Pandemic ‘a smokescreen’ to ram through controversial mining projects like Santos gas in Narrabri

by | Jul 31, 2020 | Energy & Environment

The independent hearings into one of the most controversial projects in NSW history, Santos’ coal seam gas dream for Narrabri, are wrapping up. Meanwhile, new NSW guidelines to fast-track developments look set to turn into a nightmare for community groups, writes Callum Foote

Public hearings by the Independent Planning Commission into the controversial Narrabri coal seam gas project wrap up on Saturday. The project is proving to be one of the most controversial developments in NSW history, with the Commission receiving about 23,700 submissions opposing it and 300 in support.

Despite the huge opposition, the NSW government has already begun ramming billions of dollars’ worth of energy and mining projects through the planning approval process as part of its Covid-19 economic recovery plan.

The IPC’s hearing into Santos’ Narrabri project has garnered considerable media attention because of its greenhouse gas emissions, with the project expected to be one of the nation’s top emitters and the potential risk to groundwater.

The project was last month granted in-principle approval by the Planning Minister Rob Stokes and the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. This indicative approval puts enormous pressure on the IPC to simply follow suit with the final decision.

Michael West Media has reported on the Planning Minister’s attack on the independence of the Independent Planning Commission, which is the last line of defence for powerless communities sitting on coal deposits.

Assault on environment by gas fracking multinationals escalates

Fast-tracking projects

At the end of April, the NSW Planning Department released new fast-tracking guidelines as part of its commitment to “slash assessment times”.

Under ‘The Faster Assessments Program’, which is part of a nationwide push to ‘kick-start’ the economy:

  • The time taken to make decisions on development applications for larger, regionally significant projects has been cut by 91 days (25%); and
  • The time taken to make decisions on major projects of significance to the State has been cut by 20 days (17%).

Already, three ‘tranches’ of projects worth more than $7.7 billion have been ‘fast-tracked’ by Planning Minister Stokes, gaining approval within four weeks of their applications being lodged. A fourth tranche, worth over $4.3 billion, is set to be determined by August 14.

Public servants under pressure

As a result, public servants who make judgements on the assessments prepared by proponents are being put under huge pressure. They often have just 28 days to make the complicated and highly technical assessments of projects that could have massive environmental and economic impacts on communities and the nation.

What’s more, non-government organisations and community members really struggle to make their own assessments or put together the coalitions of support that are required to challenge such large developments. Such parties suffer a serious power imbalance as they rarely have the time, technical knowledge or economic or political clout to deliver a rigorous assessment.

A spokesperson for the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment told Michael West Media “‘The assessment process under the Planning System Acceleration Program is being accelerated, not changed. The usual planning rules and policies still apply, and all projects are assessed under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979.”

Pandemic used as a smokescreen

As Warwick Giblin, a long-time environmental and social impact advisor and an Adjunct Professor at the University of New England, puts it, “the government has used the pandemic as a smokescreen to rationalise setting expeditious or urgent time restraints to make decisions on these projects because they are seen as offering salvation in terms of the economy”.

“But an even-handed assessment is vital to properly quantify and assess the impacts and put in place, appropriate safeguards.”

The rushed approval process also means that proponents of controversial projects, such as the multinational oil and gas giant Santos or homegrown hero Whitehaven Coal, are able to effectively soften laws for environmental protection.

Environment Minister approves Whitehaven’s tenth coal mine

According to Professor Giblin, both state and federal laws “have enough escape clauses or discretionary provisions allowing the bureaucrats, with the blessing of Ministers,  to circumvent the fundamental aims of these laws, which are first and foremost to protect the environment and communities”.

And once a project has been granted Conditions of Approval  it is almost impossible for conditions to be changed.

For Professor Giblin, it seems as though “the environmental and cultural protection legislation is being over-ridden because of an obsession with short-term jobs and royalties above all else”.

No guarantee of jobs

Yet these jobs are not guaranteed due to the rise of automation. Witness Adani’s promise to politicians that its mine would create 10,000 jobs while it was telling investors the whole project would be automated from mine to port and was forced to admit in court that it would create just 1,464 new jobs a year. And thanks to Australia’s leaky tax system, any financial contribution is likely to be marginal.

Moreover, Professor Graeme Samuel’s independent review of the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) recently released its interim report, highlighting the need for fundamental reform.

As the report states: “The EPBC Act is ineffective. It does not enable the Commonwealth to protect and conserve environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.”

All these moves raise significant concerns regarding the legitimacy of fossil fuel projects approved by Stokes, given the minister’s clear compulsion for coal.

Minister’s attacks on independent thought

Most recently, Minister Stokes and the NSW Liberal-Nationals voted down legislation that would require his department to heed the advice of NSW’s chief scientist in making environmental assessments.

Stokes also tried to introduce the Territorial Limits Bill, which would have prevented NSW authorities from considering the greenhouse gas emissions of coal mined from potential new mines in NSW. This followed the Independent Planning Commission’s rejection of the proposed Bylong valley coal mine in September last year.

The bill was shut down following a parliamentary inquiry.

Stokes also controversially ordered a review of the IPC, the terms of reference which questioned whether the IPC should “rely upon the assessment report prepared by the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment” instead of making its own independent assessment.

The IPC was put on notice that there were consequences for crossing the Planning Minister.

Covid Commission support

Santos’ Narrabri gas project has the backing of the gas heavy National Covid Coordination Commission as reported in the NCCC’s leaked report.

The Narrabri project has been specifically earmarked for support by the NCCC despite several assessments that have found renewable energy backed by storage is now likely the cheapest option for new electricity generation.

The IPC’s judgement on Santos’ Narrabri gas project, as well as Whitehaven’s proposed Vickery coal mine some 20 minutes’ drive south of Narrabri, will show whether the Independent Planning Commission has retained its independence in the face of significant political pressure.


Callum Foote

Callum Foote

Callum Foote is our Revolving Doors editor exposing the links between the highest level of business and government. These links provide well-resourced private interests with significant influence over Australia's policymaking process. Callum has studied the impact of corporate influence over policy decisions and the impact this has for popular interests. He believes that the more awareness this phenomenon receives the more accountable our representatives will be.


  1. Avatar

    “I strengthen compliance functions”, gushes the Farrer Flier, Sussan Ley. Meaning, “tell somebody who cares”.

  2. Avatar

    Many thanks to the author for his excellent efforts on all our and our children’s behalves on this vital issue!

    With recent reports from our industrious Dr Glickson of the ANU Climate Science Institute on the subject of
    excessive CH4 (Methane) emissions the following is a call for our industry and political leaders to pay urgent attention to this source of a very dynamic GHG.

    It seems, our so called National Leaders have a hearing and reading deficiency and the parliaments of
    the nation are in desperate need of remedial reading classes for members of both sides of the Dispatch Boxes. After thirteen years of endless demands for us all to consider the nation’s exploding debts in the inter generational responsibilities framework and values I offered the following links in the vain hope their children may be able to use the material for bedtime reading to their ignorant business and parliamentary parents in order to meet those inter-generational reponsibilities in an even more vital area.
    One finds it impossible to accept the Santos statements of intent or experience with any credibility until they submit themselves and all their operations to an independent study of their fugitive gases emissions. From my understanding the QU have made several attempts to engage Santos to set up independent and verifiable monitors on site to be met with an abrupt denial of access. Their discreet and unauthorised measurements have been alarming when compared to the Santos official figures. Similar experience has occurred in the USA where EPA figures were originally published based on estimates from the industry. Subsequently satellite interpretation of CH4 concentrations over the relevant areas indicated the industry had under-‘estimated’ their fugitive emissions by a factor of 3-4
    All of this has been on public record for the last decade or more and it seems the Parliamentary and Mineral Council’s proposed remedial reading classes for the members, ministers and relevant business leaders has a daunting task

  3. Avatar

    Santos has spent millions on it already so i think its a done deal the goverment would not haved allowed that if it santos wasnt going to get the thumbs up if they do not get permision to go ahead santos will walk away and seal the development plus leave the infrastructure to rot

  4. Avatar

    I am no great supporter of Coal Seam Gas as a long term energy source BUT images such as the one ahead of
    this piece need to be sourced and identified. My understanding is that nowhere in the Planning process has anything like
    that density and impact on the land been proposed. That the US is “gung ho” about becoming the greatest again and bending their rules
    is no predictor for what may happen here.

  5. Avatar

    I hope this discussion and reporting will assist the Kimberleys Environs group which is fighting the Western Australian Government which it seems have given the nod to a US company to come in and frack in the Kimberleys. It seems that the government is thinking it can build a $6billion (and the rest) pipeline for the gas to travel from the west to the east for manufacturing in Queensland. What about the renewable energy projects already languishing due to inadequate infrastructure /transmission lines in Queensland.
    It seems the government e.g. via ARENA will fund some renewable energy projects, but still pushes for coal, oil and gas. The $$ from fossil fuels will not be worth the long term pain. Ross Garnaut says we have the technology for RE and it is economically viable. It seems crazy to risk our underwater supplies and the contribute to global warming with fossil fuels, either used here or for export.

  6. Avatar

    Santos/Narribri will KILL more people (~300 at current mortality rates for climate change per MtCO2-e) than it employs long-term ~200. Government say they want employment but renewables will employ 10 times as many people per $ invested in Santos/Narribri gas. Both the government and opposition Ha!!!! are colluding co-conspirators on this dash for gas. This project will become a white elephant VERY quickly as the transition to renewables leaves it behind for energy costs, employment, competitiveness, emissions. The CSIRO cost assessment completely ignored competition from renewables in assessing viability!!! The emissions from this project will add 0.7% to Australia’s already appalling emissions – worst per-capita globally and sooner or later attract sanctions and tariffs on our exports from other nations forcing us to act as a responsible global citizen and not a global climate pariah – second worst in the world.

  7. Avatar

    I watched and listened to 5 days of the so-called, Independent Panel Commission (IPC) and presented (by phone) a 5 minute submission on day one. Overall, I think it should have been renamed the NPC (Non-independent Panel Commission) because the Commissioners (all men) were mainly ex-mining lobbyists and clearly biased in favour of the project. Almost all the questions asked of the record number of objectors cast doubt on the objections or in some-way diffused them. The few pro-Santos people were welcomed and treated warmly while the objectors were treated indifferently. At times the Commissioners recited LNP slogans about gas being a transitional fuel and important to NSW. The script could have been written by Angus Taylor.

    The NSW Premier is under enormous pressure from Scott Morrison to approve the project so it is most likely to be approved in spite of more than 20,000 objections and scientific evidence that it will be a disaster. Makes you wonder how we all became so impotent in the face of corruption. Perhaps we are just too well behaved. One of the consequences of such bad behaviour by successive governments is that more and more people have lost any remaining trust. This comes back to bite them when they ask us to trust in their credibility. Perhaps this is why so many Victorians take no notice of Covid restrictions.

  8. Avatar

    Morrison’s carrot to Gladys ” stadium smasher” Berejiklian had a stapled cheque for $2,000,000,000. IF…!
    the state approved the santos gas project. try and stop her with that offer !



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