The NSW government has recommended a controversial coal seam gas project in the state’s northwest be approved with strict conditions.
The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment on Friday recommended its approval of the Narrabri coal seam gas project and referred it to the Independent Planning Commission for final assessment.
Oil and gas giant Santos has proposed the $3.6 billion project over 95,000 hectares in the Pilliga forest and nearby grazing land.
It involves drilling 850 new gas wells over 20 years, with Santos saying it has the potential to satisfy up to half of NSW’s natural gas demand.
The department on Friday found the project would not adversely affect the region’s valuable groundwater resources and could be designed to minimise any impacts.
In recommending it for approval, the department added the project is “unlikely” to result in any significant impacts on the community or environment.
“The department has concluded that the project is in the public interest and is approvable subject to strict conditions,” the DPIE said in its report.
During the assessment process the government received nearly 23,000 submissions with some 98 per cent opposing the coal seam gas plan.
The DPIE said the majority of submissions against the proposal argued the project would damage the region, cause significant biodiversity impacts on the Pilliga forest and generate substantial greenhouse gas emissions.
But the DPIE found the project is “permissible with development consent” and any impacts could be suitably controlled with strict conditions.
The conditions imposed include appointing the Environment Protection Authority as lead regulator and obtaining separate water licences for all water taken.
Narrabri farmer Stuart Murray described the development as “toxic” and accused the government of betraying the community.
“We don’t know where that contaminated salt waste is going to go, there is no solution,” Mr Murray said in a statement on Friday.
“I am deeply concerned it could end up in our river systems and in our underground water systems.”
Anti-coal group Lock the Gate Alliance was scathing of the DPIE’s decision and called on the IPC to reject the project.
The Nature Conservation Council made the same call to the IPC and argued groundwater and threatened species were at risk.
“Turning this priceless wilderness into an industrial gas field will poison groundwater, carve up the forest with roads and pipelines, endanger koalas and other threatened species and increase the risk of wildfires,” chief executive Chris Gambian said in a statement on Friday.
The state’s peak business organisation, Business NSW, welcomed the DPIE’s decision and argued the development was needed to secure gas supply.
“Without the Narrabri project coming on line, supply will just about disappear, costs will soar and businesses will be forced to close, meaning even more jobs will be lost in NSW,” chief executive Stephen Cartwright said in a statement.