Indigenous activists fighting to stop a drilling project in northern NSW, say Australia needs to reprioritise its whole values system and put cultural and environmental assets over corporate profit.
The Pilliga Narrabri Gas Project by Santos, which proposes to drill 850 natural gas wells in and around the Pilliga East State Forest, could provide as much as half NSW’s gas needs, it is claimed.
However, local farmers and Indigenous residents say the potential environmental damage to groundwater supplying the Great Artesian Basin, is not worth risking.
Steven Booby, a local Gamilaroi* man opposing the project, told Central News: “I don’t understand why decisions are made that would pose such a threat to something that’s sustained so many people for such a long time.
“To have such an amazing water system as the Great Artesian Basin under threat, with no guarantees of its safety… I don’t think it makes any sense to me.”
The Great Artesian Basin is Australia’s largest underground water reservoir, covering more than 1.7 million square kilometres.
The Indigenous Gamilaroi people also say their connection to the Pilliga Forest and Great Artesian Basin is vital to the continuation of their culture.
“For the Gamilaroi nation, it’s [the Pilliga Forest] the umbilical cord, it’s our cultural tether,” said Indigenous community member Suellyn Tighe.
“It’s a special thing for Gamilaroi people, I can’t speak for every nation that’s in Australia, but for us, holding the knowledge of water is specifically for women.”
Gamilaroi women hold the laws and responsibilities for water in the nation, and their connection to the water, both culturally and environmentally, is imperative.
“We hold the stories of water on country, we were the ones who share water, and we’re the ones who teach the young children traditionally and both contemporarily how to find water,” added Tighe. “Water is the thread that binds everything.”
Some traditional names for the ‘soaks and seeps’ of the water carry the traditional word for heart.
“[If] this place is literally called a heart, then that basin itself is considered to be that heart that is pumping out life through its veins and through its arteries… all over the country,” said Booby.
The project was approved by the NSW Independent Planning Commission (IPC) on September 30, 2020, but is the subject of an ongoing Native Title claim that if successful would prevent it going ahead.
An initial Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) from Santos outlining the impact of drilling was opposed by 98 per cent of the 23,000 submissions lodged in response.
However, Santos claims there is minimal risk of environmental damage or contamination of ground water.
In 2017 when the environmental impact statement was released Kevin Gallagher, the chief executive of Santos, said: “The EIS has concluded the project can proceed safely with minimal and manageable risk to the environment.”
The EIS has not been updated since.
Why is it that I have to prove my connection to country? I want to know why those accustomed to privilege have more rights than us.
However, experts such as geophysicist and groundwater modeller, Kevin Hayley, say modelling to predict the effect on groundwater is far from definite.
“The uncertainty analysis lacks statistical rigour to be able to assess the likelihood of adverse impacts to groundwater receptors,” said Hayley, who added: “A conservative predictive simulation is not run or presented.”
Supporting this view is a GISERA/CSIRO report on the area’s geological structure, released two months ago, which showed groundwater was vulnerable to contamination if faults emerge during drilling “particularly in the north-west of the Narrabri Gas Project area”.
“Faults, igneous intrusions, and their associated hydraulic properties have not been considered in the groundwater models developed to predict potential impacts from the proposed Narrabri Gas Project or subsequent groundwater models,” the report said.
There have been 16 spills or leaks of contaminated water cases already connected to Santos’ exploration operation in the Pilliga from drilling test wells.
Groundwater sourced from the Basin is an essential resource for agricultural, extractive and lifestyle purposes, with many farmers and townspeople in Narrabri sourcing their water from the GAB.
Farmer Andrew Mullins, whose farm has been in his family for 100 years, worried about the impact contamination and de-pressurisation may have on the livelihoods of farmers not just in Narrabri, but across Australia.
“It is a concern because obviously I have a strong attachment to the land, it’s always been a part of who we are and to have that kind of contamination risk in the potential of not being able to continue… is not a pleasant thought,” he said.
“It’s very, very risky to do anything that is going to threaten that resource, because if you stuff it, you can’t fix it. It’s permanently stuffed.”
The Gamilaroi people are currently waiting to see if their Native Title claim over a swathe of northern NSW, including the contested Pilliga area, will be accepted by the Native Land Tribunal. It has been contested by Santos.
“Why is it that I have to prove my connection to country? I want to know why those accustomed to privilege have more rights than us,” Booby said.
The long-running dispute, which has now been waged over 11 years, has echoes of Rio Tinto’s destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge heritage site in 2020.
“There’s a definite bias against Aboriginal people and maintaining their connection to land and country, because for Gamilaroi people at this time, we’re looking at our native title being extinguished,” said Tighe.
She worried that with infrastructure such as the Hunter Gas Pipeline already in place for the project, the outcome of the Tribunal may be swayed in Santos’ favour by the large sums already invested.
“It shouldn’t carry weight within a tribunal, but unfortunately, those sorts of things have been looked at in the Tribunal,” Tighe said.
Main image by Georgia Robinson.
* Gamilaroi is used in this article for different spellings such as Gomeroi, Gamilaraay and Kamilaroi.