The independent hearings into one of the most controversial projects in NSW history, Santos’ coal seam gas dream for Narrabri, are wrapping up. Meanwhile, new NSW guidelines to fast-track developments look set to turn into a nightmare for community groups, writes Callum Foote.
Public hearings by the Independent Planning Commission into the controversial Narrabri coal seam gas project wrap up on Saturday. The project is proving to be one of the most controversial developments in NSW history, with the Commission receiving about 23,700 submissions opposing it and 300 in support.
Despite the huge opposition, the NSW government has already begun ramming billions of dollars’ worth of energy and mining projects through the planning approval process as part of its Covid-19 economic recovery plan.
The IPC’s hearing into Santos’ Narrabri project has garnered considerable media attention because of its greenhouse gas emissions, with the project expected to be one of the nation’s top emitters and the potential risk to groundwater.
The project was last month granted in-principle approval by the Planning Minister Rob Stokes and the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. This indicative approval puts enormous pressure on the IPC to simply follow suit with the final decision.
Michael West Media has reported on the Planning Minister’s attack on the independence of the Independent Planning Commission, which is the last line of defence for powerless communities sitting on coal deposits.
At the end of April, the NSW Planning Department released new fast-tracking guidelines as part of its commitment to “slash assessment times”.
Under ‘The Faster Assessments Program’, which is part of a nationwide push to ‘kick-start’ the economy:
- The time taken to make decisions on development applications for larger, regionally significant projects has been cut by 91 days (25%); and
- The time taken to make decisions on major projects of significance to the State has been cut by 20 days (17%).
Already, three ‘tranches’ of projects worth more than $7.7 billion have been ‘fast-tracked’ by Planning Minister Stokes, gaining approval within four weeks of their applications being lodged. A fourth tranche, worth over $4.3 billion, is set to be determined by August 14.
Public servants under pressure
As a result, public servants who make judgements on the assessments prepared by proponents are being put under huge pressure. They often have just 28 days to make the complicated and highly technical assessments of projects that could have massive environmental and economic impacts on communities and the nation.
What’s more, non-government organisations and community members really struggle to make their own assessments or put together the coalitions of support that are required to challenge such large developments. Such parties suffer a serious power imbalance as they rarely have the time, technical knowledge or economic or political clout to deliver a rigorous assessment.
A spokesperson for the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment told Michael West Media “‘The assessment process under the Planning System Acceleration Program is being accelerated, not changed. The usual planning rules and policies still apply, and all projects are assessed under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979.”
Pandemic used as a smokescreen
As Warwick Giblin, a long-time environmental and social impact advisor and an Adjunct Professor at the University of New England, puts it, “the government has used the pandemic as a smokescreen to rationalise setting expeditious or urgent time restraints to make decisions on these projects because they are seen as offering salvation in terms of the economy”.
“But an even-handed assessment is vital to properly quantify and assess the impacts and put in place, appropriate safeguards.”
The rushed approval process also means that proponents of controversial projects, such as the multinational oil and gas giant Santos or homegrown hero Whitehaven Coal, are able to effectively soften laws for environmental protection.
According to Professor Giblin, both state and federal laws “have enough escape clauses or discretionary provisions allowing the bureaucrats, with the blessing of Ministers, to circumvent the fundamental aims of these laws, which are first and foremost to protect the environment and communities”.
And once a project has been granted Conditions of Approval it is almost impossible for conditions to be changed.
For Professor Giblin, it seems as though “the environmental and cultural protection legislation is being over-ridden because of an obsession with short-term jobs and royalties above all else”.
No guarantee of jobs
Yet these jobs are not guaranteed due to the rise of automation. Witness Adani’s promise to politicians that its mine would create 10,000 jobs while it was telling investors the whole project would be automated from mine to port and was forced to admit in court that it would create just 1,464 new jobs a year. And thanks to Australia’s leaky tax system, any financial contribution is likely to be marginal.
Moreover, Professor Graeme Samuel’s independent review of the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) recently released its interim report, highlighting the need for fundamental reform.
As the report states: “The EPBC Act is ineffective. It does not enable the Commonwealth to protect and conserve environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.”
All these moves raise significant concerns regarding the legitimacy of fossil fuel projects approved by Stokes, given the minister’s clear compulsion for coal.
Minister’s attacks on independent thought
Most recently, Minister Stokes and the NSW Liberal-Nationals voted down legislation that would require his department to heed the advice of NSW’s chief scientist in making environmental assessments.
Stokes also tried to introduce the Territorial Limits Bill, which would have prevented NSW authorities from considering the greenhouse gas emissions of coal mined from potential new mines in NSW. This followed the Independent Planning Commission’s rejection of the proposed Bylong valley coal mine in September last year.
The bill was shut down following a parliamentary inquiry.
Stokes also controversially ordered a review of the IPC, the terms of reference which questioned whether the IPC should “rely upon the assessment report prepared by the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment” instead of making its own independent assessment.
The IPC was put on notice that there were consequences for crossing the Planning Minister.
Covid Commission support
Santos’ Narrabri gas project has the backing of the gas heavy National Covid Coordination Commission as reported in the NCCC’s leaked report.
The Narrabri project has been specifically earmarked for support by the NCCC despite several assessments that have found renewable energy backed by storage is now likely the cheapest option for new electricity generation.
The IPC’s judgement on Santos’ Narrabri gas project, as well as Whitehaven’s proposed Vickery coal mine some 20 minutes’ drive south of Narrabri, will show whether the Independent Planning Commission has retained its independence in the face of significant political pressure.
Callum Foote is a journalist and Revolving Doors editor for Michael West Media. He has studied the impact of undue corporate influence over Australian policy decisions and the impact this has on popular interests.