On Saturday 14 January, a gathering of Gomeroi people, community members and unionists, including theIEU, convened at Coonabarabran Oval to protest the latest developments in the giant Santos gas projectthat proposes to drill 850 coal-seam gas wells into traditional lands including the Pilliga forest, and the harms it will bring.
Stand with Gomeroi
Update on union opposition to Pilliga gas project
In a strong showing of solidarity, more than 500 people convened to make signs and banners, network, hear speeches, listen to local music and enjoy dance performances.
A delegation of unionists, including the IEU, had already rallied at Narrabri in Nov 2022: Unions back Gomeroi in pushback on Pilliga gas project
How it started
In May 2021, energy giant Santos filed applications in the National Native Title Tribunal seeking a determination on leases for a $3.6 billion project involving 850 coal-seam gas wells at Narrabri on the NSW north-west slopes. The traditional owners, the Gomeroi people, object to this drilling on their land, including the unique and vulnerable ecosystem of the Pilliga forest.
At the hearing, the Gomeroi people argued that Santos had failed to negotiate ‘in good faith’ by not treating them on an equal footing with the farmers whose land is also within the project area.
In 2014, Santos and gas company AGL did a deal with major non-Indigenous farmer and land-owner organisations promising that if any farmer objected to gas drilling on their land, the energy companies would respect this – they would only drill into lands where farmers agreed and wanted to be paid compensation for allowing the drilling. This deal was never offered to the Gomeroi people.
The Gomeroi people asked the Tribunal to consider whether overriding Native Title rights for the gas-drilling project was in the public interest.
The Gomeroi people argued it would have “devastating consequences for Australia” as it would contribute to climate change, resulting in natural disasters, and therefore the project was not in the public interest.
In March 2022, Santos put an offer to the Gomeroi people seeking their consent to drill in exchange for certain benefits. Determined to protect their lands, water and culture, the Gomeroi people rejected the offer.
In December 2022, the Tribunal ruled in favour of Santos’s coal seam gas project.
The Tribunal’s judgement does not discuss climate change in detail, saying this issue had already been dealt with through existing approval processes under the Morrison federal government and the Perrottet NSW government.
Yet there is widespread public objection to the project. The Environmental Impact Statement on the 850 potential gas wells in the Narrabri/Pilliga region attracted a record 23,000 submissions, with 98 per cent opposed to the project.
The Santos project also depends on construction of a 423-kilometre underground pipeline from the Narrabri/Pilliga project to the Hunter region, where it will feed the proposed Kurri Kurri gas plant and connect to the east coast gas distribution system.
Santos bought the Hunter Gas Pipeline from its initial investors in 2022, a sign of its commitment to the project. Many famers and other landowners whose properties will be affected oppose the pipeline, which will threaten not only their land, but important sites and ecosystems. Read more here: Landowners vow to stop gas pipeline project.
NSW Treasurer and Minister for Energy and Environment Matt Kean recently granted permission for Santos to enter private lands to survey for its pipeline despite opposition from landowners, the Gomeroi people and other First Nations people.
This comes after the NSW Government declared the proposed pipeline to be Critical State Significant Infrastructure in December 2022, fast-tracking the Environment Impact Statement assessment process.
The Gomeroi people have appealed the Tribunal’s decision in the Federal Court.
How unionists can help
The trade union movement has long provided crucial support to First Nations people struggling for recognition of their rights to land. Unions fought alongside the Gurindji people who walked off Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory in 1966 protesting wages and conditions and the return of traditional lands, catalysing the contemporary land rights movement and native title system.
But the current legal framework provides little recognition of those rights. In the Tribunal’s 30-year history, it has only rejected an application by a resource company in favour of First Nations rights three times.
The Commonwealth Attorney-General has the power to overrule any determination by the Tribunal if he considers it to be in the national interest.
Unions NSW has written to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, and the Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, seeking urgent discussions.
Unions NSW is committed to supporting the Gomeroi people in escalating this campaign.
For more information
Sign the petition: https://gomeroingaarr.org
Contact: IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Assistant Secretary David Towson: email@example.com