On Friday, June 21, 2013, an amendment to the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was passed by the house of representatives. Minutes later, Simon Crean announced he was calling for a leadership spill to clear the air in relation to the growing speculation that Kevin Rudd supporters would topple Julia Gillard.
On the following Monday, knowing well that her time as prime minister was close to being over, Gillard ensured the amendment was ratified by the governor-general.
This was one of the final acts of the Gillard minority government and honoured a commitment given by Gillard in 2010 for the establishment of what is known as the “water trigger”.
By the Thursday, Kevin Rudd was prime minister.
The EPBC Act was set up by John Howard in 1999 with the intent of giving the Commonwealth some jurisdiction over matters of environmental law. It provided a framework for the protection of the Australian environment, including its biodiversity and its natural and culturally significant places. It did not include water.
The water trigger amendment created a more rigorous assessment of surface and groundwater impacts from large coalmines and coal seam gas projects, which have significant effects on our water resources.
Since 2013, there have been many attempts by the Liberal and National parties to weaken or destroy the water trigger. They have done this under the guise of removing additional “green tape” but thankfully have been thwarted in the senate by Labor, the Greens and independents.
Previously, state governments had the right to approve major projects without federal scrutiny. As the beneficiary of royalties and other payments, state governments tended to favour the miners.
Following the Gillard amendment, the major mining companies yearned for a return to a situation where the states were approving new projects themselves – not through an arms-length, objective, scientific approach, which the miners saw as another layer of bureaucracy.
During the decade since Gillard signed off on the water trigger, two major projects on the Liverpool Plains have been abandoned. Significantly, BHP withdrew its 500 million-tonne mining licence in 2016 because it could not guarantee there would be no adverse impacts on the underlying water aquifers and recognised that the engineering challenges were too risky.
The Liverpool Plains is renowned for its highly productive, self-mulching soils, second only to Ukraine’s magnificent plains. It is also part of the Namoi River catchment, which has the largest groundwater system in the Murray–Darling catchment.
In April 2021, Chinese company Shenhua walked away from a nearby 500 million-tonne project, essentially due to its inability to develop a water-management plan that would pass objective scientific scrutiny, and because of an extraordinary campaign by the Gomeroi people to preserve sacred war memorials and other sites.
On the same day, the then deputy premier of New South Wales, John Barilaro, announced that the NSW government had decided there would be no more mining on the Liverpool Plains and that the water resources would be protected at sustainable levels.
Last year brought a new fight. The phoney gas shortage debate gave the pretence for Premier Dominic Perrottet to break trust with the community and reverse the decision, promoting Santos’s Narrabri Gas Project with the go-ahead to explore on the flood plain, carry out seismic work and also allow survey work for a pipeline across the plain to Newcastle. Supposedly, this was to solve NSW’s gas issues.
Santos already has approval for 850 gas wells in the Pilliga Forest, adjoining the western boundary of the Liverpool Plains. As yet they have not decided to proceed with that project and it is so far unfunded. The consensus is that it is not economically viable without support for an extension into the Liverpool Plains, which needs to be obtained from both the major parties at state and federal level. Therein lies the risk to the magnificent soils and water of the Liverpool Plains.
To further muddy the waters is the fact that the Pilliga section is a recharge area for one of the world’s unique artesian systems, the Great Artesian Basin. This basin underlies 22 per cent of Australia’s landmass and is the only source of reliable water for many.
The Gomeroi people have filed an appeal against a recent decision by the National Native Title Tribunal, which ruled shortly before Christmas that the project could go ahead despite objections from traditional owners. The tribunal found the public benefit of the project outweighed any environmental concerns.
The Morrison government instigated a review of the EPBC Act in October 2019, chaired by former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Graeme Samuel. That review is publicly available and the recommendations are being assessed by the current government.
It places great emphasis on the need for Indigenous input into decisions and management – and makes interesting reading in light of the current Federal Court appeal and the debate about the Voice.
Samuel also continues Tony Abbott’s line regarding the need to reduce duplication of project assessments between the Commonwealth and the states – the specious “green tape” argument. The problem with this argument is that the real world does not reflect objectivity of decision-making processes. The real world has state governments making decisions and framing terms of reference for their own environmental and political purposes, which just doesn’t work when it comes to issues such as water and climate change that have significant cross-border ramifications.
The real world is about politics, donations, winks and nods. Objective science is sidelined so the minister makes the final call irrespective of the science. History says trusting the states to do the appropriate scientific work as an agent of the Commonwealth on issues such as water, climate change and Indigenous cultural issues is tantamount to allowing the fox to live with the chickens. In the words of our greatest modern-day philosopher Darryl Kerrigan: “They’re dreamin’.”
With the NSW election only two months away, it seems the major parties have decided that the phoney “gas shortage” narrative will be a bipartisan way of minimising any political damage from reopening mining on the Liverpool Plains. This is true at the federal level, too.
Deputy NSW Liberal leader Matt Kean – known as the “green chameleon” in the city and the “Putin of the plains” in the country, where he wants to see as many holes on the flood plain as the Russians do in Ukraine – gave clearance last week for Santos to invade private land with a view to developing a 300-kilometre pipeline to Newcastle. This would run across the Liverpool Plains and the Hunter Valley.
The Liberal and Labor parties clearly don’t want the Santos proposal to be an election issue for either of them. The NSW Labor leader, Chris Minns, says it’s all too complex for him and has popped down to the club to have an each-way bet.
The only state election combatants interested in the policy integrity issues surrounding the Santos proposal and the environmental consequences of coal seam gas development on the flood plain and the Pilliga are the minor parties and independents. They have planned visits soon. Federal teals, the Greens and others are also questioning the need for such a project, given the obvious emissions problems, water concerns and Indigenous cultural issues.
The Albanese government, under Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, has quite rightly initiated a review of 18 contentious development projects with a view to assessing “climate change impacts” as part of any ministerial sign-off process. This is a good step, but the question has to be asked: Why isn’t the Santos Narrabri proposal part of process?
Plibersek would have to know the way in which the Abbott government handled the original application to government, waving it through without completing important tasks such as objective scientific bioregional assessments. She must know about the casual use of state and Commonwealth bilateral agreement processes. The lack of landscape-wide land capability assessment and cumulative impacts is a major flaw, particularly when Santos’s intention is to mine the Liverpool Plains.
Plibersek would also have to know the significance of the Namoi groundwater system to the Murray–Darling Basin Plan and the uncompleted work on the connectivity issues between groundwater and surface water, as well as the potential for coal seam gas wells fracturing aquifers and mixing fresh potable water with non-potable water.
She would also know the relationship between the Pilliga recharge areas and the Great Artesian Basin and the risks involved if the “best guess” bioregional assessments are wrong.
She would know from the bitter experience of those living on the floodplains of the Darling Downs the impact on water supplies and subsidence from depressurisation of aquifers and the consequent changes to surface flows.
So, the question remains, minister: Why no review?
To those who say if the major parties are aligned on this issue, then what difference can the people make, I’m old enough to remember when John Howard intended to sell one of our great water assets, the Snowy Hydro, to foreign interests. He had the support of the Labor opposition and the major parties in both NSW and Victoria, who were co-owners. The three parliaments voted to sell their shares.
It wasn’t sold, however. The agitation by the community, with the support of the crossbench in the parliament, as well as a few Coalition MPs, cruelled the whole foolish enterprise. Now it is being lauded by the same people as a wise economic and environmental decision for a sustainable future.
That fight is needed again. With the polls showing a trend away from the major parties, it could well be that independents, especially on Sydney’s north shore, will be the saviours of their country cousins. Hopefully they will display an interest in the big, long-term issues and stop risking our precious water and land. We cannot depend on the major parties at this point – they are too busy with tawdry power plays and embarrassing dress-ups.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2023 as "The case against Santos".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription