The Battle of Narrabri may well decide our climate future

Approval for the Narrabri gas project will say goodbye to any hope of an effective climate policy and usher in an expanding national gas industry with a rise in emissions and untold direct damage to the sustainability of this drying continent.

Credit – Unsplash

Even more, it will compound a philosophy of primacy of fossil fuel development, and a government rapidly consolidating its power to delay necessary considerations of any post-Covid Green New Deal.

Because of the gross inadequacies and lack of transparency of state environmental impact processes, never before have we seen such a welter of scientific evidence to condemn a project before the NSW Independent Planning Committee (IPC).

This evidence on greenhouse emissions and health, social, economic and environmental impacts is compelling. It is ignored by the Federal government along with the multiple externalities of fossil fuel developments, including the prodigious health costs to individuals, communities and taxpayers.

The government campaign

The stars and ministers are aligned to ensure the expansion of the gas industry at a time when the community is focused on the Covid-19 pandemic. This is an opportunistic time for government and industry to partner to deliver their ‘clean, green gas’ expansion for the post-Covid recovery. Their campaign has proceeded in parallel with, and seemingly untroubled by, the damning evidence and opposition being voiced at the IPC hearings and in written submissions on Narrabri.

The government’s familiar but evolving strategy has been:

  • To appoint a gas industry-orientated post-Covid recovery team to prepare a policy brief under the guidance of ‘independent’ chairs with mining and gas industry experience.
  • To delegate plans to three ministers, two of whom are noted for not understanding or wishing to understand climate change issues. Indeed, Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s policies on renewable energy and gas have been demolished by an energy expert.
  • To use forthcoming legislation on the EPBC Act before the Samuel review is completed to facilitate gas development by handing more responsibility to the states which have abysmal records on development assessment.
  • To make a Prime Ministerial statement supporting gas development as essential for national and industry recovery.
  • To follow up with the Federal government’s Covid-19 Commission Advisory Board support for ‘underwriting’ new gas development and pipelines followed by an announcement of government support.

This has been an audacious, carefully executed military-style strategy to promote gas development led by approval at Narrabri. Indeed the ground was well prepared through a $2 billion Commonwealth deal with the New South Wales government that will supposedly increase gas supply and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, followed by the NSW government signalling its approval for Narrabri even before the IPC hands down its report.

The health issues of Narrabri and gas development

Climate change

Climate change causes hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Australia carries heavy responsibility as the world’s leading exporter of fossil fuels.

Throughout the campaign for more gas development, the Government has relied upon Chief Scientist Professor Alan Finkel in promoting new gas developments as a ‘transitional fuel’. This is now contested in a published letter from 25 climate scientists that states:

Our concern, however, relates to the scale and speed of the decarbonisation challenge required to meet the Paris Agreement, and, in particular, your support for the use of gas as a transition fuel over ’many decades’. Unfortunately, that approach is not consistent with a safe climate, nor, more specifically, with the Paris Agreement. There is no role for an expansion of the gas industry.

The consumption of natural gas is now the fastest-growing source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the most important gas driving climate change.

Global methane emissions from fossil fuel sources and from agriculture are accelerating. On a decadal framework, methane is a far more potent greenhouse than carbon dioxide. In Australia the rapid rise in methane emissions is due to the expansion of the natural gas industry. The rate of methane leakage from the full gas economy, from exploration through to end use, has far exceeded earlier estimates.”

In response Professor Finkel has replied

“…regarding the supporting role that natural gas will play in the transition to a low emissions electricity supply, I can only reiterate what I said in my National Press Club address in February 2020. Namely, that the adoption of more renewable electricity will be faster, more economical and more reliable if natural gas fired electricity generation continues to be available in the near to medium term.

Emissions from using natural gas to generate electricity are significantly lower than when using coal to produce the same amount of electricity, even when upstream fugitive emissions of methane are included in the analysis.”

Professor Finkel did not provide references for this statement and there is now compelling evidence that there is little difference between coal and gas.

Furthermore, a submission from former Chief Scientist Professor Penny Sackett on the Narrabri proposal concludes that:

The Narrabri Gas Project must not proceed on grounds of environmental and climate considerations, responsible stewardship, and social equity for and safety of future generations.

Chemicals

People living near gas operations can be at higher risk of exposure to a wide range of potentially hazardous organic compounds such as benzene, poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, heavy metals and radioactive materials in water and air.

These affect the respiratory, endocrine, nervous and cardiovascular systems, and some can cause cancer and birth defects at sufficient levels of exposure. Some are endocrine-disrupting (EDCs), such as PFAS used in fire-fighting foam, and may promote birth defects. These chemicals may contaminate land, air and water.

Water

Water usage from fracking will be prodigious, threatening the environmental sustainability of the Narrabri region as observed in some other drying regions of Australia. Groundwater connectivity with the Great Artesian Basin may allow contamination of the Basin and local water supplies.

The National Environmental Office concludes: “The likely environmental impacts are so significant that the project should be refused development,” a position supported by water expert Professor John Williams.

Social harms

Gas developments trigger social, emotional and mental health stressors that can devastate Traditional Custodians, polarise communities and add further psychological burdens on our already stressed food-producers and exporters.

The outcome for Narrabri?

Only the compelling evidence presented to the IPC and the state government by concerned citizens and climate, water, health and economic experts can prevent this development.

The recent approval of the Whitehaven coal mine expansion by the IPC, regardless of its consequences for our environment, climate and health, seems to confirm we will have a fossil fuel led post-Covid recovery.

In response to a critical assessment of its submission to the IPC, Santos has now been granted an opportunity to revise its submission and the closing date for submissions has been extended. This would also be an opportunity for Santos to respond to questions on poor birth outcomes and congenital abnormalities put at the Santos AGM but not answered.

However occasionally the hand of God can move in mysterious ways – the IPC is, after all, the Independent Planning Commission.

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Dr Melissa Haswell is the Professor of Practice in Environmental Wellbeing, Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) at University of Sydney.

Dr David Shearman AM FRACP is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University

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