Western Downs Alliance v Minister for the Environment & Santos Limited - EDO NSW

Western Downs Alliance v Minister for the Environment and Energy & Santos Limited

January 2017

Acting for Western Downs Alliance, we successfully negotiated for important environmental conditions to be added to the approval of Santos’s GLNG Gas Field Development Project in the Surat Basin, Queensland.

Western Downs Alliance challenged the Federal Minister for the Environment and Energy’s approval of the project on the basis that the Minister allowed millions of litres of coal seam gas (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.

Australia’s environmental laws require that the Minister properly assess a major CSG project’s impacts on water resources (known as the water trigger). Western Downs Alliance argued 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.

The case was scheduled to be heard by a Full Bench of three judges of the Federal Court in Brisbane on Monday 13 February 2017. However, in December 2016, the Minister and Santos agreed to amend the approval by adding important conditions: that the project is prohibited from discharging CSG waste water to any watercourse; and that any proposed release in the future must be assessed by the Minister.

More about the project

Santos plans to develop 6,100 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 argued 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.

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.

By taking legal action, the Alliance 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.

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