The 12-week trigger for a decision by the Independent Planning Commission on the massive Santos' Narrabri gas project has been triggered after it received a Department of Planning report into the project today.
The NSW Planning Department has indicated in its report that the controversial project is "approvable" and was "critical for energy security and reliability in NSW" .
Applications for registration for the online hearings is expected to open later next week, with a special video conference room established in Narrabri so that some witnesses can give evidence there - or via phone.
Late today, the IPC announced the public online hearings will be held from July 20-24.
Under new legislation the IPC must make a decision on the project now by September 4.
The hearings will be chaired by commissioner Steve O'Connor and two other commissioners.
Santos has indicated recently it is in "go mode" if the project is approved. The Federal Government has cited gas projects as a major priority as it tries to take the economy out of the COVID-19 induced recession.
Lock the Gate Alliance and north west NSW farmers though have slammed the Planning Department's decision to label the Santos Narrabri coal seam gas "approvable".
It said the decision was made "despite the government's failure to implement the Chief Scientist's recommendations for managing risks from the industry and shock revelations this week that landholders affected by the gas industry may not be insured for public liability".
"The decision is particularly galling because the amount of contaminated salt waste to be dumped at a location that is still unknown as a result of the project appears to have roughly doubled to 840,000 tonnes," the Alliance said.
"The department's documents released as part of the recommendation also show about 1000 hectares of koala habitat may be destroyed for the project.
"As well, questions remain over potential contamination of underground water via unknown geological faults, with water experts unable to come to a conclusion concerning the risk."
Santos Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Gallagher said the project is in a position to "ramp up activity" immediately if the project is approved by the Independent Planning Commission.
"There are already 16 Santos people living and working in Narrabri, we're buying goods and services locally, and we're in a position to ramp up our activity and get back to drilling more appraisal wells shortly after approvals are in place," he said.
"At the peak of construction, we expect development of the project to support hundreds of jobs and, when it is in full operation, it will sustain 200 direct and indirect ongoing local jobs."
Santos welcomed the release of the Department of Planning's final assessment report on the Narrabri Gas Project and its recommendation that the project is capable of approval with conditions.
Santos accepted the conditions proposed by the New South Wales Department of Planning and will now participate constructively and transparently in the Independent Planning Commission's hearings and deliberations over the next 12 weeks, it said.
Mr Gallagher said a decision on Narrabri is "more important than ever" as the economy comes out of hibernation from COVID-19 restrictions.
"Narrabri means more jobs and more investment in New South Wales and the local region, and lower gas and electricity prices for customers in the state," Mr Gallagher said.
"We welcome the positive recommendation from the New South Wales Department of Planning and the sensible, independent planning process the project is going through.
"Santos already has appraisal wells powering the equivalent of 23,000 households in north-west New South Wales from Wilga Park Power Station, there are 16 Santos people living and working in Narrabri, we're buying goods and services locally, and we're in a position to ramp up our activity and get back to drilling more appraisal wells as soon as a decision is taken.
"We are confident that we have relied upon the best science to confirm that the Narrabri Gas Project can be developed safely and sustainably, without harm to water resources or the environment. However, a consent decision is one for an independent umpire, the IPC, and we're looking forward to its decision within the next few months.
"Narrabri is the cheapest source of gas for NSW customers, and without NSW developing its own gas resources, its businesses and households will continue to face higher energy costs than across the border in Queensland.
"Santos has committed 100 per cent of Narrabri gas to the domestic gas market. Developing local gas supplies in NSW means commercial bakers in Sydney will no longer pay $26,400 more for gas every year than similar businesses in Brisbane."
The Narrabri Gas Project has the potential to supply enough natural gas to meet up to half of NSW's natural gas demand where more than one million family homes, ~33,000 businesses and ~300,000 jobs rely on natural gas as a source of energy.
"The time for political games is over. We want to get on with creating jobs in New South Wales and Narrabri and making a real difference to people's lives in rural and regional communities," Mr Gallagher said.
"COVID-19 has refocussed all of us on the importance of driving investment and doing everything we can to create more local jobs and business opportunities."
But there is widespread opposition to the project among farmers in the area.
Narrabri farmer Stuart Murray said, "This toxic project should never have reached the Independent Planning Commission simply because the NSW Chief Scientist Mary O'Kane made 16 recommendations to mitigate the risk of CSG, the government took it on board, made it policy, but has still not implemented it after almost six years.
"Our government has betrayed us.
"We don't know where that contaminated salt waste is going to go, there is no solution. I am deeply concerned it could end up in our river systems and in our underground water systems."
North west NSW stock and station agent and beef producer David Chadwick said, "The Liberal National Coalition has been applying immense pressure to have this project up and running against fierce opposition from the local area and broader region.
"The recent defeat of the CSG Moratorium Bill absolutely highlights how the Liberal National Coalition has betrayed rural Australia. That is why the seat of Barwon was lost after 60 years to Roy Butler of the Shooters, Fishers, and Farmers Party who went to the last election and stood true to his word, unlike the Nationals.
"It is inconceivable after the last three years of record drought and climate change being at the forefront of everyone's minds that our government would even contemplate supporting, let alone approving, a project that puts our only secure water supply at risk.
"Santos' history of fines and breaches at the exploration phase guarantees this will end in disaster."
Lock the Gate NSW spokesperson Georgina Woods said "This entire process has been highly politicised and the people of New South Wales will bear the cost.
"Political slogans about gas prices are contradicted by the department's own Assessment Report which admits that if gas prices fall by 30 per cent, the project's economic profile would be a net negative."
"It is the people of north west NSW that will be hurt most by this. A NSW parliamentary inquiry earlier this year described coal seam gas as "uninsurable" and it has been revealed this week that the largest insurance company in Australia is refusing to offer public liability cover to farmers who have CSG infrastructure on their properties in Queensland.
"We're appealing to the IPC to ignore the political pressure and demonstrate its independence by refusing approval for this polluting project and safeguarding the people, water, and future of the state's north west."
In its report, the Department of Planning found that the project was not a threat to the environment.
In the report released today it found:
"Following extensive community consultation and investigations, the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (Department) has completed its detailed assessment of the merits of the project.
This assessment was informed by advice from Narrabri Shire Council, government agencies and independent experts, including a Water Expert Panel which was specifically set up for the project, and has concluded that the project:
is critical for energy security and reliability in NSW as it would:
* provide essential gas supplies to the domestic market to address forecast shortfalls from 2024;
* facilitate the extension of the existing gas pipeline network to northern NSW, bringing it closer to the strategic gas supplies in both Queensland and the Northern Territory;
* support the development of gas-fired power stations in NSW to provide dispatchable energy to the National Electricity Market (NEM) as it transitions away from a long-term reliance on coalfired power stations to a greater reliance on renewable energy; and
* put downward pressure on gas prices; deliver significant economic benefits to NSW and the Narrabri region and stimulate the economic recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including:
* creating jobs and attracting investment to the region;
* providing up to $14.5 million to Narrabri Shire Council for community projects and infrastructure;
* setting up a Community Benefit Fund with up to $120 million to share the benefits of the project with the local community; and
* facilitating economic development in Narrabri, including the development of a new industrial estate; has been designed to minimise any impacts on the region's significant water resources, including the Great Artesian Basin, the biodiversity and heritage values of the Pilliga State Forest, and the health and safety of the local community;
- would comply with the relevant requirements and standards in government legislation, policies and guidelines;
- would not result in any significant impacts on people or the environment; and that any residual impacts of the project can be reduced to an acceptable level by capping total water extraction to 37.5 gigalitres (GL) over the life of the project and requiring Santos to comply with strict standards, rehabilitate the site to a high standard and offset the biodiversity impacts of the project.
The Department has recommended a comprehensive suite of strict conditions, which have been developed in consultation with key government agencies and independent experts, to ensure this occurs."