Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, can continue to convince the gas companies to stop sucking up our domestic supplies for export.

Another valid point which didn’t come out in the final edit for the Insight programme was the inability of landholders to get insurance coverage against risks posed by the CSG industry to their businesses. If the world’s greatest risk takers, Insurance Companies, won’t provide insurance against these risks then why should communities and landholders have to?

Most people don’t want the project to go ahead.  In other words there is no social licence for CSG to proceed in this district. There are serious risks to the environment and our water, there are adverse social and health impacts and there is no shortage of gas. On balance the project should not go ahead.

Mr Warnock mentions in his letter the “robust process in place for the assessment of the proposed Narrabri Gas Project” which “includes the release of the SANTOS Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)”. On the front page of the 7,000 page long EIS the CEO of Santos Mr Kevin Gallagher states that “the proposed Narrabri CSG project is not in the recharge area of the Great Artesian Basin”.  It is simply incorrect for Mr Gallagher to make such a comment.  Santos’s subsequent response to submissions on the project concedes this is not the case and that the project is within the GAB recharge area.            

 This comment by the CEO on the front page of such an important document casts doubt on the quality of the rest of this EIS. In, fact the shortcomings of the EIS were shown up repeatedly in submissions by experts from both the private sector and government departments such as the Independent Expert Scientific Committee.

In the first paragraph of Mr Warnock’s letter he makes a comment about “advancing the understanding of the true facts”---“of the Narrabri Gas Project”  The following is a quote from parts of his second last paragraph. He says “I was very impressed with the Editorial carried in The Courier on October 7th, 2014 .The views expressed in that Editorial are very similar to mine and I commend the author for writing them”.

It would be remiss of me not to point out that several points in this Editorial are inaccurate; however I will only choose two on which to comment. In the middle of the Editorial he refers to, there is reference to methane emissions. “CSG opponents argue that methane emissions during CSG extraction negate the benefits of CSG as a cleaner fossil fuel than coal. A CSIRO study showed this is not the case: 0.02 percent of the gas escapes as emissions, 1/200th of the amount needed to negate the benefits”. Then he states “however there are unmeasured losses during transmission”. Even the CSIRO say their measurements were limited to well heads. I will let your readers decide if this is a nonsensical statement.

In the next column of this Editorial the writer comments on whether or not the community has or has not granted a Social Licence for the project to proceed. He makes a non scientific guess that “no more than 1 per cent totally opposes CSG and possibly only 0.1 per cent judging by the number of ‘NO GAS’ stickers and signs on cars and homes”. A recent GISERA study showed that for the Narrabri Shire 30.5 per cent reject CSG. Those who reject CSG were double the numbers that embrace CSG.

We thank SBS and Insight for raising the profile of the controversy surrounding the proposed Santos Narrabri Gas Project. If nothing else it highlighted a problem that we did not have before Santos came to town.

These CSG projects are invasive, the benefits are short lived and the risks are high, so our town’s people and our farmers (who have most to lose) will continue to say no to CSG.

Stuart Murray