• Coal seam gas infrastructure at Narrabri. (AAP)Source: AAP
The science community is lending its voice and expertise to the fight against the recently approved Santos Narrabri gas project, slamming the approval of 850 new coal seam gas wells.
Rae Johnston

2 Oct 2020 - 10:49 PM  UPDATED 2 Oct 2020 - 10:49 PM

A former president of the Australian Conservation Foundation has labelled the decision to approve a $3.6 billion coal seam gas project on Gomeroi Country in the west of New South Wales as "criminally irresponsible".

Professor Ian Lowe from Griffith University said "every credible assessment of our energy future shows that we will be using less gas, not more," slamming the decision to invest further in gas when "there are cleaner and less expensive alternatives."

Prof Lowe is not alone, with leading scientists and environmental experts speaking out about the probable devastating impact of energy company Santos's project, set to be located in Narrabri and consisting of 850 new coal seam gas wells with a lifespan of 25 years.

23,000 submissions were made to the NSW Government's Independent Planning Commission (IPC) on the coal seam gas field, which will be spread out over 95,000 hectares. 98 per cent of the submissions were in opposition to the project, which was approved by the IPC on Wednesday.

Experts are calling the approval for the project "hugely concerning", dismissing claims it will make gas cheaper. 

Immediate environmental impacts

Associate Professor Gavin Mudd from the School of Engineering at RMIT University said approving the Narribi project "locks in major groundwater risks for decades to come."

"Experience shows that the environmental assessment and approval of coal seam gas projects to date always underestimates groundwater impacts," said Prof Mudd. "There are better alternatives, such as renewable energy, which do not carry the same risks, especially for climate change."

The case against gas: price and jobs

Dr Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, said the new gas supply from Narrabri would do nothing to lower the cost of gas for consumers, "because it will have higher production costs than existing gas fields."

"For the same reason, if used to generate electricity, it will do nothing to bring down wholesale electricity prices, and, in any case, will not be needed," said Dr Saddler. 

Dr Saddler points to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), who created a 2020 Integrated Systems Plan (ISP) for Australia's energy future showing "under all plausible future scenarios" the level of total annual gas generation will be less than what we generate now.  

Professor Colin Butler, an Honorary Professor at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, described the justification of extracting fossil fuels to create jobs as "hollow".

"Climate change will destroy jobs. Job-intensive, energy-harnessing alternatives should instead be promoted," he said.

The case against gas: emissions

Melissa Haswell, a Professor of Practice in Environmental Wellbeing at the University of Sydney, said emissions from gas are "routinely significantly underestimated."

"There is an ongoing dialogue amongst those who favour gas that shifting from coal to gas as an energy source is good for the climate," said Prof Haswell. "This has been repeatedly shown to be an unhelpful diversion from the urgency of reducing all fossil fuel mining and burning."

"The approval of the Narrabri development in the face of substantial risk to climate, the environment, water, health and community wellbeing is a clear demonstration of how influences favouring gas are simultaneously hindering transitions to truly low emission, cheaper renewable energies and reliable storage in the energy market," said Prof Haswell. 

Prof Haswell described the Narrabri development, and plans for a gas replacement for the ageing Liddell coal plant, as "major steps away" from the AEMO's Integrated Systems Plan, which details a way to transition from fossil fuels to wind, solar and storage - with 96 per cent replacement by 2040. 

"This plan is the only vision Australia has to make a decent contribution to Greenhouse Gas emissions abatement, and to our chances for clean, safe, healthy and affordable domestic energy system," said Prof Haswell. 

"Greenhouse gas emissions have risen, largely due to gas mining, for some time now - and these developments show that current politicians on both sides respect no upper boundary to Australia's contribution to intensifying global warming and human suffering."

 Professor Colin Butler, an Honorary Professor at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, said gas is claimed as a lower-emitting 'transitional fuel' when compared to coal.

"But the advantage is much reduced, and in some cases completely eliminated, once fugitive emissions of methane are considered," said Prof Butler.

Australia's carbon debt 

"To open up new gas and new coal when it's clear that the only path to a decent healthy future is rapid, unhindered transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, shows no regard for current and future wellbeing," said Prof Haswell. 

Professor Samantha Hepburn, the research director of the law school at Deakin University in Melbourne and the Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resource Law (CENRL), said the approval of the Narrabri gas project represents "a significant step backwards."

Prof Hepburn said Australia is "already emitting too much carbon", and Narrabri's approval will only make things worse, possibly resulting in Australia becoming a "global carbon debtor".

"A completely unnecessary and irresponsible status, given our enormous capacity to generate and store renewable energy," said Prof Hepburn. 

What about the Paris agreement? 

In 2016 Australia signed the Paris Agreement, along with more than 170 other countries, promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 per cent - when compared to 2005 levels - by 2030.

Prof Haswell said the Paris Agreement was "just a starting point", and that Australia's minimal target was not meant to remain unchanged.

"The Agreement required parties to ramp up emission reductions at each Annual Conference of Parties gatherings," said Prof Haswell. 

"Instead, it was very clearly stated at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference meetings that the US and Australian governments had no intention of "keeping their gas and oil in the ground"

Prof Haswell said the two latest mining approvals, along with "so many" developments in the pipeline, will drive greenhouse gas emission up, showing "little regard for global responsibility."

The role of finance

Professor Peter Newman, the John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University said the project would "never get built if the finance community continue to recognise their role in ensuring the Net Zero by 2050 transition is enabled, not dinosaur projects like these."

"Governments are approving such projects as they don't have proper tools to include Net Zero assessments," said Prof Newman, "but finance is still required and can simply say no."

Climate wars

Peter Sainsbury, a Professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame and Past President of both the Public Health Association of Australia and the Climate and Health Alliance, said both the approval of the Narrabri gas project - and Queensland's recent approval of a new coal mine with a lifespan of 80 years - shows there are no "climate wars" in Australia. 

"People keep talking about Australia's political climate wars. What climate wars? There are no climate wars in Australia," Prof Sainsbury said. 

"The Coalition and Labor are in total agreement - let's keep digging up coal and gas, let's keep burning it and exporting it. Let's turn global warming into global roasting and let's keep ruining people's health and killing people with air pollution and climate change."

Prof Butler said both the Narrabri and Gallile approvals show governments on both sides "continue to chase a mirage of fossil fuel-driven prosperity."

"Within 50 years, if current trends continue, pervasive global poverty, or even the collapse of civilisation could occur," said Prof Butler. "It is thus imperative that all high-income countries urgently reduce their greenhouse gas emissions."

"I long for a time when national leaders will consider the long term future, instead of the next few months."

Prof Haswell said the Narrabri coal seam gas project is "new and fully avoidable", showing "the nation demonstrates no intention to alter its politically-driven fossil fuel ambitions". 

Prof Sainsbury said there is "no chance" of Australia adopting an environmentally sustainable climate change policy that protects people's livelihoods and health unless one of the major parties completely changes its climate policies.

"Or, we dump both of them in the dustbin of history."

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