Thursday, 7 July 2016

QLD Western Downs Alliance takes Turnbull Government to court over requirement to consider water trigger legislation

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.

The case has been listed for a case management hearing in the New South Wales Registry of the Federal Court of Australia on 27 June 2016.

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

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