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Pilliga gas project clears last environmental hurdle despite threat to wildlife and water

Pilliga mouse

The Morrison government has approved a $3.6 billion gas project in northern NSW despite widespread opposition by residents, farmers, Indigenous groups and conservation agencies.

The proposed project will be located in the Pilliga Key Biodiversity Area near Narrabi. Up to 850 wells will be dug across 95,000 hectares, each requiring at least a hectare of clearing around it, as well as the construction of roads through the forest to service the project.

BirdLife Australia said that the Pilliga Forest is important for several declining woodland bird species, including Barking Owls, Diamond Firetails and Painted Honeyeaters.

“It’s the largest continuous forest west of the divide,” said Golo Maurer, Key Biodiversity Area Program Leader at Birdlife Australia.

“The Pilliga landscape is already under pressure from more frequent and intense droughts through climate change, and Sussan Ley’s decision to allow fracking — against the wishes of much of the local community — amounts to a disregard for our native wildlife.”

The Pilliga mouse, which is listed as a threatened species in NSW, is one of the most heavily impacted species, as it occurs only in the Pilliga Forest. However, Maurer explained that birds will also be affected by the proposed gas field. Large birds such as the Glossy Black Cockatoo need wide tracts of habitat to forage in, as not every tree will produce food for them each year.

Coonabarabran Residents Against Coal Seam Gas (CRAG) is one of many groups campaigning in the local community against the gas project.

“We’ve got teachers, farmers, ecologists, astronomers, Indigenous people, engineers and retirees [in our group],” said CRAG’s Laura Hartley.

“We’re also part of the North West Alliance, which is more than 30 groups… across the north-west affected by mining licences. We’re a very broad alliance, from farmers to conservationists.”

Hartley said that a community survey conducted in the area found that 97% of those polled opposed coal seam gas in their area.

The group outlined their main concerns as the threat to the quality of ground water, as the Pilliga forest is a recharge area for the Great Artesian Basin, questions about where and how toxic salts produced by the gas operation will be disposed of, skepticism that Santos will be able to meet the conditions imposed before commencing work, and that the Environmental Protection Agency will have the resources and the will to monitor the company’s work.

“There’s nothing about the proposal that’s acceptable,” said Hartley.

Native Title applicant and Traditional Owner of the Gomeroi Nation, Maria “Polly” Cutmore, has issued a statement outlining the opposition of the Gomeroi People to the project, saying that they have not been consulted in the process.

“Gomeroi People are not happy about the decisions by Sussan Ley or the NSW Independent Planning Commission, as we will not be bullied into accepting any long term harm to precious waters and flora and fauna,” Cutmore said.

Santos has stated that they will not begin the project for 12-18 months, leaving the opportunity open for opponents to continue their campaign.

“They certainly don’t consider the battle lost yet, because some of the conditions… it’s very hard to see how you would meet them if you took them seriously,” said Maurer.

Images: CRAG/Rosemary Vass, Chris Tzaros/Birdlife Australia, Lock the Gate Alliance/Flickr

Sarah Jacob

Sarah Jacob is a journalist and editor and is currently The Advocate's Deputy Editor. She has written for a range of print and online publications across Australia and internationally with a focus on the environment and human rights. Previously she worked in conservation science and protected area management, and has completed postgraduate degrees in journalism and marine science.

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