Current Cases

We represent individuals and community groups in public interest litigation to protect the environment. These are the cases that we are currently working on.

Western Downs Alliance v Minister for the Environment & Santos Limited

We are acting for Western Downs Alliance in its challenge to a decision by the Federal Minister for the Environment to approve the Santos GLNG Gas Field Development Project in Queensland.  

This is the first CSG case brought under national environmental laws to challenge the application of the Water Trigger, and is an important test case.

The Minister’s approval allows Santos to develop 6,100 coal seam gas (CSG) wells across approximately 1 million hectares of land in the Surat Basin in South-Central Queensland. This represents a substantial expansion on the 2,650 CSG wells approved for an overlapping (but significantly smaller) area in 2010.

Over the project’s predicted life of more than 30 years, Santos is proposing to extract up to 219 billion litres of water, with potential impacts on the Great Artesian Basin. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project outlines proposed methods of managing the extracted water, one of which is to release water from the wells into surface water systems such as rivers and lakes.

Western Downs Alliance argues that the approval of the project was unlawful because the Minister did not properly assess the project’s impacts on surface water.

The EIS notes that the project is likely to have a number of surface water impacts, including:

  • increased sedimentation;
  • erosion of stream banks;
  • surface water contamination, including toxicity to aquatic ecosystems; and
  • altered surface water flow.

In November 2014, the Independent Expert Scientific Committee, which was set up in 2012 to provide scientific advice to decision makers on the impact that coal seam gas and large coal mining development may have on Australia's water resources, advised the Minister that there is ‘considerable scientific uncertainty about potential impacts [of this project] on surface water and groundwater and associated ecosystems’. The Committee specifically stated that the potential impacts of discharging water into the Dawson River, including ecological impacts, should be assessed.

This case raises the question of what is required of the Minister under the ‘Water Trigger’, which was added in 2013 as a ‘matter of national environmental significance’ to Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Under the Water Trigger, any proposed CSG development that has, will have, or is likely to have a significant impact on a water resource requires comprehensive assessment and approval at a national level by the Minister under the EPBC Act.

Western Downs Alliance argues that the Minister incorrectly formed the view that it was not necessary to assess the impacts of releasing CSG water to surface waters as part of the project approval, and that as a result the approval was unlawful.

We are grateful to barristers Geoffrey Kennett SC and Ashley Stafford for their assistance in this matter.

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People for the Plains v Santos and Others

People for the Plains, represented by EDO NSW, is seeking an injunction in the NSW Land and Environment Court to prevent Santos from developing its 'Leewood' coal seam gas (CSG) wastewater treatment facility without first undertaking the proper planning and environmental assessment. The facility will be located near the Pilliga State Forest, near Narrabri in North-West NSW.

The case was heard in the Land and Environment Court on 17 and 18 May 2016. Judgment is expected to be handed down on 7 July. In the meantime, Santos has agreed not to begin the irrigation component of the Leewood facility until after 8 July 2016.

The Leewood facility will form one component of Santos's Narrabri Gas Project, and would treat over one million litres of toxic CSG wastewater each day.

In August 2015 the NSW Department of Industry approved the Leewood project through an amendment to the operational plan for Santos’ petroleum exploration in the area. People for the Plains argues that this approval is invalid because the Leewood project should have been assessed as an independent project, not as part of the company’s exploration work.

The Leewood project is best characterised as a waste or resource management facility, not a petroleum exploration project. Waste or resource management facilities need development consent under the NSW Government's State Environmental Planning Policy (Infrastructure) 2007. Santos avoided the need to obtain development consent by characterising the Leewood project as part of its broader petroleum exploration activities.

The development consent process for water treatment facilities is more rigorous and transparent than the process for petroleum exploration activities. It would require Santos to obtain an Environmental Impact Statement for the project, which would need to go on public exhibition for at least 30 days, giving the community a chance to have their say about the impacts of the proposal. It would also mean that, if the project is approved following this process, objectors would have the right to appeal this approval on the merits of the project in the Court.

We are grateful to barristers James Johnson and Simon Chapple for their assistance in this matter.

For more on this case, read our blog Defending the Pilliga in Court, 21 January 2016.

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4nature Inc v Centennial Springvale Pty Limited and Others

On behalf of 4nature Inc, EDO NSW has launched landmark legal action against a decision by the NSW Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) to approve an extension to the Springvale coal mine underneath the Newnes State Forest in the Blue Mountains.

The approval will allow the mine operator – Centennial Coal – to extract 4.5 million tonnes of coal per year for a further 13 years and discharge large amounts of mine water into the river system that forms part of Sydney’s drinking water catchment. 

This is the first case to test laws passed in 2009 that were introduced to protect Sydney’s drinking water catchment.

The Springvale mine will discharge millions of litres of highly saline mine water every day into the Coxs River, which flows into Lake Burragorang – Sydney’s major drinking water reservoir. Water discharged from the mine also contains nitrates, phosphates, zinc, nickel and other contaminants.

4nature is taking the owners of the mine (Centennial Springvale Pty Limited and Springvale SK Kores Pty Limited) and the Minister for Planning to the NSW Land and Environment Court in a challenge to the approval.

In 2009, the NSW Government introduced laws designed to protect Sydney’s drinking water catchment. Under those laws, a development cannot be approved unless the consent authority is satisfied that the development will have a ‘neutral or beneficial’ effect on water quality.

Because the Springvale mine extension lies within the Sydney drinking water catchment, the project should not have been approved unless the PAC was satisfied the development would have a neutral or beneficial effect on water quality.

4nature argues that there is no evidence the PAC was satisfied the project would have a neutral or beneficial effect on water quality, which 4nature contends would be very difficult given the volumes of mine water the mine will discharge into the river system each day. As such, 4nature argues that the PAC’s approval of the project was unlawful.

The case was heard in the NSW Land and Environment Court on 9-10 May 2016.

EDO NSW is grateful to barristers Richard Lancaster SC and Nicholas Kelly for their assistance in this matter.

Additional information
Centennial Coal is facing a number of legal challenges relating to the water impacts of its coal mining operations in the Blue Mountains. Recently, the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) launched a ‘Tier 1’ prosecution against the company’s Clarence Colliery for an incident that released hundreds of tonnes of coal material into the surrounding environment, with coal slurry entering the Wollangambe River that flows into the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.

Tier 1 offences are the most serious under the Protection of Environment Operations Act 1997 and come with a maximum penalty of $2m for corporations.

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