The Great Artesian Basin, the forests, the premier Gladys Berejiklian: is nothing safe from the NSW Nationals?

by | Mar 20, 2021 | Energy & Environment

The power of the Nationals in NSW government poses a serious risk to the state’s environmental health. From fracking the Pillaga and pushing for coal mining on the fertile soil of the Liverpool Plains, to using the state’s remaining forests for a dirty power plant dressed up as ‘renewable’ energy, Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s fingerprints are on every policy. Suzanne Arnold reports.

Just weeks ago, academics reported that 19 major ecosystems that sustain life are collapsing across the continent, posing an existential threat to our survival. Regions critical for growing food are affected, including the Murray-Darling Basin, whose rivers and freshwater systems support more than 30% of Australia’s food production.

Given the key role that NSW’s Pillaga Forest plays in recharging the Great Artesian Basin, the largest and deepest artesian basin in the world, the destruction about to occur in the Pillaga should be of national concern. This natural wonder provides essential freshwater to rural Australian communities and a vast network of ecosystems.

Covering about 500,000 hectares, the Pillaga is the largest remaining cohesive block of temperate forest and woodland in eastern Australia. It is also recognised as one of the most important areas of biodiversity in eastern Australia, providing habitat to about 300 native species and more than 900 plant species.

But it is not going to stay pristine for long. In a $3.6 billion plan, Santos is seeking to drill up to 850 natural gas wells on about 450 sites over the 95,000 hectare project area. Coal seams are often linked to underground aquifers and gas extraction risks poisoning the entire water source as well as the innumerable ecosystems that rely on them.

Gas Lies: Santos tries to ram through coal seam gas at Narrabri with fake claims

The Berejiklian government has enthusiastically supported the project, claiming it is “critical for energy security and that it had limited environmental impacts”.

The NSW Independent Planning Commission gave conditional approval last September, with Federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley signing off on the project in November.

NSW’s Planning Department has identified that some 840,000 tonnes of salt residue will result from the desalination technologies used to treat the Santos coal seam gas water. However, there’s no indication where these residues will be released or stored.

Santos isn’t the only threat to the Pilliga. The Inland Rail project section from Narromine to Narrabri will pass through 50 kilometres of the Pilliga. Community groups have lodged a number of submissions to the Environmental Impact Study objecting to the route, arguing that the route threatens the viability of the forest.

North West Protection Advocacy’s submission notes that not only is Pilliga a significant carbon bank but an estimated 37.5 billion litres of water will be taken from the Basin over the life of the rail project.

Birdlife Australia also identifies the Pilliga as a globally significant Bird Area. The Commonwealth Government identified it as one of only 15 National Biodiversity Hotspots.

Major food bowl

Another critically important region at considerable risk is the Liverpool plains, a major food bowl for the state.

In 2016, Premier Baird announced that the Liverpool Plains would be protected from coal mining because the area:

“provides some of the most productive and valuable farming land in Australia… coal mining under these highly fertile black soil plains poses too great a risk for the future of this food-bowl and the underground water sources that support it.”

 Despite this, the Chinese state owned Shenhua Energy is proposing a 10 million tonne coal mine, fiercely opposed by farmers and community activists.  The area of prime agricultural land has an annual production worth more than $2 billion.

According to Lock the Gate Alliance spokesman Phil Laird, only the full cancellation of the project will protect the farming systems.

“This coal mine is going to be 200 metres deep and it’s going to cut below the ridge line way below the level of the farm land and the aquifers. The impact to those aquifers is unknown and the entire region depends on those aquifers for survival.”

In January 2021, Deputy Premier John Barilaro announced Shenhua had been given a $200 million extension of a NSW Government lease payment for their Watermark mine.

“They’ve got the mining lease, they should get on with it,” Barilaro said.

Sydney’s water catchment at risk

More recently a mining expansion proposal was put forward by South32. The corporation was seeking to expand the Dendrobium coal mine at Kembla Heights by extracting an additional 78 million tonnes with an extension to the mine’s life until 2048. The Independent Planning Commission knocked back the proposal on the grounds that the expansion was a high risk to greater Sydney’s water catchment.

Nevertheless, Deputy Premier Barilaro has announced he would work to “find a way forward” for the mine expansion, indicating he will seek legal advice to overturn the Commission’s decision.

‘Renewable energy’ from trees

Not content with approving ongoing industrial logging in state forests recovering from the catastrophic bushfires, in 2020, Barilaro as Minister for Regional NSW signed off on a $32 billion investment in “renewable energy”.   

The government plans to “cut red tape” to speed up approvals for transmission structure in renewable energy zones.

The renewable energy plan involves rebooting the mothballed Redbank Power Station to be fed with north-east forests which will, according to conservation organisations, create Australia’s most polluting power station.

The 2017 North Coast Residues Report indicates one million tonnes of biomass will need to be taken from these forests and plantations each year with 60% coming from private forests.

Dr Timothy Cadman, who has spent considerable effort campaigning to stop the NSW Forestry Corporation logging the environmentally priceless Kalang headwaters, is extremely concerned about the plan to use biomass for renewable energy.

“There are different definitions of residues. It’s a catch-all term for anything that isn’t a saw log. Existing forests are being re-classified. Some old plantations and abandoned farm land have reverted back to natural forest, particularly on the mid-north coast.

“These forests are now being targeted for bio energy.

“The Forestry Corporation plans to eradicate all this native vegetation, including stumps, drastically simplifying the entire ecosystem base and thereby condemning the country to perpetual fire. The more you simplify forests, the more they burn.

“Forest residues, coal and gas are all going into the grid under the guise of being smart about renewable energy.”

The environmental cost of these decisions must be evaluated. The national balance sheet needs to reflect a value for natural resources and life dependent ecosystems.

Barilaro overrules EPA, ramps up logging, funnels bushfire grants to loggers

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suzanne Arnold

Suzanne Arnold

Sue Arnold is a former Fairfax investigative journalist. Her speciality is environmental issues and she is a regular contributor to Australian and international publications. Sue heads up Australians for Animals Inc., a 32-year-old wildlife charity and is Founder and CEO of the California Gray Whale Coalition based in San Francisco. Sue has regularly lobbied on environmental issues at the European Parliament, US Congress and Senate, California Senate and Assembly, and NSW, Queensland, Victorian and Federal Parliaments.

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    “Coal seams are often linked to underground aquifers and gas extraction risks poisoning the entire water source as well as the innumerable ecosystems that rely on them..”
    My own study of this (as a landholder) has revealed that coal seams bearing the prized gas for the whole of NW NSW including the Pilliga lie UNDER the sub-artesian water-bearing aquifers. (Unlike artesian water, sub-artesian does not rise to the surface under its own pressure, and has to be pumped up using submersible electric pumps, running either off the mains or from solar panels.) Hence Santos has to drill through the aquifers to get to the coal seams.
    The proposal is that once the gas is extracted, the Santos gas bores can be filled with reinforced concrete, and thus sealed forever. Trouble with that is that the Portland cement as used in that concrete was only invented in 1820, so there are no concrete structures older than ~ 200 years even possible anywhere in the world for comparison and evaluation. Moreover, the steel reo bars will inevitably rust in the ground water and expand as they do so, helping to crack and degrade the concrete, breaking whatever seal there is, and allowing gas to escape to the atmosphere as a contribution to anthropogenic climate change, and also allowing the fracking chemicals to rise and contaminate the sub-artesian aquifer. Lose-lose, both ways; except for Santos, of course.
    The concrete plugs on the bore holes will have to last as long as there is human settlement on the NW Plains above, as the water bores are the principal source of water for livestock, and contribute a great part of the water supply for domestic purposes as well. From Santos’ perspective, the seals on the gas bores only have to last till the last gas well is exhausted, then they can take their $$$$ and skedaddle, leaving future taxpayers to deal with the mess they will leave behind in the form of hundreds of (850+) abandoned and likely leaking gas wells; and permanently contaminated sub-artesian water..
    Experience elsewhere bears this scenario out.

  2. Avatar

    “Coal seams are often linked to underground aquifers and gas extraction risks poisoning the entire water source as well as the innumerable ecosystems that rely on them..”
    My own study of this (as a landholder) has revealed that coal seams bearing the prized gas for the whole of NW NSW including the Pilliga lie UNDER the sub-artesian water-bearing aquifers. (Unlike artesian water, sub-artesian does not rise to the surface under its own pressure, and has to be pumped up using submersible electric pumps, running either off the mains or from solar panels.) Hence Santos has to drill through the aquifers to get to the coal seams.
    The proposal is that once the gas is extracted, the Santos gas bores can be filled with reinforced concrete, and thus sealed forever. Trouble with that is that the Portland cement as used in that concrete was only invented in 1820, so there are no concrete structures older than ~ 200 years even possible anywhere in the world for comparison and evaluation. Moreover, the steel reo bars will inevitably rust in the ground water and expand as they do so, helping to crack and degrade the concrete, breaking whatever seal there is, and allowing gas to escape to the atmosphere as a contribution to anthropogenic climate change, and also allowing the fracking chemicals to rise and contaminate the sub-artesian aquifer. Lose-lose, both ways; except for Santos, of course.
    The concrete plugs on the bore holes will have to last as long as there is human settlement on the NW Plains above, as the water bores are the principal source of water for livestock, and contribute a great part of the water supply for domestic purposes as well. From Santos’ perspective, the seals on the gas bores only have to last till the last gas well is exhausted, then they can take their $$$$ and skedaddle, leaving future taxpayers to deal with the mess they will leave behind in the form of hundreds of (850+) abandoned and likely leaking gas wells; and permanently contaminated sub-artesian water..
    Experience elsewhere bears this scenario out.

  3. Avatar

    Thank you for your contribution Suzanne into this highly fraught situation.

    It’s certainly not news in terms of the vandalism that has been done to the planets immune systems, it’s something that any reputable scientific organisation has been highlighting for decades https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fracking-can-contaminate-drinking-water/

    As for Santos, it should be run out of the country, literally and the way forward is going to be more than toxic, at every level. https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/03/19/villagers-pillagers-who-will-survive-the-collapse/

    As our Indigenous families say, it’s ‘deadly’ and they are exposed more directly at present.

  4. Avatar

    The farmers do not seem to know, but the Greens are the natural party of agriculture.

    Clean water, clean air, unpolluted soil makes clean food.

    In this, you can see an outcome of the culture war which undermines any environmental protections and demonises any environmental activists or protestors.

    • Avatar

      And the NFF for expertise and science grounded policies.

    • Avatar

      Absolutely right Alan. I have heard so much misinformation, ridicule & demonising of the Greens by the Nationals in particular, that many farmers are duped into thinking of the Greens as a threat to their livelihoods, when in reality the opposite is true. Policies that promote healthy soils & waterways, clean unpolluted air & reduced carbon in our atmosphere, incentives to retain forest on their land to encourage carbon storage & biodiversity are what farmers need to make their lives easier & their farms more productive & sustainable.

  5. Avatar

    EXTREMELY CONCERNING.

    I am very much a lay-person when it comes to agriculture and ecology, don’t know a thing about basins and aquifiers. This article was, for me, an excellent disclaimer on the importance and imminent threat facing these essential ecosystems.

    Continuously planning and executing the destruction of the regions that literally keep our country alive defies belief. It’s next level short-sightedness.

    I’d like to wake up now…

  6. Avatar

    As disturbing, is the modus operandi in Australian politics with both parties ‘owned’ but can be played off against each other privatekly and/or in media on paid grounded policy compromised by their codependency in forming coalition governments.

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