Saturday 23 September 2017


Mining company Santos has plans for a massive coal seam gas mining operation near Narrabri in the north-west of NSW.  In its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which was put on public exhibition earlier this year, Santos outlined its proposal for 850 gas wells on agricultural land and in the Pilliga Forest (which is crown land).  Almost 23,000 submissions were received by the NSW Department of Planning on the EIS, the largest response ever to a planning proposal in NSW.  Apparently around 18,000 of these were opposed to the development.

The Government is yet to make a decision on whether the project will go ahead.

Santos has been operating a pilot project in the area since 2011 when it took over from Eastern Star.  

There has been considerable infrastructure development already in the area - e.g. test wells, flares, a produced water recycling plant and large holding ponds for produced water.

The Clarence Valley Conservation Coalition made a submission opposing the proposal.  Two of the matters of concern from that submission are in this post.  The other  matters of concern will be in a later post.

 The Impact on the Pilliga Forest

a) The Pilliga Forest, the largest temperate woodland in NSW, will be severely impacted by Santos’ project. This is a very important natural area – a high conservation value forest.  Santos plans to clear nearly 1000 ha of the Pilliga Forest.  It’s not only the size of the clearing that is an issue but the fact that it will be in patches that will result in the fragmentation of a much larger area.  This, of course, means cuts to the connectivity between habitat areas so that wildlife no longer has vegetated corridors for movement around the landscape.  This loss of habitat and corridors will have a serious impact on many native fauna species in relation to their food sources and protection from predation.

Furthermore, it is more than likely that the various pipeline and track corridors and well surrounds (as has been observed in Queensland’s Chinchilla gasfields) will become weed-infested wastelands, threatening the ecological integrity of uncleared areas of the forest.

b) What should be borne in mind is that around the nation extensive natural areas such as the Pilliga Forest have been greatly reduced by human activity since European settlement.  And this clearing is still continuing.  If we are serious about preserving our native flora and fauna and stopping the slide of many species towards extinction, we have to preserve areas like the Pilliga Forest. In the view of the CVCC the claimed economic benefits of the Santos project do not justify the degrading of this important forest.

c) The development will threaten the survival of a number of threatened  flora and fauna species. Threatened fauna species include the Barking Owl, Glossy Black-cockatoo, Regent Honeyeater, Black-striped Wallaby, Eastern Pygmy-possum, Koala, Pilliga Mouse, South-eastern Long-eared Bat and Pale-headed Snake.

d) Another issue of concern to us is that public land – and important public land – will be alienated if the development proceeds in the Pilliga Forest. The forests of this state belong to the people of the state – not to any Government (although these supposedly represent the people but are, after all, of a temporary nature because of electoral terms) or to any mining company.

e) A further risk is the increased danger of very hot fires in the Pilliga Forest.  There have been some serious bushfires in this area in the past.  The addition of fugitive methane emissions and gas flaring to the forest has the potential for really disastrous fires.  It should be borne in mind that we are already facing an increasing risk of fires in areas such as this because of climate change.  Adding methane to the mix makes for a greater likelihood.

Threat to the Great Artesian Basin

a) The water produced as the gas is extracted will be considerable over the life of the project (estimated at 37.5 GL).  As the aquifer which will be affected recharges the Great Artesian Basin, this will have an impact on the Basin. Since gas-mining in Queensland has already been shown to have affected the Great Artesian Basin, there is considerable concern about further impacts on this very important underground water supply.

b) Disposal of the large volumes of produced water is also another issue.  Santos has claimed it will treat the water to remove the salt but just how effective that treatment will be so that the water can be released into the environment is another matter.  There have been serious breaches by mining companies in the past in relation to disposal of saline water.[1]

c) Ensuring compliance is always a major issue. Just how well the treatment is monitored by government will be crucial if the project goes ahead. Unfortunately governments do not have a good record in monitoring compliance. They tend not to invest resources in compliance, either through having a strange notion that companies will always “do the right thing” or because they simply don’t care whether conditions of consent are complied with – unless some pesky member of the public forces them to notice non-compliance!

d) Disposal of the volume of salt extracted from the produced water is another concern.  Peak salt production is stated to be 115 tonnes per day, which means that in a peak year 41,900 tonnes of salt would need to be disposed of.  According to Santos, it will be disposed of in landfill. Where will this happen and what effect will it have on surface run-off as well as on local groundwater at the landfill site?

[1]Santos has already been responsible for pollution of aquifers in the Pilliga with toxic wastewater.

Transpacific, which treated AGL produced water from Gloucester gas mining, was fined by Hunter Water in 2014 for the illegal release of produced water into a sewer.