The 12-week trigger for a decision by the Independent Planning Commission on the massive Santos' Narrabri gas project has been triggered after it received a Department of Planning report into the project today.
The NSW Planning Department has indicated the controversial project is "approvable".
Applications for registration for the online hearings is expected to open later next week, with a special video conference room established in Narrabri so that some witnesses can give evidence there - or via phone.
Under new legislation the IPC must make a decision on the project now by September 4.
The hearings will be chaired by commissioner Steve O'Connor and two other commissioners.
Santos has indicated recently it is in "go mode" if the project is approved. The Federal Government has cited gas projects as a major priority as it tries to take the economy out of the COVID-19 induced recession.
Lock the Gate Alliance and north west NSW farmers though have slammed the Planning Department's decision to label the Santos Narrabri coal seam gas "approvable".
It said the decision was made "despite the government's failure to implement the Chief Scientist's recommendations for managing risks from the industry and shock revelations this week that landholders affected by the gas industry may not be insured for public liability".
"The decision is particularly galling because the amount of contaminated salt waste to be dumped at a location that is still unknown as a result of the project appears to have roughly doubled to 840,000 tonnes," the Alliance said.
"The department's documents released as part of the recommendation also show about 1000 hectares of koala habitat may be destroyed for the project.
"As well, questions remain over potential contamination of underground water via unknown geological faults, with water experts unable to come to a conclusion concerning the risk."
Santos Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Gallagher said the project is in a position to "ramp up activity" immediately if the project is approved by the Independent Planning Commission.
"There are already 16 Santos people living and working in Narrabri, we're buying goods and services locally, and we're in a position to ramp up our activity and get back to drilling more appraisal wells shortly after approvals are in place," he said.
"At the peak of construction, we expect development of the project to support hundreds of jobs and, when it is in full operation, it will sustain 200 direct and indirect ongoing local jobs."
Santos welcomed the release of the Department of Planning's final assessment report on the Narrabri Gas Project and its recommendation that the project is capable of approval with conditions.
Santos accepted the conditions proposed by the New South Wales Department of Planning and will now participate constructively and transparently in the Independent Planning Commission's hearings and deliberations over the next 12 weeks, it said.
Mr Gallagher said a decision on Narrabri is 'more important than ever' as the economy comes out of hibernation from COVID-19 restrictions.
"Narrabri means more jobs and more investment in New South Wales and the local region, and lower gas and electricity prices for customers in the state," Mr Gallagher said.
"We welcome the positive recommendation from the New South Wales Department of Planning and the sensible, independent planning process the project is going through.
"Santos already has appraisal wells powering the equivalent of 23,000 households in north-west New South Wales from Wilga Park Power Station, there are 16 Santos people living and working in Narrabri, we're buying goods and services locally, and we're in a position to ramp up our activity and get back to drilling more appraisal wells as soon as a decision is taken.
"We are confident that we have relied upon the best science to confirm that the Narrabri Gas Project can be developed safely and sustainably, without harm to water resources or the environment. However, a consent decision is one for an independent umpire, the IPC, and we're looking forward to its decision within the next few months.
"Narrabri is the cheapest source of gas for NSW customers, and without NSW developing its own gas resources, its businesses and households will continue to face higher energy costs than across the border in Queensland.
"Santos has committed 100 per cent of Narrabri gas to the domestic gas market. Developing local gas supplies in NSW means commercial bakers in Sydney will no longer pay $26,400 more for gas every year than similar businesses in Brisbane."
The Narrabri Gas Project has the potential to supply enough natural gas to meet up to half of NSW's natural gas demand where more than one million family homes, ~33,000 businesses and ~300,000 jobs rely on natural gas as a source of energy.
"The time for political games is over. We want to get on with creating jobs in New South Wales and Narrabri and making a real difference to people's lives in rural and regional communities," Mr Gallagher said.
"COVID-19 has refocussed all of us on the importance of driving investment and doing everything we can to create more local jobs and business opportunities."
But there is widespread opposition to the project among farmers in the area.
Narrabri farmer Stuart Murray said, "This toxic project should never have reached the Independent Planning Commission simply because the NSW Chief Scientist Mary O'Kane made 16 recommendations to mitigate the risk of CSG, the government took it on board, made it policy, but has still not implemented it after almost six years.
"Our government has betrayed us.
"We don't know where that contaminated salt waste is going to go, there is no solution. I am deeply concerned it could end up in our river systems and in our underground water systems."
North west NSW stock and station agent and beef producer David Chadwick said, "The Liberal National Coalition has been applying immense pressure to have this project up and running against fierce opposition from the local area and broader region.
"The recent defeat of the CSG Moratorium Bill absolutely highlights how the Liberal National Coalition has betrayed rural Australia. That is why the seat of Barwon was lost after 60 years to Roy Butler of the Shooters, Fishers, and Farmers Party who went to the last election and stood true to his word, unlike the Nationals.
"It is inconceivable after the last three years of record drought and climate change being at the forefront of everyone's minds that our government would even contemplate supporting, let alone approving, a project that puts our only secure water supply at risk.
"Santos' history of fines and breaches at the exploration phase guarantees this will end in disaster."
Lock the Gate NSW spokesperson Georgina Woods said "This entire process has been highly politicised and the people of New South Wales will bear the cost.
"Political slogans about gas prices are contradicted by the department's own Assessment Report which admits that if gas prices fall by 30 per cent, the project's economic profile would be a net negative."
"It is the people of north west NSW that will be hurt most by this. A NSW parliamentary inquiry earlier this year described coal seam gas as "uninsurable" and it has been revealed this week that the largest insurance company in Australia is refusing to offer public liability cover to farmers who have CSG infrastructure on their properties in Queensland.
"We're appealing to the IPC to ignore the political pressure and demonstrate its independence by refusing approval for this polluting project and safeguarding the people, water, and future of the state's north west."
Details about the IPC hearing dates should be available later on Friday.