NSW sought to have Narrabri gas project removed from Scott Morrison’s fast-track approvals list

FoI documents reveal state government feared rapid approval of Santos project would ‘undermine public trust’

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Last modified on Mon 25 Oct 2021 12.50 EDT

The New South Wales government urged the prime minister’s department to remove Santos’ Narrabri gas project from a list of developments it wanted to rush through the approval process, warning it would “undermine public trust”, documents released under freedom of information show.

Last year, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced the government would fast-track approvals for 15 projects to help drive economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.

One of those was the controversial Narrabri gas project, which at that stage had not been approved by the NSW Independent Planning Commission (IPC), but which Morrison wanted for the so-called “gas-led recovery”.

Freedom of information (FoI) documents released to the Australian Conservation Foundation show the NSW government held serious concerns about adding Santos to the list of 15 projects, given it was still being considered for approval by the IPC.

The department of premier and cabinet wrote to their federal counterparts in July last year, asking that the announcement of Narrabri be “removed from the PM’s list”, because it believed the impression “that the outcome of the IPC is pre-determined could undermine public trust in the process”.

“Our NSW DPIE colleagues have flagged these concerns with their federal counterparts who we understand, also agree,” an unnamed public servant wrote.

But the department of prime minister and cabinet dismissed the concerns.

“In terms of ensuring public confidence in decision-making processes, I think that can be managed effectively through ensuring the messaging is appropriately deferential to where things are at in the relevant approval process,” a senior bureaucrat replied.

NSW quickly acquiesced, the documents show, but urged the Commonwealth to use language that made it clear the project was still under approval.

The controversial $3.6bn Narrabri gas project was approved by the NSW IPC in September last year and by the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, in November.

How the 15 projects earmarked for “fast track” were chosen, and the evidence to support that decision, was questioned at the time, with environment groups describing the process as “opaque”. Officials told senate estimates the projects were chosen through an “iterative process” that began before Covid-19, though the pandemic drove the final decision to take them to national cabinet.

One of the projects – the multi-billion dollar expansion of BHP’s Olympic Dam mine in South Australia – has since been abandoned by the developer after it decided it did not make economic sense.

If developed in full, the Narrabri gas project would involve up to 850 coal seam gas wells being drilled on 1,000 hectares of a 95,000-hectare site that includes Pilliga forest and nearby grazing land. Santos says it could provide up to 200 terajoules of gas a day for domestic use for 20 years, equivalent to 50% of NSW demand.

The IPC heard evidence from hundreds of people and groups, most of them opposed.

The objections related to matters including the project’s impact on groundwater resources, concerns it could cause a loss of pressure in the Great Artesian Basin, that it would harm biodiversity in the Pilliga forest and release substantial greenhouse gas emissions at odds with Australia’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has spent seven months before the administrative appeals tribunal (AAT), fighting to have the documents released. The AAT this month ordered the department to hand over the records.

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The Australian Conservation Foundation’s democracy campaigner, Jolene Elberth, said delays and redactions were increasingly being used “to slow or block access to important information about environmental decisions and how those decisions are being made”.

“These documents, which reveal something of the rushed and messy process behind 15 projects being given priority treatment, should never have been kept secret from the public,” Elberth said.

The fact the documents were released only after the foundation took the case to the AAT “shows the FoI system is not working in the public interest”, she said.

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