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Coal seam gas approvals need to look beyond water

The pristine woodland of the Pillga is also a hotspot for coal seam gas. Flickr/kateausburn

Coal seam gas approvals need to look beyond water

The pristine woodland of the Pillga is also a hotspot for coal seam gas. Flickr/kateausburn

While 50 coal and coal seam gas projects are being pushed through the federal environmental assessment in Queensland, the Australian government has backed away from the process in New South Wales. Recently environment minister Greg Hunt decided that a proposal for exploration of the Pilliga region of New South Wales would not be assessed under federal environmental approvals.

The minister found that the energy company Santos proposal did not amount to a “controlled action” under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, which decides what projects need to be assessed by the federal government for environmental impacts. So, why are some projects assessed and others not?

Welcome to the Pilliga

The Pilliga region in northern NSW is home to few people, but it does have one of the largest native inland forests west of the Great Dividing Range and is home to a large and diverse population of birds and native trees.

The approval of the Santos application will result in the removal of hundreds of trees and native orchids from the region.

A few conditions have been attached to the exploration licence. No construction is to occur during the breeding season of the Pilliga Mouse, Regent Honeyeater or Koala, groundwater monitoring must be carried out and log book records of flora and fauna must be kept.

Despite these conditions, there is no doubt that the exploratory activities of Santos are likely to cause significant damage to the forest and wildlife in this area.

Don’t be fooled: the threatened Pilliga Mouse is no ordinary mouse. Wikimedia Commons

How does the EPBC work?

To understand why the EPBC Act was found not to apply to this project, it is important to appreciate the act’s methodology.

The act defines matters of national environmental significance, including natural heritage, wetlands, and endangered species. If a project or development might affect one of these matters, it must be assessed by the federal government, as well as local and state assessments.

Earlier this year a new matter of national significance was introduced to the legislation. If any coal seam gas project significantly impacts on a water resource it must be evaluated under the EPBC Act. Current standard industry practice is to refer all CSG projects to the federal minister, and this is where the decision was made on the Santos project.

Once referred, the federal minister must decide whether the project is a “controlled action”. To decide this the minister has to focus on impacts that a CSG project will or is likely to have on a water resource. If the environmental impact is likely to be significant, the project will be found to constitute a “controlled action”. This gives the federal government ultimate power to determine whether the project is approved or refused.

Why was the Pilliga project not assessed?

The exploration licence that Santos applied for in the Pilliga region did not get past the initial assessment stage because the federal minister found that it did not constitute a controlled action. Rejection at this point means the EPBC Act will have no further role in assessing the project.

While a CSG project should be assessed if it is likely to significantly impact on a water resource, the Santos project is excluded because it is for exploration rather than extraction of CSG.

Exploration drills don’t remove groundwater, unlike extraction. The project is therefore unlikely to have a significant impact on groundwater, and it was deemed unnecessary for it to be assessed under the new water regulations.

Focus too narrow

But that doesn’t mean the exploration project won’t have any effect on the Pilliga - that’s just the damage covered by the CSG trigger in the EPBC Act. The new trigger doesn’t include damage a CSG project might have on animals, plants and ecosystems.

There are other matters of national environmental significance that a CSG project could attract under the act - such as wetlands, or protected species. But the Santos project did not appear to attract any of these alternative triggers, despite the fact that it will result in damage to habitat in the woodland and, potentially endanger wildlife.

Arguably, the specific focus of the CSG trigger on water impacts rather than broader environmental impacts associated with CSG projects limits the effectiveness of the act and circumscribes the power of the federal government.

Given the confluence of serious environmental concerns associated with CSG mining, the specific CSG trigger in federal legislation should be expanded to include not only water resource impacts but also broader land disturbance impacts resulting from CSG drilling. This would ensure that all impacts flowing from CSG drills, whether exploratory or otherwise, are assessed.

Further, CSG isn’t the only unconventional gas resource attracting controversy. Given concerns over shale gas mining - which requires fracking - and water, particularly in the Cooper Basin, it is arguable that the new trigger in federal legislation should also explicitly apply to all unconventional gas developments.