Gas producers press PM to rescind Gillard environmental law requiring federal review of whether wells affect water table
A huge coal seam gas project in New South Wales is emerging as a test case, pitting Kevin Rudd’s promises of lower gas prices and “streamlined” environmental processes against Labor’s recent pledges to protect the environment.
Gas producers are demanding the prime minister rescind Julia Gillard’s final environmental law: the requirement that the federal government assess the impact of coal seam gas wells on the water table.
Santos is ready to begin drilling 18 CSG exploration wells near Narrabri in New South Wales, including in the Pilliga forest, to prepare for a planned 400 well CSG project it says could provide one quarter of NSW’s gas needs.
The project has been nominated by federal sources as one that could be sped up by better environmental decision-making to help increase gas supply and reduce prices, in line with the plan outlined by Rudd in Thursday’s national press club speech.
The company argues its exploration plans, a pared-back version of its original exploration intentions in the state’s north-west, should not require a full, and possibly lengthy, federal environmental assessment under the commonwealth government’s long-standing legal powers to protect endangered species or the recently added powers to consider the cumulative impact of CSG wells on the water table.
“Our view is that the exploration work should not trigger a full EIS [enivronmental impact statement] but the final decision is up to the government and we have referred it to them to get some clarity upfront,” a spokesman for Santos said.
But environmental groups strongly disagree, demanding the project be subjected to a full EIS for its impacts both on threatened species and on water, and suggesting the new “water trigger” powers might “save” the Pilliga forest from CSG drilling. They say the environment department has received 1900 submissions in the 10 days it allowed for public comment on the proposal.
“Of course it should have a full EIS. There are three threatened species at risk, the koala, the south-eastern long-eared bat and the pilliga mouse and there are concerns about groundwater because the drilling method being used hasn’t happened in NSW before,” said Newcastle campaign manager Naomi Hogan.
A report commissioned by Santos found the plans would have “no significant impacts” on the water table, but an assessment cited by The Wilderness Society found the Pilliga sandstone aquifer had “a significant population of stygofauna – delicate ancient microscopic underground organisms that filter the groundwater and that are vulnerable to extinction from groundwater changes and mining activities”.
The hydro-ecologist who conducted that study, Dr Peter Serov, said “Santos’ plan to start drilling by September is completely unacceptable” and the independent scientific committee set up to examine the water impacts of CSG mines should have time to conduct a full investigation.
A decision on whether a full EIS will be required must be made by the federal environment minister, Mark Butler, within 10 days, although he could seek extra time.
The gas industry says the commonwealth should not have given itself the water approval “trigger” at all.
The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association’s director of external affairs, Michael Bradley, said a “good start” for Rudd to make good his pledge to reduce green tape and increase gas supplies would be “rescinding the water trigger legislation”.
The so-called “water trigger”, championed by independent MP Tony Windsor and agreed to by the Gillard government, added the water impact of CSG wells and large coal mines as a “trigger” for federal approval under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. It was passed just weeks before Gillard was ousted as prime minister.
A spokesman for Butler said the commonwealth had “no plans” to change the water trigger.
The Santos project is in the federal electorate of Parkes and borders Windsor’s New England electorate.
Rudd’s “seven-point plan” to improve economic productivity outlined in his press club speech included the need to reduce power prices, in part by increasing the supply of gas, and also to reduce the “regulatory impost” on business from environmental assessment procedures.
But he was careful to say he wanted “one single integrated assessment system even if we have two different decision points”.
Environmentalists are not necessarily opposed to a system under which the commonwealth retains final decision-making powers over issues of national environmental significance, even if assessments are delegated to the states. Such a plan was last year proposed by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.
The Coalition has promised to hand to the states both assessment and decision-making powers, under conditions agreed with the commonwealth.