Environmental injustice: social impacts of the Narrabri gas project

29 September 2020
Following on from July’s IPC hearing, Gemma Viney outlines some of the heartbreaking social costs of the controversial Narrabri Gas Project.

By Gemma Viney, Department of Government and International Relations, The University of Sydney

In July 2020, the Independent Planning Commission held a public hearing examining the respective arguments for and against the development of the Narrabri Gas Project (NGP). This project has been in dispute for nearly 10 years now, and when put up for public comment in 2017 received a record 23,000 submissions, with only 300 expressing support for the development’s approval. This was not sufficient to convince the government to turn away from the alleged benefits of the Coal Seam Gas mine, and our current political leadership has seen the COVID-19 economic downturn as an opportunity to once again push for this project’s approval. The hearing provided an opportunity for both local and non-local individuals to speak on their experiences with and concerns for the project’s continued development, and the online forum was uniquely situated to cast a wider net in who has the opportunity to voice their position and be heard and acknowledged by decision-makers on an almost wholly even footing.

My research is centred around understanding what experiences of environmental injustice looks like in an Australian context, and how communities are responding. In conducting this research, I have also been able to explore the social impacts of resource extraction in rural Australian communities, with the aim of ensuring that any perspectives or insights gained in conversation with communities could be equally mobilised toward their goals. Below is an introduction to the degree of impact that the Narrabri Gas Project stands to have on the lives of those in the surrounding areas, as well as what impacts are already being felt.

There were three central concerns…the loss of time participants felt in having to resist the development, the degradation of community bonds under a blanket of silence and mistrust, and the inherent lack of justice.

In preparing for this hearing, and for the project’s public submission period, I was able to conduct interviews with individuals from Narrabri and the surrounding regions. These conversations were framed around what impacts these community members anticipate should the project go ahead, as well as the existing and cumulative impacts which are already being experienced both as a result of the NGP as well as the eight other existing or approved projects across the region. In particular, there were three central concerns that were raised by almost every participant in the study, these being the loss of time participants felt in having to resist the development for nearly a decade, the degradation of community bonds under a blanket of silence and mistrust, and the inherent lack of justice in the processes surrounding the pursuit of the project’s approval.

Sense of Loss

A key impact raised by participants was the sense of loss, lost time, lost livelihood and the cumulative effect that has on both mental and physical health. All participants indicated that they had had to invest significant time and research in order to properly understand a project which, for several of whom, had essentially become their neighbour over the last decade. A consistent finding was that participants felt mislead, at times intentionally, by both the government and by Santos regarding the full scope of the project and its impacts. This meant individuals had to take time away from family, friends and even work in order to investigate questions which the proponent failed or refused to answer. Social impact guidelines dictate that communities should have access to decision-making systems, and this necessitates transparency in order for communities to be in a position to provide informed consent. Participants instead described mental and physical stresses resulting from time and energy spent investigating the validity of the proponent’s claims.

Damaged Community Relations

The next most consistently raised issue by participants was the shift in the social dynamic of the community and the damage caused to personal relationships due to the contentious nature of this project. Respondents described the loss of relationships with neighbours and friends, within social circles and community groups and the overwhelming feeling of being unable to speak about this project for fear of the breadth of the divide between those in favour and those opposed. Importantly, there was also a consistent fear that this social divide would only become more prominent should the project be approved. One respondent described a shroud of distrust across their neighbourhood that had been seeded by the implication from Santos that a landowner in their immediate locality had accepted money to host worker accommodation on their property. Another described the breakdown of a local community recreation group based solely on disagreements amongst members regarding the development. Six of nine participants made direct reference to the shift this project has forced in how they operate socially, even within close circles.

Procedural Injustice

Lastly, participants raised the issue of procedural injustice and the inherent lack of fairness and transparency across the actions of both Santos and the government when it came to pushing for the project’s approval. Within the interviews, this was most commonly expressed in reference to issues of mistrust in or lack of access to decision-making systems associated with planning for and impacts of the development. All nine participants framed the procedural structures surrounding the assessment and approval of the Narrabri Gas Project as illegitimate and untrustworthy. In particular, this was explored through the lack of observable accountability for the proponent to either meet their safety and community obligations or be held responsible for any failures to do so. Anecdotes regarding the proponent’s lack of accountability included the perceived failure to adequately survey the community, properly evaluate the landscape and to engage meaningfully with locals on still unresolved issues that will likely impact their surroundings, livelihood and way of life should the project be approved.

Social impact scholarship has documented the extent to which resource extraction has fractured Australian communities and can ultimately lead to the death of small rural towns.1 This is what is at risk both in Narrabri and in particular for the many smaller communities in the surrounding region. The community, both local and national, have made clear the overwhelming opposition this project faces and regardless of the outcome of the IPC hear the fight is far from over. However, I once again implore that in their determination of the relative benefits and harms this proposal stands to offer, the commissions thoroughly consider the threat that the Narrabri Gas Project poses to the social and environmental security of the region, as well as the damage that has already been done.

1. Askland, H 2018, ‘A dying village: Mining and the experiential condition of displacement’, The Extractive Industries and Society, vol. 5, pp. 230-236; Askland, H & Bunn, M 2018, ‘Lived experiences of environmental change: Solastalgia, power and place’, Emotion, Space and Society, vol. 27, pp. 16-22.

Gemma Viney is a Research Assistant on the FASS 2018 Strategic Research Program Project developing the field of Multi Species Justice and is currently completing a PhD in the Department of Government and International relations. Gemma was an Honours Research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute in 2017. She has a Bachelors degree in International and Global Studies from the University of Sydney, and a First-class Honours Degree in the Department of Government and International Relations. Gemma is the Research Lead on Anti-Mining Community Movements at the Sydney Environment Institute.

Header image: powerlines against a stormy sunset sky in Narrabri, NSW, via Shutterstock, ID: 1425525332.