*Bibblewindi flare, Pilliga Forest (Photo: Supplied, Johanna Evans) 

The Independent Planning Commission (IPC) is just weeks away from announcing its decision on the future of the Narrabri Gas Project. But as it considers Santos’ controversial 20-year plan to tap into natural gas reserves, experts continue to voice their fears for the environment, groundwater supplies and local communities.

The Narrabri Gas Project could be the first of several contentious fracking operations greenlit as part of the NSW Government’s “gas-fired” recovery from COVID-19.

Santos plans to drill more than 850 gas wells and clear 95,000 hectares of farmland and scrub in the Pilliga Forest, which is the vital southern recharge zone for the Great Artesian Basin.

The IPC is expected to announce its ruling on the project by the end of the month but environmental experts say not enough independent baseline studies have been conducted to assess the long-term impacts of coal seam gas extraction.

Assoc. Professor of Environmental Engineering at RMIT Matthew Currell, has expressed concern about the operation in its current form. “I’d be very nervous about seeing the green light given to the Narrabri Gas Project”, he said. “At least not without first doing really rigorous diligence on understanding those systems, and thinking carefully about [what the] long-term risks of the project would be.

“All of the inquiries that have happened around Australia… highlighted this need to conduct vigorous baseline studies before going ahead with any fracking or other unconventional gas development.”

Dr Currell, who specialises in hydrogeology and the impacts of mining on groundwater resources around Australia, says there are many risks associated with hydraulic fracking for oil and gas. These were outlined in a 2016 study by the US Environmental Protection Agency into fracking and its impact on water resources..

“It’s inevitable, when you look at the data from the US, that there are going to be spills and there are going to be leaks. An environmental engineering professor from the US famously said that natural gas is a bridge fuel to nowhere. It is not a bridge fuel to a cleaner future; it is just a bridge to continuing the profits of big companies making a lot out of this type of resource.”


Pilliga Forest (Photo: Fleur Connick)


The Narrabri Gas Project was one of the projects identified by the National COVID-19 Commission (NCC) in its economic recovery plan.

Santos claims the $3.6bn operation could supply up to half of NSW’s natural gas needs and bring considerable economic benefits to the region. Narrabri Council has voted to show its support for the Project, but of the more than 23,000 submissions to the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, 98 per cent have been objections.

Meanwhile, objections submitted to the IPC have come from organisations such as the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), The NSW Farmers’ Association, The Public Health Association of Australia, The Australia Institute, and Lock The Gate.

In IEEFA’s submission, Energy Finance Analyst Bruce Robertson claims there are significant factual inaccuracies in Santos’ and Acil Allen’s supplementary submission to the IPC. He also asserts that the Narrabri Gas Project will not enhance the gas market and will not lower the price of gas in Australia.

President of the NSW Farmers’ Association James Jackson states in his submission that the NSW Famers’ policy opposes the approval of the Narrabri Gas Project due to the unacceptable risks the project poses on precious water sources, soil and air quality, the agricultural industry and communities.

David Paull, an ecologist who previously worked for the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, said he quit after he could no longer work for a government organisation that was ignoring public accountability and transparency.

“The only way the Narrabri Gas Project can be economically viable is if they open up all the rest of the exploration areas, which they’ve identified. [These] cover from Queensland down to Dubbo. That’s what they’re after.”

“Each gas well is only going to last five or six years. They’re going to have to keep expanding to keep up the supply of the gas,” he said.

“There is plenty of evidence already that the impacts from coal seam gas in the Surat Basin in Queensland are quite significant, across all sorts of country inland. You have the seepage of gas up through agricultural land and in the Condamine River, and contamination of people’s domestic water and bores.

“The impacts of industrialisation on bushland is also a concern.

“Any analysis of the effects of fragmentation and the array of other indirect impacts on threatened species and bushland remnants is likely to be severe and irreversible in many cases. Sensitive groundwater ecosystems are at great risk from gas development.”


*Pilliga Forest (Photo: Fleur Connick)

On the flip side, a recent study by the CSIRO’s Gas Industry Social and Environmental Alliance (GISERA) into the impacts of hydraulic fracking on air, water and soil, concluded that fracking causes little to no impact on the environment.

Spokesperson Dr Damian Barrett said the three-year project was a first of its kind in Australia: “It has enabled further insights into the process of hydraulic fracturing; research that is needed but has not been available in Australia until now.”

However, according to The Australia Institute’s (TAI) analysis of the study, only six out of 19,000 gas wells were tested in the Surat Basin, and samples were collected just six months after the fracking operation began.

“A sample of six wells has a margin error of 40 per cent, and any serious research paper wouldn’t accept this,” report author Mark Ogge said.

But Dr Barrett adds that the study was only designed to look at the air, water and soil impacts that occur when a specific well is subject to hydraulic fracturing operations. “It was not designed to look at the cumulative impacts of natural gas development,” he said.

This is contrary to the headline for a media release about the study that was shared by Planning Minister Keith Pitt. It claimed: “CSIRO report confirms CSG fracking is safe for the environment”.


Leewood Evaporative Ponds Water Treatment (Photo: Supplied, Johanna Evans)


The Australia Institute warns there is a fundamental conflict of interest within GISERA, which consists of an alliance of the five biggest coal seam gas companies in Australia. It found Origin Energy not only selected the sampled wells, but also funded 76 per cent of the research project, as well as providing a “$400,000 in kind contribution”.

However, Dr Barrett said the CSIRO has maintained its independence in GISERA for over 10 years: “CSIRO’s GISERA has in place strict governance arrangements that ensure the independence of CSIRO researchers and the integrity of all research projects, which guarantee input from community and independent representatives that participate in GISERA’s Regional Research Advisory Committees.”

According to Dr Barrett, there may be further testing of the long-term effects of industry operation on the environment, if the community believes it is a priority.

Not only are there fears the Narrabri Gas Project will cause irreversible damage to the environment and groundwater supply, there is growing evidence that it will cause significant harm to the health of local communities.

Dr Georgina Woods from the Lock The Gate Alliance, works with communities across NSW that are already dealing with the impacts of coal seam gas mining. She said it’s quite disappointing to see sweeping generalisations in the CSIRO study from such limited scientific studies.

“It is in an industry that has a very extensive and very long-lasting impact, and that’s when trust in science gets eroded.”

“It doesn’t serve anybody or any of our interests for science to be misrepresented.”

“The study did acknowledge the limitations of the research, as all scientific studies need to do. However, [when] such studies get into the hands of politicians and the gas industry, that’s when they become these sweeping generalisations that coal seam gas is safe.

“And it is at odds with people’s experience with the industry.”


Local farmer and retired marine engineer Tony Pickard, used his retirement savings to purchase a property 40 kilometres outside Narrabri.

 However, a nearby fracking incident in 2006 at Bibblewindi Nine Spot, caused his bore to collapse and stop pumping water. In 2012, his second bore became contaminated with high levels of hydrogen sulphide, which he believes is also linked to the nearby gas site.

Mr Pickard received no help from Santos or the government, and after several attempts he finally convinced Santos to test his water. A month later, he received a letter informing him his bore water was no longer fit for domestic consumption.

Farmers like Mr Pickard, who are living in rural Australia, cannot rely solely on rainwater. So, reliable bore water is crucial.

“I had worked, along with everyone else, tirelessly on this. That, coupled with a few other pressures on me at the time, pushed me over the top.

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I went to the gun cupboard and got the shotgun out. I tried to talk to somebody, but the phone line was out. I tried twice more to contact someone, and I finally managed to get hold of a friend and they calmed me down enough.”

“A lot of people talk about the physical effects, but not many people talk about the mental effects of the CSG project.”

Shay Dougall is an Occupational Health, Safety and Environment expert who works with landholders who have been impacted by coal seam gas companies.

“When I talk about psychosocial impacts, I’m talking about the impacts of the relationship on the landholder, where there is a low level of organisational justice and a low control on what’s actually happening on their property.

“All these factors lead the farmer to suffer quite significant levels of psychological injury, coming from the very fact that these landholders are engaged in a relationship with these companies which is completely unjust.”

The Narrabri Gas Project has already been granted approval by Planning Minister Rob Stokes and the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE), placing substantial pressure on the IPC to approve the project.

Its final decision will be announced by the end of the month.

— Fleur Connick @ConnickFleur