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The controversial Narrabri gas project has been approved by the federal government, after a 10-year campaign by outspoken locals to stop it going ahead.
Federal environment minister Sussan Ley made the announcement on Tuesday, adding the project is subject to a number of conditions which she says will protect regional biodiversity and groundwater.
“I am satisfied that the conditions, and the staged nature of work in the area, will safeguard the biodiversity of the Pilliga Forest,” Minister Ley said in a statement.
The approval gives energy giant Santos permission to drill 850 gas wells around the Pilliga State Forest in Narrabri despite opposition across the area.
A massive 98 per cent of 22,949 submissions made in relation to their environmental impact statement in NSW opposed the project.
Yahoo News Australia has reported on the community’s response to the project as part of an ongoing series which can be found here:
‘This is our country’: Water not for sale say Indigenous elders
Concern surrounds the project’s potential to contaminate clean water supplies and Indigenous sacred sites.
Despite community apprehension about the plan, Santos say they guarantee that there will be no leakage of contaminated water from their drilling sites.
Fearing toxic elements and salts dredged up in the extraction process could poison her people's water source, the Great Artesian Basin, Gomeroi native title applicant Polly Cutmore explained her opposition to Yahoo News Australia.
“Our Artesian is not up for sale and neither are we,” Ms Cutmore warned.
“We don’t know what this mob is up to, we don’t trust them.”
Ms Cutmore says despite the Federal Government’s decision, the plan cannot go ahead without approval from the Gomeroi people.
“It’s not going to happen,” she said.
“This is our decision, this is our country, this is our water.
“(Prime Minister) Scott Morrison isn’t Jesus Christ, and we didn’t have him out here, we had our ancestors and we will not sell for the creation of a couple of thousand jobs.”
Farmers urge government to move away from fossil fuels
As Australia’s extreme weather crisis worsens, many farmers have been particularly vocal in their opposition to the project, maintaining concerns about not only water supply but also climate change.
Coonamble feedlot operator David Chadwick told Yahoo News Australia that Minister Ley had done “exactly as her party expected of her”.
“Conservative politicians are so out of touch with the rest of the world on energy because of the head noise they endure from the industry, they fall into line every time,” he said.
“It is inconceivable they are prepared to sacrifice Australia’s only secure water supply, the Great Artesian Basin, in the quest of an oversupplied filthy industry called coal seam gas.”
Another vocal opponent of the plan, Scott McCalman is a farmer near Gunnedah, 100km south of Narrabri.
He is particularly concerned about fossil fuels impacting on farming, arguing the government should be investing in renewable energy projects in the area.
Droughts are getting longer and farmers are being impacted, putting their livelihoods at risk he told Yahoo News Australia earlier this month.
“We’re on a path to no return unless we start making massive changes,” he said.
“We just can’t keep burning fossil fuels, we’ve reached our critical limit.
“As human beings we’ve come up with the technologies, Australia is blessed with heaps of sunshine and we need to be onboard.”
Narrabri local welcomes project
However, within the town of Narrabri, some locals have welcomed the project’s potential to transform their town.
Father-of-two and fourth-generation Narrabri resident Justin Smith believes a highly controversial coal seam gas project could save the town, which continues to struggle after surviving a decade of drought.
During the drought last year, Mr Smith considered pulling the pin and moving away for the sake of his kids.
He says life got “worse and worse” as people in Narrabri and the surrounding region lived for months without rain.
The mood of locals “depleted” as they faced financial strain and the once green landscape around them became “eerie”.
His friends who moved elsewhere never returned.
With farming under pressure, Mr Smith believes that if Narrabri diversifies into promoting projects like coal seam gas drilling, the next generation will have options to stay in town.
The jobs on offer could result in a population boom across the region, and this, Mr Smith hopes, will lead to an increase in services like daycare, the creation of sports teams, and new hospitals - everything a community needs to thrive.
Santos has declined repeated invitations to be interviewed for this series about how their project will affect community.
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