The National Native Title Tribunal Has Greenlighted the Narrabri Gas Project

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Gomerai people

The National Native Title Tribunal last Monday gave the greenlight to Australian fossil fuel company Santos to move forward with its Narrabri gas project in north western NSW, removing one of the final barriers to commencing the $3.5 billion enterprise that’s set to devastate the region.

Santos plans to drill over 850 gas wells across 95,000 hectares of Gomeroi Country, most of it comprising of the Pilliga Forest, which sits atop the Great Artesian Basin, one of the largest freshwater reserves on Earth, with the wells set to go right through it to get to the gas.

The determination brings an end to negotiations that began in 2014 following Santos having lodged applications for four petroleum production leases, within the area that the Gomeroi Nation sought a native title determination in regard to back in 2011, which is still pending. 

The Narrabri gas project is one of the five gas fields that former PM Scott Morrison cited as being part of his vision for a gas-led recovery out of the pandemic period, despite overwhelming calls for the nation to transition away from fossil fuel use as the mounting climate crisis necessitates.

Pilliga Project screenshot detailing the proposed sites of coal gas seam wells right across the continent
Pilliga Project screenshot detailing the proposed sites of coal gas seam wells right across the continent

The obvious needs justification 

NNTT president John Dowsett was charged with making a determination on whether the project can go ahead after Santos requested this in May last year, despite the fact that negotiations between it and the Gomeroi people that began in 2014 had not been resolved.

In his final findings, the NNTT president set out that the Gomeroi people claim the project would “result in grave and irreversible consequences” for their “culture, lands and waters and would contribute to climate change”.

Dowsett explained that he doesn’t doubt the “concern is genuine”, but he found that the Gomeroi people had “failed to justify” their assertions relating to the negative effect that the drilling of hundreds of gas wells, with accompanying pools to store toxic runoff, might have on their Country.

“The Tribunal had particular regard to the anticipated benefits of the Narrabri gas project to the Narrabri region, NSW and Australia,” Dowsett wrote, adding that it also relied on the NSW Independent Planning Commission’s greenlighting of the project in September 2020.

One condition applies to the final decision of the former Federal Court judge, which involves Santos having to ensure that an additional research program is carried out as part of the Narrabri Gas Project Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Management Plan.

And this additional program should be completed and implemented before phase 2 of the project.

The horror that awaits

Released last January, the Pilliga Project is a documentary produced by Shannan Langford Salisbury and directed by Natalie Haddad, which details the hazards to be caused by the Narrabri gas project, along with the impact Santos is already having on the forest and the local community.

A stark contrast between what the NNTT provides in relation to the project and what’s divulged in the film is that the tribunal cites a map that shows a relatively small area designated to the Narrabri gas project as opposed to the rest of NSW.

However, the documentary makers explain that this designated area is just the beginning and the greater plans of government and the fossil fuel industry are to expand the range of Narrabri and other gas projects, so that coal seam gas wells leaking methane will dot the entire continent.

Watch the Pilliga Project online

Main image supplied by Gomeroi women Aunty Deborah Briggs and Aunty Suellyn Tighe

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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