SANTOS'S predictions that its Narrabri Gas Project will be approved by the end of the year have been labelled a brazen attempt to pressure the government.
When Santos chief executive Kevin Gallagher told Ticky Fullerton on Sky News in May the company expected approval by "year end" there were a few eyebrows raised.
Barwon MP Roy Butler told The Land: "this is not coming from the government, the company is trying to force a government decision on the back of the Adani Carmichael coal mine approval (in Queensland)."
Mr Butler disagrees with the prospect of 850 unconventional gas wells being drilled across the state's North West.
"No-one has been able to give me a guarantee the groundwater will be safe, it's all good and well to have jobs, but if we don't have water we won't have any communities.
"Then jobs are pointless."
At the moment both Coonamble and Narrabri are 100 per cent dependent on ground water.
When Santos first lodged its Environmental Impact Statement in January 2017 there were 22,949 submissions made in relation to the project of which 98 per cent objected to the proposal.
In comparison, the EIS for KEPCO's proposed Bylong coal mine - a similarly contentious project - attracted 383 submissions when its public exhibition ended on November 6, 2016.
Because of the number of submissions the Bylong project was referred to the Planning Assessment Commission on January 9, 2019.
The PAC has now been replaced by the Independent Planning Commission (IPC).
The Planning Department recommended to the IPC in its final assessment report, after a 'whole-of-government' assessment that the project was "approvable subject to stringent conditions".
The IPC convened a public meeting in Mudgee in relation to the KEPCO project on November 7, 2018.
The IPC has yet to rule on that project.
In contrast the Narrabri Gas Project is yet to be referred to the IPC.
Given the KEPCO proposal has been with the IPC coming on a year, Mr Gallagher's predictions its project will only be before the IPC for a "couple of months" seem hopeful.
Sally Hunter, a commercial cattle farmer at "Huntly", Boggabri, says Santos's latest public declaration that its project is nearing approval is a "brazen attempt to undermine a process that is deliberately apolitical".
Ms Hunter told The Land the IPC had clearly been established to de-politicise the decision-making process relating to major developments.
"The scientific analysis, monitoring and modelling requested by NSW government agencies as part of the Narrabri gasfield assessment is crucial to understanding the project and making a robust decision about it," she said.
"Disposal of contaminated salt waste, monitoring of groundwater loss, estimation of escaping methane and volatile organic compounds, ground-truthing of ecological mapping and mitigation of bushfire risk are all among matters still not addressed by Santos.
"These are far from trivial considerations," said Ms Hunter.
It was in May this year Santos announced it had signed "non-binding" agreements with three companies, building products supplier Brickworks, gas retailer Weston Energy and and Perdaman, a company proposing to build an ammonium nitrate plant to supply "fertiliser to the agricultural industry".
Mr Gallagher said Santos had committed 100 percent of Narrabri gas to the domestic market, enough to "supply up to half of NSW's needs".
That's not a promise that sits well with energy analyst Bruce Robertson, who pointed out in a recent report that unconventional gas costs more than double to produce compared with traditional sources of gas.
He suggested Santos was buying traditonal east coast gas from the domestic market and exporting that, keeping more expensive gas for Australians.
It is Perdaman's proposal that has earned the ire of Liverpool Plains beef producer Margaret Fleck.
She said NSW farmers used very little ammonium nitrate as fertiliser, because it was much cheaper to use urea and ammonium nitrate is considered a dangerous good.
Western Australia uses the greatest amount of ammonium nitrate, but mostly in blended mixes, generally the liquid fertiliser urea ammonium nitrate solution.
Ms Fleck said it was unlikely the Perdaman plant would manufacture only fertiliser, but probably explosives also, widely used in the mining industry.
Other North West farmers worry the Narrabri Gas Project could only be the beginning of the region's woes.
This month Comet Ridge announced to delegates at the Noosa Mining and Exploration Investor Conference that it intends to revisit "significant acreage" under its Petroleum Exploration Licences (PELs) 6, 427 and 428, which traverse the Moree and Coonamble, Walgett and Warrumbungles shires.
Great Artesian Basin Protection Group president Simon Fagan said such announcements made clear the North West was "at a precipice".
"If the Narrabri Gas Project is approved and Santos proceeds, it is most likely that further gasfields will follow.
"Santos has mapped a Taroom gasfield near Moree, a Bellata gasfield, a Maules Creek gasfield, a Bando gasfield on the Liverpool Plains, a gasfield for Tooraweenah near Gilgandra and a Murrurundi gasfield in the Upper Hunter."
Mr Fagan said the coal seam gas industry would bring "long-term damage to the social fabric, economic stability and environmental sustainability of our region.
"Stage one in this region is the Narrabri project in the Pilliga forest with 850 wells drilled through vital recharge areas of the Great Artesian Basin and over 35 billion litres of water removed. The cumulative impacts of the gasfields to come are so vast, it's difficult to imagine."
Meryl Dillon, from Moree, said, "as residents of Moree Shire, we need to reinforce our opposition to coal seam gas rolling out across the beautiful country and prime soils of Moree Plains. Our water and our farming are at risk.
"Even Moree's town's tourism, which is centred on our Great Artesian Basin could be at risk.
"We simply cannot afford to place that industry in jeopardy.
"The land all across these PELs is full of Gamilaraay artefacts and sites which places cultural heritage and people's ongoing connection to country at risk."
Mr Fagan said the government should extinguish the Comet Ridge licences and "not allow continued speculation by gas companies and agonising uncertainty for landowners that live under these petroleum licences."
On Tuesday Santos said the EIS process for the Narrabri Gas Project has been running for almost six years.
A spokeswoman said Santos had provided comprehensive information on every aspect of the Narrabri Gas Project throughout the EIS process, including its detailed response to public submissions.
"Santos has done everything it can to provide high quality and extensive information to inform the Department of Planning's assessment report for the IPC so as to enable timely decision making when the project is ultimately referred to the IPC.
"Santos is committed to a rigorous, open, transparent and independent planning and approvals process to provide the community with confidence that, if approved, the Narrabri Gas Project will be developed safely and sustainably, without harm to water resources, agricultural land or the environment," she said.