PILLIGA FOREST UPDATE
What’s been happening on Gomeroi Country, March 2023
A lot has happened in the Pilliga, since many of us congregated there just under 11 months ago for the inaugural Pilliga Ultra. At the time, Gomeroi mob had returned from a Nation Meeting in Tamworth, during which they came to the consensus that as the Traditional Owner group, they oppose the Narrabri Gas Project in the Pilliga Forest. This was a momentous and exciting occasion – it was the first time that collectively, a First Nations group had come together en masse to support a Native Title claim.
But before we delve into the negative things that have, and are happening, in the Pilliga, it’s important to take a beat to remember just why this forest needs protection. For those unfamiliar with this often unknown patch of scrub, it is the largest inland forest west of the Dividing Range, nestled between the towns of Narrabri, Coonabarabran and Pilliga in the North-West of NSW. The Pilliga Forest is recognised as one of the most important areas for biodiversity in eastern Australia and is home to at least 300 native animal species and more than 900 plant species, including the critically endangered Regent Honeyeater and endangered Brush Tailed Rock Wallaby.
The proposed Santos Narrabri Gas Project will see 850 coal seam gas wells fragment this pristine landscape, restrict Traditional Owner land access and compromise the Great Artesian Basin. The project is widely condemned by local communities who have been fighting tirelessly against fossil fuel exploitation for decades; first from coal, and now natural gas (aka, methane!).
Here is an overview of the key aspects of the campaign against Santosand this proposed project.
Native Title Tribunal
Fast forward six or so months from the Nation meeting, and the Native Title Tribunal heard the case of Santos vs. Gomeroi Native Title claimants, amongst whom was Suellyn Tighe, who addressed the runners at the 2022 event. Devastatingly, the Native Title Tribunal’s verdict was in Santos’ favor, giving the $3 billion dollar project the go ahead, determining the group had failed to prove the gas project would have “grave and irreversible consequences for the Gomeroi people’s culture, lands and waters and would contribute to climate change”.
Raymond ‘Bubbly’ Wetherill, one of the 18 Native Title claimants, said of the verdict, “we’re trying to uphold our cultural integrity. The proposed infrastructure [for the wells] seeks to destroy our cultural heritage and spiritual connection to our Country”.
Soon after the verdict, the Gomeroi Native Title claimants launched an appeal, which is still playing out. As it stands, the progress of the Narrabri Gas Project now rests on one condition – that Santos ‘take all necessary steps’ to implement all of the provisions recognised in the project’s Aboriginal cultural heritage management plan, before the next phase of the project progresses. This includes publishing modelling of management plans for groundwater, biodiversity and other environmental impacts. This is certainly a good start, to ensure the integrity of the forest and underlying Basin are not compromised. However, regardless of how careful or considerate Santos intend to be, they still have the green light to fell and excavate areas of this forest and continue to frack in a climate emergency.
The Narrabri Gas Project has both the green light from the Federal and NSW State Governments, and was part of former Prime Minister Scott Morrisons’ ‘Gas Led Recovery’ in 2020. At the time, Matt Kean, NSW Energy Minister called the project a “gamble”, and said that “gas is a hugely expensive way of generating electricity”, instead suggesting it would be sensible to move towards cheaper ways of delivering energy (i.e renewables).
However, with a NSW Election looming (25th March 2023) the Liberal Government are doubling down on previous commitments made with the Morrison Liberal Government to increase NSW’s gas supply. In January 2023, Matt Kean signed off on Santo’s to conduct a survey for the proposed Hunter Gas Pipeline, which includes surveys and testing on affected properties – even if landholders do not consent. The Hunter Gas Pipeline will run from Narrabri to Newcastle, so the gas extracted from the Pilliga and surrounding gas fields can be exported. The former Federal Liberal government and the current NSW (Liberal) Government will have you believe that NSW (along with other states) are facing a ‘gas shortage’, This would indeed be true if we weren’t decarbonising homes and industry and switching to renewables at an incredible rate.
A 2021 Report by the Climate Council detailed a clear pathway for NSW to be eliminating gas demand by 2050. Moreover, about 74% of Australia’s gas supply between 2019-2020 was exported. According to Geoscience Australia, during 2020 Australia was the 7th largest gas producer in the world, and in 2021 Australia’s LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) exports reached a record high of 81.2 million tonnes, making Australia the world’s largest LNG exporter.
The gas extracted from the proposed 850 wells across the Pilliga will be transported via another proposed pipeline, which we are referring to as the ‘Pilliga Pipeline’, This 55cm diameter underground pipeline will transport the coal seam gas in gas form through 30 km of forest and 30 km of private land, before connecting with the main Hunter Gas Pipeline. Santos is currently trying to squeeze this through Planning NSW as a separate project than the Narrabri Gas Project, so it won’t face the same environmental and cultural responsibilities. Local environmental groups are doing what they can to make sure this doesn’t happen, through citizen science and community awareness. Stay tuned for more on this soon…
Like many places in Australia, and indeed the world, the Pilliga has faced its fair share of unseasonable, severe and erratic weather. After several years of severe drought in the years leading up to 2020, subsequent La Nina winters have seen the forest flourish, with flannel flowers abundant in incredible numbers throughout spring.
Narrabri and parts of the Pilliga experienced a severe rain event in October 2022, when 1500 residents of Narrabri had to evacuate, as the Namoi River peaked at 7.6 metres. Ben Burdett, a Sydney based climate activist, was seconded to Narrabri by the Surf Lifesaving NSW as a boat driver and sand-bag filler said ‘The painful irony is the climate impacts being felt by these places is being exacerbated by the coal mining and gas extraction projects that are centred in this region.’ Days earlier, the Climate Council released this informative video about the Narrabri Gas Project.
In February, Santos hosted the ‘Santos Festival of Rugby’ in Narrabri, with two rugby union teams battling it out for the Santos Cup. The event was hosted at the Narrabri Blue Boars Rugby Club, which (not) coincidentally is the same colour as Santos’ branding. Honestly, this event is a textbook example of sportswashing at its finest. This event came off the back of the Santos Tour Down Under, another event slathered in Santos branding, during which Extinction Rebellion protestors were arrested, including a group of women, aged between 58 and 72 who flashed the riders and they went past and were then charged with public nudity. “We are baring our ageing breasts and our wobbly bums in the hope of shocking,” said one of the protestors, Mag Merrilees. “Polite pleas and submissions have not been enough.”
The most appalling aspect of the Festival of Rugby was the fact that Santos was hard-selling the beauty of the region, proclaiming the area as an ‘explorers paradise, with an abundance of national parks, walking tracks, unique wildlife, and secluded waterways. Come for the rugby, stay for the adventures!’ You know what this beautiful landscape is missing? 850 ghastly coal seam gas wells, and the infrastructure and polluting machines that go along with it!
I feel like that is plenty of information for today – there is still plenty going on in the area, with Whitehaven Coal ramping up their operations and making an absolute mess at the same time. People for the Plains campaigner, Anna Christie said in reference to Whitehaven’s underground coal operations ‘ have resulted in drastic surface damage due to the company’s crude longwall degassing methods which have resulted in surface clearing and fragmentation for raw venting of greenhouse gases.’ This has recently been in court, and I’m sure we will hear more regarding this ecological bin-fire.
In the coming weeks, we plan to bring you the dates and distances for the Pilliga Ultra, so you can pop it in the diary and start planning your trip to the Pilliga Forest. These communities are very excited to welcome us back, and are grateful to everyone who continues to spread the word about this precious place, and the destruction it faces. You can pre-register here to be first in the know with event dates and details.
Something else you can do today is sign this petition from Gomeroi Ngaarr, a collective of Gomeroi people supported by Jumbunna Research at the University of Technology Sydney. The petition says NO to gas-led dispossession, and stands with Gomeroi against Santos in the Pilliga.
Sign the petition here.
- Climate Council Video: https://fb.watch/iPLN1ap7Tr/