Some 500 kilometers from Sydney, nestled in northern New South Wales, the Pilliga Forest interests Santos. The company wants to develop a coal gas project there. But an Australian alliance of Aborigines, farmers and environmentalists is strongly opposed.
Extended over more than 3000 km2, the Pilliga forest is a haven of biodiversity. This natural habitat rests on the Great Artesian Basin, a vast underground aquifer that corresponds to a fifth of the Australian continent.
“Pilliga is the lung of our people,” explains Karra Kinchela, an Aboriginal from the Gomeroi community, who lives in Narrabri, to the north of the forest. “We must protect it for environmental reasons, but also cultural ones,” she says.
However, it is on part of this natural space that Santos wants to build a gas project. This, valued at 3.6 billion Australian dollars – or approximately 3.1 billion Canadian dollars – received approval from the federal government in 2020. At the end of 2022, the National Aboriginal Title Tribunal also gave its approval. green light for the project, despite opposition from the Gomeroi people. The decision was appealed.
If the project goes ahead, the company plans to build nearly 850 boreholes over an area of 10 km2, to extract gas trapped in underground coal seams. “They have already done tests. And around it, the vegetation does not grow back,” laments Karra Kinchela, pointing to a well located in the middle of a barren, fenced-in space, into which it is forbidden to enter.
“They say it’s a rehabilitation area, but it’s been like that for several years,” she adds.
Farmers also concerned
Margaret Fleck, a local cattle farmer, is also concerned about the negative effects of the Santos project on the environment. “We depend on the great artesian basin for our drinking water, our agriculture… Many people fear that the water will be polluted by chemicals,” explains the farmer, who works with the organization fighting the coal industry in Australia Lock the Gate.
Following a request from Duty for an interview, Santos simply directed us to the information posted on his website. The company explains in particular that it believes that its methods “will not have any impact on local water resources”.
But this promise from the company is not enough to reassure Margaret Fleck. “The threat is real. Beyond the risks of water pollution, it is also a project which goes against the efforts to be made to stem greenhouse gas emissions and the climate crisis. »
“In agriculture, you already have to maneuver in difficult conditions, deal with droughts, financial down years… It’s stressful, fighting against this industry. Santos has wanted to do this project for more than 10 years. But we don’t give up,” says Margaret Fleck.
However, the coal industry is already well established in the region. The Whitehaven mining company has several operating sites around Narrabri.
The property of Sally Hunter, a second generation farmer, is surrounded by five Whitehaven mines within a 30km radius. The mother of three boys lives there with her partner, Geoff, their two dogs and around fifteen horses.
“The coal industry has influence here. It injects money into our community, promises jobs, sponsors the library, the football club… So there are a lot of people who depend on this sector and who support it,” says the farmer.
In 2019, during the severe drought that hit Australia, and when sandstorms punctuated the daily lives of the region’s inhabitants, Sally Hunter had to sell her herd of cattle. “During that time, while farmers were suffering, the Whitehaven company stole water,” she says, emotion in her voice.
Two years later, the mining company was finally ordered to pay a fine of $200,000 for having “illegally withdrawn 1,000 megaliters of water from its Maules Creek mine between 2016 and 2019,” ABC, the broadcaster, reported at the time. Australian national audience. “A paltry amount,” according to Sally Hunter.
“I grew up in Roma, Queensland, where Santos operates a gas site,” she says. I watched my parents fight against the coal industry. Ultimately, a few years ago, my mother had a breakdown because of all the stress it created, and they separated. »
Economic lung of the region
Russell Stewart, president of the Narrabri Chamber of Commerce, is a staunch defender of the coal sector, “the main source of economic prosperity” in the region.
“If we want to keep our young people here, they need job prospects. The wealth created by coal trickles into the economy… We have a hospital, shops — so many places where young people can work and stay. Not everyone wants to become a farmer,” says Stewart. “At Whitehaven, salaries are in the six figures! » he says.
Approached by The dutythe mining company declined our interview request.
According to Mr. Stewart, “Greens are spreading rumors” about coal. “They say the sky will fall on our heads and the farms will be ruined. It is bullshit ! » The businessman believes that climate change is not due to human activity.
Yet this is the case. Fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — are “responsible for more than 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions” and are “by far the largest contributors to global climate change,” according to the United Nations.
And to limit global warming, which leads to “an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events”, a “radical” and “rapid” reduction in emissions is necessary, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. climate change (IPCC).
However, Mr. Stewart does not budge. “I find it hypocritical, all these people from big cities taking to the streets to demonstrate against coal. In Sydney, everything is always lit up. Where do you think all this electricity you consume comes from? It comes largely from coal. We have to look in the mirror before criticizing ourselves,” he says.
Solar as an option
Determined to make a difference, Sally Hunter launched Geni. Energy, a community organization promoting renewable energy, almost three years ago.
“We want to help households save money thanks to solar solutions,” she explains. The organization, which is located on the main street of Narrabri, is located just a few doors from the Santos office.
Sally Hunter leads by example. “We equipped the house with solar panels and a charging battery, and we have an electric vehicle. Our electric bill went from about $250 to $35 a week. If the environmental argument is not enough to convince people, we want to show that there is also a financial incentive,” she emphasizes.
This report was financed thanks to the support of the Transat-International Journalism Fund.The duty.