Editor’s Note: When preparing the recent post on the International Day for Biological Diversity, perhaps I should have gone to the state forests of the Pillaga in NSW Australia to take photos instead? As you all should know, energy is becoming a major worldwide problem. With all the low-hanging energy fruit having already been plucked, we’re now looking to mop up remaining dregs in all the very worst places. Below you’ll hear yet another sad tale of the lengths we will go to get our next fix.
Eastern Star Gas has applied for approval under both state and federal regulations to develop a massive coal seam gas field of around 550 gas wells in the State Forests of The Pilliga. Commonly known as the ‘Pilliga Scrub’, this unique woodland is near Narrabri in northern NSW. The gas project is set to clear over 2,400 hectares of native vegetation and will forever change the landscape of the Pilliga.
The Pilliga Scrub is a highly significant area in terms of the state’s biodiversity. It is known to be the largest continuous remnant of semi-arid woodland in temperate New South Wales and contains many threatened animal and plant species such as the Pilliga Mouse, Black-striped Wallaby and South-eastern Long-eared Bat.
Black-striped Wallaby, a mostly nocturnal animal under threat from
land clearing, and now, coal seam gas.
The gas field and the related infrastructure proposals (including two major regional pipelines) have been determined to be ‘controlled actions’ under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. This means they will require the approval of Minister Tony Burke and the Federal Department of Environment. There is also a proposal from Eastern Star Gas being referred for a LNG export processing facility at Kooragang Island at Newcastle.
At the NSW Government level, the projects are being assessed by the Department of Planning under Part3A. The Director General’s Requirements (DGRs) for the environmental assessments were issued in December 2010, but this was not made public until after the recent state election. You can view them here.
This is the biggest coal seam gas field ever proposed in NSW and the first ever LNG export facility in the state. However, it looks to be just the beginning. Eastern Star Gas, headed by former Nationals Leader and Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, has not revealed their full plans for the area. Coal seams extend underneath almost the entire Pilliga Scrub, and this initial proposal covers 85,000ha of a 500,000ha vegetation remnant. Extrapolating these figures, 550 wells now could mean as many as 3,000 wells in the future. You can read more about the EPBC referrals for the Narrabri Gas Field here at the Federal Environment Department’s website.
The four project components
- Development of a major coal seam gas field in the Pilliga Scrub
- A pipeline from Narrabri to Wellington (via Coolah)
- A pipeline from Coolah to Newcastle
- An LNG export facility at Kooragang Island at Newcastle
- Eastern Star Gas Limited (ESG) is the operator of the Narrabri CSG Joint Venture (NJV). Some 35% of the CSG interest in PEL 238 is strata titled to Santos. The Chairman of ESG is John Anderson, former National Party politician. The Narrabri Coal Seam Gas Project is being developed by the NJV.
- ESG developed the Wilga Park Power Station in 2004, and supplied it with gas from the Coonarah Gas Field on private land to the north of the Pilliga.
- In 2006, a number of closely spaced well production pilots were developed in the Bohena and Bibblewindi fields in the Pilliga Scrub. In 2008, approval was granted for a gas pipeline from the pilot wells in the Pilliga to the Wilga Park Power Station and the expansion of the power station. The expected supply of gas from the Coonarah Gas fields did not eventuate, and the station has been utilising production gas from the pilot wells.
- The NJV currently has an MOU with ERM Power for the provision of gas to a new gas fired power station at Wellington over a 20 year period commencing in 2013.
Gas field development
The proposed gas field development area covers approximately 85,000 ha and includes Pilliga East State Forest, Bibblewindi State Forest, Jacks Creek State Forest, and Pilliga East State Conservation Area, plus some small areas of Crown Land and private land. The project aims to produce, process, compress and transport CSG from within Petroleum Exploration Licence 238, Petroleum Production Lease 3 and Petroleum Assessment Lease 2.
The project proposal includes the following:
- 550 production well sets, initially, on a 500m spacing
- 1,000 km of gas and water gathering systems (ie pipelines),
- access tracks,
- a co-located gas processing and compression plant,
- a centralised water management facility and
- ancillary infrastructure such as offices and workshops.
The gas production will clear at least 2,410 hectares of native vegetation. The area that is being targeted includes:
- A rich variety of heritage sites, including a rock shelter, burials, a grinding groove, scarred trees, open sites, stone artefact scatters and isolated finds.
- An Internationally recognised Important Bird Area.
- Known or likely habitat for 25 nationally listed threatened species and five nationally listed Endangered Ecological Communities.
- Known or likely habitat for 48 state-listed threatened species and five state-listed Endangered Ecological Communities including:
– Pilliga Mouse – known only from the Pilliga Scrub, this nationally vulnerable species has a total distribution of only 100,000 hectares. It will be severely impacted by the direct habitat loss, increased predation, and fragmentation leading to impacts on dispersal.
– Black-striped Wallaby – endangered in NSW, the northern Pilliga is the only known location of this species in western NSW. Requiring dense vegetation, it is extremely vulnerable to clearing, fragmentation and increased predation.
– Malleefowl – considered endangered in NSW and nationally vulnerable, has been recorded previously in eastern Pilliga. It is highly vulnerable to increased predation and fire.
– South-eastern Long-eared Bat – the Pilliga Scrub is recognised as the likely national stronghold for this vulnerable species (NSW and Federal). It prefers large, intact stands of native vegetation, and is at risk of fragmentation, loss of hollow trees, and uncovered saline ponds. Numerous other threatened bat species face similar risks from the proposal.
– Glossy Black Cockatoo – a very significant western population of the Glossy Black Cockatoo occurs in the Pilliga Scrub.
– Squirrel Glider, Koala and Eastern Pygmy Possum – which are all likely to be severely impacted by the direct habitat loss, fragmentation (and particularly its impacts on mobility and dispersal), and increased predation.
– Grey-crowned Babbler, Diamond Firetail, Hooded Robin, Speckled Warbler – and numerous other declining woodland birds for which the Pilliga represents a major refuge area. Those species are all threatened by increased fragmentation and predation.
- This area of the Pilliga Scrub is prone to severe, high intensity fires that burn very quickly through vast areas. The proposal to have a massive compressor facility located in the Pilliga, and 550 well production sets, represents a very serious fire risk and has the potential to render a regular Pilliga hot burn to a catastrophic level.
The Eastern Star Gas proposal suggests that it intends to use lateral drilling rather than hydraulic fracturing (fracking), but it does not explicitly prohibit or rule it out. There is inadequate assessment of the impacts on groundwater and aquifers, including the Great Artesian Basin. The proposal is extremely vague as to what it plans to do with the water that is produced as a by-product of the extraction process. Currently it states that it will use “a combination of storage and evaporation with tertiary treatment and discharge (environmental flows) for co-produced water management”. Produced water contains a range of naturally occurring substances that are likely to be harmful to the environment and human health. It is highly saline, and can also contain toxic drilling and fracturing chemicals. Eastern Star Gas commits to the development of a Water Management Strategy, but in the absence of such a strategy it is not possible to assess the potential impacts on biodiversity or the environment of produced water.
Take action to save the Pilliga Scrub
The Pilliga campaign will no doubt be the next big fight to protect biodiversity in NSW. The coal seam gas industry is expanding rapidly, and governments are largely taking the advice of industry on the environmental impacts.
As a first step, please send a message to the Federal Environment Minister requesting he reject the project under the EPBC Act. You can write your own personal email by contacting him here. Or simply fill out the form here to send him a generic message.
As the Greens environment spokesperson, together with my colleague Jeremy Buckingham as the Greens mining spokesperson, we’ll be building a campaign to save the Pilliga from coal seam gas and to protect its unique biodiversity. Check back here soon for more information on how you can help save the Pilliga Scrub.
Special thanks goes to Carmel Flint for her assistance in compiling this summary.