A word from Margo
I FIRST VISITED the Liverpool Plains, THE NSW food bowl, and the surrounding nature refuge, the Pilliga, in 2014, when I live tweeted direct action to try (but failed) to save the endangered Leard State Forest being felled by Whitehaven Coal for a coal mine. I’ll never forget visiting the Pilliga Pottery back then for a fundraiser, and accompanying musician Ash Grunwald on a light plane trip to a property whose farmer owner refused to sell. He was surrounded by coal mines.
I returned to the annual gathering at the Pilliga Pottery in late 2018 with my mother.
The first photo is Mum with Rosemary Vass, a long time campaigner to save the Liverpool Plains. The briefing was positive – it looked like the battle to save it from Santos CSG fracking was won.
Here’s rural reporter Jamieson Murphy’s recent thread on the political lies told since on the Santos CSG saga.
Liverpool Plains farmer Rosemary Nankivell, who has fought for more than a decade to save the Liverpool Plains and the Pilliga, wrote two posts for No Fibs in 2014, A nation where Miners are Government: #Pilliga farmer @nocsg predicts a Liverpool Plains revolution and Maverick Narrabri Councillor Bevan O’Regan ‘a certain style of country bloke’: @nocsg profile, Margo interview,
Famers, environmentalists and the Gomeroi people have not given up. Their latest push is for a ban on new coal and CSG mining on prime agricultural land.
The Nationals abandoned such protection long ago – former Federal Nats leader John Anderson chaired Eastern Star Gas, which sold to Santos after a contaminated water scandal, and another former Nats leader Mark Vaile has made a fortune as chair of Whitehaven Coal.
So, here’s a detailed briefing paper by Rosemary Nankivell on the state of play. Honoured to publish you again, Rosemary. Let’s do a podcast soon :)
Scope of Document
- This document provides a quick reference covering:
- Location characteristics
- Current Santos exploration activities
- Gas extraction process and aquifer dewatering
- Water issues
- Queensland Hunter Gas pipeline
- Wildlife and habitat destruction
- Agricultural production
- Greenhouse emissions
- Cumulative effects of CSG
- Contradictory government and NSW Opposition policy framework * Implacable and enduring opposition from Gomeroi and North West
Timeline of angst and deception
2008: The Liverpool Plains community commenced the fight against Coal Seam Gas (CSG) alongside the successful opposition to BHP and Shenhua coal mining projects.
2009: Premier Kristina Keneally approves Narrabri to Newcastle pipeline.
2011: Farmers held the first blockade in Australia against CSG in 2011 at Glasserton near Spring Ridge in the heart of the Liverpool Plains where 300 farm families and community members succeeded in having Santos withdraw from a proposed drilling program.
2017: Narrabri gas project EIS submitted to Department of Planning and Environment.
2018: Kevin Gallagher Santos CEO at AGM claimed to have no plans to mine the Liverpool Plains.
2020: Narrabri gas project approved by IPC with conditions.
2020: Federal Environment Minister Hunt refuses to apply EPBC water trigger in determination of project thereby facilitating its approval.
2020: Hunter Gas Pipeline company commenced approaching affected landowners in pipeline path to secure access.
2021: While announcing the withdrawal of Shenhua NSW Deputy premier John Barilaro foreshadowed that no mining would occur on the Liverpool Plains foreshadowed the release of the NSW Gas Plan.
2021: The NSW Gas Plan conferred rights to Santos to explore Petroleum Exploration Licences (PELs) 1, 12, 238 and 427. This area covers over 1.3m hectares and includes the internationally acclaimed, highly productive Liverpool Plains and the Pilliga State Forest, the largest intact temperate woodland in Australia – important for the climate and Gomeroi culture and history.
2022: Santos acquires Hunter Gas Pipeline company and resumes attempts to sign up landowners for pipeline access.
2023: Santos resumes seismic testing on the Liverpool Plains and completes by February.
2023: Farmers and community members stage blockade of seismic testing.
2023: Treasurer Keen issues Authority to Survey (ATS) for the pipeline.
The Liverpool Plains region is an extensive agricultural area covering about 12,000 km2 (1.2M ha) of the north-western slopes and plains and is 4.5 hours from Sydney. The region is widely regarded as the best and most reliable farming country in Australia. It produces about 40 per cent above the national average of cropping yields and is the highest contributor to agricultural value in NSW. It is one of few areas in the world which have two growing seasons. The Plains are internationally acclaimed for its deep black self-mulching vertisol soils, mild climate and extraordinary productivity.
The Liverpool Plains are bordered in the east by the Great Dividing Range, to the south by the Liverpool Range and on the west by the Warrumbungle Ranges. Major rivers are the Namoi River, Mooki River and Peel River – all feed into the Murray Darling rivers. Significantly, this area has the largest underground river system in the Murray Darling Basin.
These plains are unusual in that many steep hills arise suddenly from the plains. These steep hills are a haven for wildlife – hence Gunnedah being known as the Koala Capital of Australia.
Towns in the Liverpool Plains include Gunnedah, Narrabri, Quirindi, Werris Creek and Tamworth. Smaller villages include Breeza, Spring Ridge, Blackville, Carroll, Mullaley and Willow Tree.
Current exploration activities
Santos has recently completed seismic testing in an area south of Gunnedah beginning 23rd January 2023. This area includes productive farmland and an area of koala habitat in which University of Sydney has been conducting research for the past 15 years working with a local farmer. Research covers koala habitat, behaviour and the spread of chlamydia in the koala population.
Gas extraction process and aquifer dewatering
CSG is extracted by dewatering aquifers. Fracking, a procedure using explosives, is be used to release the gas. Both drilling and fracking processes require chemicals. Chemicals remain in the aquifer or are pumped into large evaporation/wastewater ponds. Currently, there is no acceptable method to dispose of the salts, drilling fluids and radioactive wastewater. In the Pilliga, spills have resulted in a dead zone which cannot be rehabilitated.
Dewatering and fracking processes will first deplete and then destroy the aquifers. Collapsed aquifers in the Darling Downs have already caused subsidence in prime cropping areas and inhibiting the ability to grow crops (1). They are also a safety hazard (2).
Sitting on top of the largest underground water system of the Murray Darling System: The Liverpool Plains are located over the Oxley/Gunnedah Basin in the Upper Namoi Zone of the Namoi catchment This area is the largest underground water system in the Murray-Darling River system and is a critical catchment area for the Murray-Darling.
The seminal water study produced by Professor Ian Acworth (3), estimated that at the current rates of extraction and the establishment of the CSG industry, the aquifers on the Liverpool Plains would be drained by 2040 (4).
His research, using real time monitoring provided by piezometers established at critical water flow choke points by BHP during their period of exploration for a coal mine to be established near Caroona and abandoned in 2016, proves evidence of the interconnectivity between aquifers. This seminal work was one of the major reasons that Shenhua withdrew from the Watermark coal project. The company knew it would not be able to produce a coherent water plan as part of its EIS based on the work by Professor Acworth. Aquifer connectivity has been largely ignored by Santos but remains the elephant in the room (5).
High risk of aquifer contamination: Multiple fault lines contribute to connectivity through which gas, drilling fluids and aquifer water of varying qualities intermingle and escape to contaminate surrounding aquifers. Santos EIS for the Pilliga has admitted that there would be drawdown in the Oxley Basin but cannot provide an estimation of the extent of that drawdown (6). The extraction of CSG requires the aquifer to be dewatered. Fracking, necessary in later stages of development, destroys the aquifer. Drawdown and contamination of water of both surface and groundwater are inevitable.
It is contended that CSG and CO2 from drilling activities is already contaminating groundwater. A chemical composition study of groundwater is urgently required.
Extracted salts and water volumes underscore the environmental and livelihood destruction: Santos’ estimate of the volume of water to be extracted from the Pilliga (Narrabri) proposal is 37.5 billion litres (7). In addition 840,000 tonnes of waste – salts, drilling fluids and radioactive content will be left in aquifers (8). Should this be replicated across the Liverpool Plains, the volume of water extracted across the Liverpool Plains will be of the order of 450 billion litres with waste salt estimated at a staggering 10 million tonnes. Santos has no credible plan for the disposal of these salts. Given that the Queensland gas industry removes 65 billion litres of groundwater per year, this is a reasonable estimate (9).
We will bear the costs: The agriculture sector, towns and communities relying on groundwater will bear the social environmental and economic costs of this ill-conceived project. Knock-on effects include water extracted from an already ailing Murray-Darling Basin. Surface water areas will be significantly reduced and result in dehydration of the region. As in Queensland, wells may have to be deepened as the groundwater level receded (10). Erosion and subsidence are also critical issues (11).
There are ongoing problems long after the project finishes. Well casings lose their integrity and will continue to fail allowing the escape of methane as well as mingling of drilling fluids and inferior aquifer water. The proximity of the Hunter Valley Fault line – which is quite an active fault line – is concerning as it would hasten the deterioration of pipelines and well casings. Santos does not have an acceptable maintenance program once the project has been completed.
Queensland Hunter gas pipeline
In 2009, a 200m wide pipeline corridor study area was approved by the NSW government but no action was taken. In 2019 the project was extended for a further five years by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment. For the project to proceed, significant construction works must be started by a new expiry date of October 2024.
Landholders have not been contacted by the proponent since 2011. In mid-2020 the proponent re-employed staff to progress the project. Significant resistance from affected landholders and ground issues relating to unsuitable terrain has resulted in the pipeline route being moved in some places. In these cases, the pipeline has been being moved onto property belonging to new landholders and Crown Land.
Of the 336 affected householders contacted by Hunter Gas Pipeline company prior to their takeover by Santos, 29 granted access Subsequently 20 of these reneged, leaving around 2.5 per cent of households that had granted access.
Recently an ATS from the NSW State Government Energy Department was issued. The proponent now has access, with conditions, to private land for the study of the final route and bypasses landholder consent. The ATS is classified as an “instrument of last resort.” As many landholders have only had letters of introduction to the project, the issuing of ATS is seen as inappropriate and draconian. The proponent must narrow the pipeline corridor to a 30m wide easement. This will require a ground study and analysis along the entire route to obtain a pipeline licence from the NSW Government before the pipeline can be built.
- Landholders’ objections to the pipeline include (but are not limited to):
- Interruptions of farming activities during and after pipeline construction
- Right of way implications resulting from granting of an easement including access given to the company to construct and maintain the pipeline during and after the course of project
- Sterilisation and devaluation of property due to granting of the easement
- Development of coal seam gas along the pipeline corridor and beyond
- Building on the floodplain, water deviation, erosion and subsidence and resulting cost to landowner such as lack of production and remediation
- Other intrusive infrastructure related to pipeline such as venting and flaring points and large odorous relay stations. Signage is visually unpleasant, dangerous to animals and would obstruct machinery and farming practices
- Landholders feel strongly that they are bearing the risks for a project that benefits a largely foreign owned company
- Pipes leak methane. New and aging infrastructure can cause explosions as has been experienced in the United States
This pipeline has no place on the highly productive soils of the Liverpool Plains. Landholders are opposed and united in protecting their land.
Wildlife and habitat destruction
Koalas and wildlife are set to become collateral damage: Koalas are considered an umbrella species and indicative of good habitat for many other species. Most landowners have a section of koala habitat their properties and are a treasured species.
Much of the species of wildlife on the Liverpool Plains are nocturnal. They are not immediately obvious to people while species such goannas, kangaroos, galahs are easily visible. Nocturnal species include snakes, turtles, yabbies, guppies (small native fish), multiple frogs, dunnards, quolls (rare), echidnas, geckos and lizards, feather-tail gliders, sugar gliders, squirrel gliders, brush-tail possums, owls and bats. All live in a complex biodiverse ecosystem and any assault to their habitat is a threat to their existence and natural capital.
Koalas have a highly developed sense of smell and hearing to survive. This enables them to take flight or refuge. This would also apply to other species. Development of the CSG industry will result in multiple assaults to these species and their reactions to survive.
Potential localised assaults: CSG infrastructure requires the clearing of vegetation, wells, bores, pipelines, access roads, evaporative dams, relay stations (large, noisy and emissions escape easily). Venting and flaring points are necessary. Flares can be at least 100m high – usually in clearings made by the pipeline companies irrespective of flora and fauna. Noise and saturated light diesel fumes and escaping methane 24/7 will render adjacent habitat inhospitable for wildlife. Gas feeder pipelines vent periodically release hydrogen sulphide. This compromised habitat radiates 400m from each bore or venting site- a total area of 50ha. Shallow aquifers and springs will be contaminated by drilling fluids. Seepage is common from theses shallow aquifers. This water that is available to wildlife will be contaminated with irreversible consequences.
Climate Change and habitats: Climate change is one of the biggest threats to wildlife. Predictions of extreme weather suggests that droughts will be hotter and longer. Bushfires will become more prevalent and destroy habitat and animals. The heat waves in the decade 2009 – killed many eucalyptus – the natural habitat of the koala and others. Lack of rain and surface water meant koalas died from dehydration. This would apply to many other species.
Cumulative effects of Narrabri project on habitat and wildlife populations: The proposed 850 wells in the Pilliga region will create a cumulative impact of 42,500 ha – roughly half the Pilliga State Forest. It is believed that Santos’s plans for the Pilliga represent only 14 per cent of Santos long term gas plans should they gain access to the Liverpool Plains. Clearly koala habitat will become fragmented and the environment will become unsuitable for many species.
It is estimated that over two thirds of wildlife and threatened species dwell on private land. The establishment of CSG on the Liverpool Plains can only accelerate the extinction of these threatened species.
This section of the document is based on the invaluable work of Rob Frend, a farmer on the Liverpool Plains as he aims for goals that are economically, socially and environmentally sound. Since 2009 he has been working with University of Sydney scientists as they studied the health of koalas on his property. Since 2016, he has further assisted Dr Valentina Mella verify that koalas need water – debunking the myth that koalas derive all their fluids from tree leaves. He created the TREE TROFF wildlife drinker which Wires is currently distributing throughout Australia. Ten local primary schools have visited to learn about biodiversity and the importance of conservation and assist in the installation of the TREE TROFF wildlife drinker. Rob is also a field liaison person assisting University of Sydney veterinarians and scientists who conducted vaccine trials against Chlamydia on properties south and east of Gunnedah. He has extensive farming experience and is well qualified to comment.
Greenhouse emissions will negate achieving net zero by 2050 and 43 per cent reduction by 2040
Included in this comparison are the direct greenhouse emissions from the project. The Pilliga will emit 127.8 tonnes of C02. If expanded across the total licence area, this figure will be around 1.53 billion tonnes of CO2 which makes a mockery of any international agreements to which the state and commonwealth governments have signed up and continue to proclaim (12).
Research from United States has shown that gas companies significantly underestimate their emissions. Most emissions are estimated when gas fields are operating but emissions also increase with time because of ageing infrastructure such as wells and pipelines losing their integrity. Gas companies do not maintain infrastructure after the project ends.
The Liverpool Plains is recognised as one of the most fertile agricultural lands in the world. It is famous for its black vertisol soils with water retention qualities and a mild climate. It is often compared to the chernozem soils in the Ukraine. This area grows a wide variety of crops and is one of the few areas in the world that has two growing seasons. It supports important protein industries including sheep, cattle, chicken and goats. The main crops include barley, chickpeas, faba and mung beans, sorghum, sunflowers, soybeans, maize, canola, wheat and cotton.
- Liverpool Plains farmers are respected globally for innovation in:
- No till farming
- Water use efficiency in response to cutbacks in irrigation allocations
- Runoff management to retain water and minimise erosion and soil loss
- Controlled traffic farming
- Continuous and cover cropping systems
- Application of AI systems to production and minimising use of chemicals
- Intensification of cropping and livestock production using sustainable methods
Cumulative effects of CSG
- The research paper “Coal Seam Gas Mining: An Assault on Farming Land, Water Resources and Property Rights“ details the following:
- Australia’s largest insurance company, Insurance Australia Group (IAG), will no longer cover farmers for any non-farming related public liability if they have CSG infrastructure on their property, including risks arising from groundwater contamination or loss. Banks will not lend.
- Effects of the industry on groundwater and agricultural resources
- The weakness of official oversight
- Gas and water extraction is now extending under some of the most productive agricultural lands in Australia
- Clear destruction of aquifers from gas drilling and production
- Water extracted along with the gas contains various salts, and the method of disposing of the salts is a contentious, unresolved issue
- Power imbalance between industry and landholders and weak regulation of industry hinders efforts by the industry to obtain a social licence
- Governments have, neglected the region-wide and long-term effects of CSG mining
- Extracting gas and water from the coal seams leaves depressurised zones, which lead to subsidence of the earth layers above the seam
- Leakage of aquifers into the coal seams with deleterious consequences for agricultural production
- Statutory ‘make good’ process for compensating for loss of the aquifer water does not adequately offset the negative effects on the hydrological resources and on agricultural production
- Prevailing self-regulation, lack of baseline assessment and inadequate monitoring of the mining processes are abrogations of government responsibility and the precautionary principle
- There is precious little time to protect agricultural land and the natural systems that underpin agriculture from potentially irrevocable damage
Contradictory policy framework
Over the last 14 years, decisions have been made to further CSG industry on the Liverpool Plains through deception by NSW government.
The release of PELs to Santos represents political deception by the current NSW government and supported by the Opposition. The NSW State Government had previously paid over half a billion dollars to coal companies BHP and Shenhua – so that the Liverpool Plains could be kept for agricultural production. The Deputy Premier assured the Liverpool Plains community that following the exit of Shenhua that no further mining will be considered on the Liverpool Plains. Then the NSW Gas Plan was released and the NSW Government’s deception was revealed. The PEL licences were reactivated on the Liverpool Plains.
Nearly 400,000 hectares of the North West is mapped by Government as “biophysical strategic agricultural land.” Yet is now subject to industrialisation from CSG. These policy platforms relating to land use are contradictory.
The NSW Government has already spent over half a billion dollars buying back mining leases from BHP and Shenhua mining companies to protect the Liverpool Plains, finally recognising its unique agricultural productivity. This is at odds with the granting of licences for the destructive CSG industry.
The NSW Opposition policy position in relation to offshore and onshore gas exploration is also contradictory. They oppose offshore exploration off Sydney’s northern beaches and onshore in the Sydney basin but they support CSG exploration and production in the best farming country in Australia as they hide behind the absurd mantra of “we need the gas”.
Implacable and enduring opposition from the Gomeroi and community
Nothing has changed since 2008. The Gomeroi people remain opposed to the development of the CSG industry. While the Federal Government is in favour of a Voice it is ironical that recently, the Native Title Tribunal made a decision that the North West region, including the sacred Pilliga forest, was not considered culturally significant to the Gomeroi. This decision, by four people, did not include site visits or consulting with the Gomeroi. The Pilliga is the largest inland temperate forest and will be fragmented should the CSG industry go ahead.
The Narrabri project and its extension is an unpopular project with over 22,000 submissions written against its development.
Opposition includes the NFF, NSW Farmers, Unions and the Country Woman’s Association and farmers and communities in the affected areas. This will increase in intensity as governments deceive and facilitate Santos corporate objectives that will result in the destruction of communities, Gomeroi culture and history, farm livelihoods and the environment.
(1) Coal seam Gas Mining: An Assault on Farming Land, Water Resources and Property Rights – Peter Dart, Colin Lynam, Revel Pointon and Geoff Edwards – 2022
(3) The Old River Mooki Drainage System and its impact on the hydrogeology of the Breeza Area – Professor Ian Acworth 2020
(5) Assessment of faults as potential connectivity pathways – GISERA/ CSIRO2020 released 2022
(6) Santos.com/wp-content/upl – available Santos website.
(7) Environmental Impact Statement, Narrabri Gas Project. 2017.
(8) Independent Planning Commission. Statement of reasons Narrabri Gas Project p16.
(10) https://www.rdmw.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/1584728/uwir-2021-report.pdf – 8.8 Summary of Impacted water bores and their management, p124.
(11) Coal seam Gas Mining: an Assault on Farming Land, Water Resources and Property Rights – Peter Dart, Colin Lynam, Revel Pointon and Geoff Edwards – 2022
(12) Salt in the Wound: An assessment of the scale of the NSW Government’s planned expansion of Santos’ Narrabri coal seam gas field. Lock The Gate findings.