Malcolm Turnbull knows better than to meddle in the Narrabri CSG process
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Malcolm Turnbull knows better than to meddle in the Narrabri CSG process

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has again attempted to find a quick and dirty fix to the looming domestic gas energy crisis by calling on the NSW government to override community opposition and environmental concerns by opening up new conventional and unconventional gas fields. He singled out the NSW government in particular over the delays in Santos' blighted Narrabri coal seam gas scheme.

The Narrabri Gas Project, subject to sustained community opposition for almost a decade, is part-way through a NSW government environmental approval process.

The Narrabri Gas Project has been subject to sustained community opposition for almost a decade.

The Narrabri Gas Project has been subject to sustained community opposition for almost a decade.Credit:Bloomberg

The Prime Minister should know better than to interfere in this process. History tells us that political interference and fast-tracking of the environmental approval process will not just lead to poor environmental outcomes, but will also damn the project to even more intense community opposition and will ultimately further damage the diminished corporate reputation of the proponent of the project, Santos.

In the last year of the Howard government, Mr Turnbull was the minister for environment and water resources. Sitting in his in tray on his first day in his new job was the discredited environmental approvals process for the Gunns Pulp Mill in the Tamar Valley in northern Tasmania.

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Narrabri farmer Kim Revell locks herself to a heavy vehicle trying to enter Santos' Leewood reverse-osmosis plant.

Narrabri farmer Kim Revell locks herself to a heavy vehicle trying to enter Santos' Leewood reverse-osmosis plant.Credit:Dean Sewell/Oculi

In March 2007, the Tasmanian Labor government, in the face of concerns raised by the independent Tasmanian Resource Planning and Development Commission that the project contained a number of measures that were "critically non-compliant" with environmental safeguards, decided to roll the Planning Commission and rush special legislation through the Tasmanian Parliament to fast-track environmental approvals for the pulp mill.

With the benefit of hindsight, the fast-tracking of approvals for the pulp mill was the beginning of the end for the project as it unleashed a firestorm of opposition across Tasmania that transcended environmental concerns and led to investors across Australia and the world fleeing the project.

As federal environment minister, Mr Turnbull tried to clean up some of the mess in October 2007 by requiring a range of new studies and conditions be put in place before granting final national approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

But the damage had been done. Gunns collapsed under a mountain of debt, its reputation ruined and the pulp mill was dead as a dodo.

With this history as a guide, it is truly remarkable that the Prime Minister is now calling on state governments to ignore community concern and fast-track approval of contentious gas projects. This is particularly the case in respect to the Narrabri coal seam gas scheme.

The Turnbull government should not be interfering in the independent approval process for a scheme that threatens our biggest inland forest, the Pilliga, and the surrounding productive Narrabri farmland. Even more concerning is that the Pilliga is connected to the water resources of all of eastern Australia. It's part of the Murray-Darling basin, Australia's biggest and most important food bowl, and it's a major recharge zone for the Great Artesian Basin, inland Australia's essential water resource.

Only a few months ago, a record 23,000 submissions were made about the Narrabri scheme's draft environmental impact statement, 22,700 objecting to it, and more than 90 per cent of impacted landholders have signed on to a gasfield-free pledge in the region.

Landholders have had a fill of this project, which has already had a long history of environmental destruction in our biggest inland forest, the Pilliga, including contaminating an aquifer with uranium and other toxic heavy metals in 2014.

The environmental damage already caused in the Pilliga forest came from less than 60 wells just during the exploration phase, but Santos wants to drill more than 850 wells across our biggest inland forest and surrounding productive farmland. Santos plans to drill coal seam gas wells right through the recharge aquifers of the Great Artesian Basin.

Fast-tracking and strong-arming environmental approvals is not the answer. Australia has more than enough gas for its domestic use. The problem is the federal government has allowed big gas companies to send our gas overseas at the expense of our industries and households, who are struggling with extortionate prices the very same gas companies are charging.

Gas companies should do the right thing and make Australian gas available to Australians. If they don't then the Turnbull government should use its much-publicised Australian domestic gas security mechanism to ensure supply.

The Prime Minister should cast his mind back to 2007. He should remind himself of the failed Gunns project and find a better way that meets our urgent energy needs without condemning himself, and Santos, to simply repeat the failures of the past.

Lyndon Schneiders is the national director of the Wilderness Society.

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