People for the Plains Inc. v Santos NSW (Eastern) Pty Limited and Others

People for the Plains, represented by EDO NSW, sought 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 is located near the Pilliga State Forest, near Narrabri in North-West NSW.

On 1 August 2016, the Land and Environment Court determined that the Leewood facility's approval was valid. Our client appealed this decision in the NSW Court of Appeal. In a decision on Tuesday 14 March 2017, the Appeal Court upheld the original decision.

Although this case has been lost, the community still has a chance to comment on Santos’ further CSG activities in the Pilliga, with an Environmental Impact Assessment currently on public exhibition until Monday 22 May. Submissions are invited until Monday 22 May 2017. Find out how to have your say on the EIS.

We’ll be presenting at community seminars on how to have a say on the EIS – sign up to our weekly eBulletin for more information.

Background
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.

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Judgment