Community group’s court action forces stricter environmental protections for Queensland coal seam gas project

Community group Western Downs Alliance has successfully negotiated the addition of important environmental conditions to the Santos GLNG Gas Field Development Project in the Surat Basin, Queensland.

9 January 2017

Western Downs Alliance, represented by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) NSW, launched a challenge in the Federal Court of Australia against the Federal Minister for the Environment and Energy’s approval of the project, which was granted on 22 March 2016. The Alliance’s challenge was that under the approval the Minister had allowed millions of litres of CSG waste water from the project to be released into surface water systems, such as the stunning and environmentally important Dawson River, without having assessed the environmental impacts this would have. 

The Alliance argued that the Minister’s approval was unlawful because Australia’s environmental laws require that the Minister properly assess a major CSG project’s impacts on water resources such as the Dawson River. This requirement was inserted into Australia’s environmental laws in June 2013, and is known as the Water Trigger. Before the Minister approved the project the Independent Expert Scientific Committee advised that there is ‘considerable scientific uncertainty about potential impacts [of this project] on surface water and groundwater and associated ecosystems’, and that the project’s environmental impacts should be properly assessed. 

The case was set down to be heard by the full bench of the Federal Court of Australia on 13 February 2017, but on 23 December 2016 the Minister and Santos agreed to amend the approval, satisfying the Alliance’s claim. The amendment adds an important condition to the approval: that the project is prohibited from discharging CSG waste water to any watercourse. The amendment means that if Santos in fact wants to release its CSG waste water into any water course in the future it must go through the legal process and have the proposal assessed by the Minister. 

“Although many in the community are concerned about the environmental and social impacts of this substantial CSG project and argue that it should not have been approved, these new conditions on the project should be seen as a win for environmental protection and the integrity of the water trigger, which is an important part of Australia’s environmental laws,” said Sue Higginson, Chief Executive Officer, EDO NSW. “The Minister’s original approval left the door open for Santos to discharge substantial amounts of CSG waste water into surface water systems without further assessment. By taking legal action, our client has ensured that there will be no release of waste water to surface waters under this project and that any future proposal will require a separate application and assessment.” 

“The community is rightly concerned about Santos’s activities in the Surat Basin – in 2013 Santos began discharging CSG waste water generated from its existing GLNG Project into the Dawson River after discovering it has no other viable means of dealing with the millions of litres of waste water. So it’s critically important that the Government and Santos are held to account as to how the waste water generated by the new CSG wells in the extension project will be dealt with under the Commonwealth approval. 

“This case is another great example of the importance of the community’s right to be able to uphold Commonwealth laws designed to protect the environment. The community’s right to access environmental justice is essential to ensure our environment is not irreversibly degraded and our economy grows sustainably.” 

Read more about this case »