DPE rejects Santos bid to limit pipeline assessment but more scrutiny needed 

The NSW Department of Planning and Environment has rejected a bid by Santos to avoid cumulative impact assessment of its planned Narrabri Lateral Pipeline. In its Secretary’s Environmental Assessment Requirements (“SEARs”) issued on 9th February 2023, the Department called on Santos to consider “the potential cumulative impacts due to other developments in the vicinity (completed, underway or proposed)”. This is despite Santos claiming in its Scoping Report for the 60km gas pipeline that there would be no cumulative impacts in relation to atmospheric emissions (deliberate or accidental), biodiversity and bushfire risk, with other industrial projects in the Pilliga Forest.

Nearby industrial projects include:

  • Narrabri Underground Coal Mine, currently underway and approved for Stage 3 expansion – a decision of the NSW Independent Planning Commission facing judicial review in the NSW Land and Environment Court, challenged for “unreasonableness” by the Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action Inc. Watch the case, which starts on Friday the 16th February here
  • Two large exploration leases called Gorman North which were issued to Whitehaven Coal in 2022 
  • Narrabri Gas Project – 850 gas wells approved, many in the Pilliga, and some in surrounding farmland which would connect with pipeline 
  • The Queensland Hunter Gas Pipeline, which would connect with the Narrabri Lateral at Baan Baa 
  • The Inland Rail which is currently aligned directly with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy land 

The hastily issued SEARs document has not been specific about the methodology to be used but the Cumulative Impact Assessment Guidelines for State Significant Projects, published in October 2022,  provide the methodology for projects where there is “potential for material cumulative impacts as a result of other relevant future projects”. The above listed projects are all related within the meaning of the cumulative impact guidelines as they are either physically connected or located in contiguous extractive or exploration tenures, and are extracting from essentially the same coal seams with demonstrated aquifer connectivity issues. 

Not that a pipeline would have aquifer connectivity. Cumulative impact concerns relating to the 50-55cm diameter pipeline are primarily about biodiversity, atmospheric emissions both deliberate and accidental and bushfire risk. 

High point vents on a Santos pipeline – Pilliga State Forest – 2019

NWPA was recently critical of Santos’ Scoping Paper for the Narrabri Lateral over half of whose length is within The Pilliga, habitat for nationally listed species such as the swift parrot, koala, nail-tailed wallaby, wombat, Pilliga mouse, eastern pygmy possum, swamp and red-necked wallaby, barking owl, squirrel glider, and the south-eastern long-eared bat amongst dozens of others. 

Preservation of The Pilliga, NSW’s largest inland temperate forest, is now partially in the hands of the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment Tanya Plibersek whose portfolio includes the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Before stepping back from its intention in the Scoping Report, Santos public relations personnel informed community at an information day at Baan Baa that the Narrabri Lateral would be referred to the Commonwealth as a “controlled action” which could impact negatively on Matters of National Environmental Significance. 

The NSW Government’s Biodiversity, Conservation and Science Directorate provides advice, politely suggesting: 

“If the proposed development is likely to be a ‘Controlled Action’ under the EPBC Act, the  accredited assessor should contact the BCS North West Planning team at  rog.nw@environment.nsw.gov.au prior to submission of the EIS. The BCS North West  Planning team can provide guidance on the minimum information requirements for the EIS for any entities that have been or are likely to be deemed a ‘Controlled Action’.” 

There is one problem with this advice.  

Under the DPE’s Rapid Assessment Framework introduced in 2022, an assessor accredited under the Registered Environmental Assessment Practitioner (REAP) scheme does not have to be engaged at the beginning of the environmental impact assessment process. This is a large and unfortunate gap in procedural oversight and scientific judgement available to guide the assessment.  

Lack of scientific rigour was obvious in the pipeline’s Scoping Report, which was just signed “Santos” with no sign-off from any named expert or person responsible. Whoever is chosen as the REAP register assessor for the Narrabri Lateral Pipeline will have many eyes scrutinising their professional judgment.  

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