Santos decision shows what’s in store for farmers if Barilaro refuses to slay zombies

A shocking lack of federal scrutiny over the Santos Narrabri gasfield revealed in new freedom of information documents serves as a warning for communities covered by zombie petroleum licences, according to Lock the Gate Alliance.

The Morrison Government’s decision brief for the Santos Narrabri Gasfield reveals the company was able to water down a number of conditions made by the Environment Minister, leaving a federal approval which essentially mirrors that of the state approval.

The brief also shows many other ministers, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Angus Taylor, and Keith Pitt, unsurprisingly submitted comments enthusiastically welcoming the Santos proposal, and requesting that Minister Ley limit conditions.

The revelations come as a NSW Parliamentary Inquiry gets underway today into a Bill put forward by Independent MLC Justin Field, which, if passed, would permanently extinguish the petroleum licences that cover more than 4.5 million hectares of north west NSW.

They also come amid reports that Deputy Premier John Barilaro has refused to confirm which and how many expired petroleum licences would be extinguished in his soon to be released “Strategic Statement on Gas”.

Lock the Gate Alliance NSW spokesperson Georgina Woods said all the zombie PELs should be extinguished.

“Allowing some PELs to remain while removing others would leave rural communities under the shadow of coal seam gas, just as they are working hard to emerge from intense drought and the upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic," she said.

“To be resilient, rural communities must be freed from the scourge and uncertainty of coal seam gas.

“These licenses should have been extinguished long ago under the government’s own “use it or lose it” policy. Santos has undertaken no work on them for more than six years. 

“The Deputy Premier must not reward Santos and its corporate partners for sitting greedily on these unused gas licenses and threatening farming communities for so long.”

Ms Woods said the Morrison Government’s decision brief for the Santos Narrabri project revealed what would happen if zombie PELs were raised from the dead and gas companies were allowed to drill more wells.

“The Morrison Government appears to have simply ticked off the approval for Santos’ destructive project with little further investigation, and after also allowing Santos itself to water down its few scant recommendations,” she said.

“Blind support for this project from senior ministers is disturbing. Who can the public rely on to actually defend water resources and the fabric of rural life?

“The communities, farmers, forest and water that are harmed by gasfields deserve more than ham-fisted cheerleading from our most senior elected politicians. 

“Environment Minister Sussan Ley should have referred Santos’ project to the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on water, she should have requested the biodiversity plan. We still don’t even know where Santos plans to drill its 850 gaswells. 

“Instead, it appears other senior ministers egged her on to give a blank cheque to Santos, which will ultimately cost communities, the Great Artesian Basin, and the largest intact temperate woodland in eastern Australia, the Pilliga Forest.”

Santos’ requests which were approved include:

  • Removing a condition limiting indirect impacts to 181 hectares. Santos said indirect impacts, such as increased dust, weeds, and feral animal intrusion, “would be extensive across the project area”, but had already been addressed by offsets.
  • Removal of specific reference to clearing limits and offset credit requirements for each protected matter.
  • Revised groundwater conditions.
  • Revised reporting requirements and definitions for the framework to categorise drilling fluid chemicals. 

Lock the Gate Alliance’s Zombie PEL Bill Parliamentary submission can be found here.