THE NSW government requested the Narrabri Gas Project to be scratched from a federal government list of fast-tracked projects, due to concerns it would make the independent assessment process appear pre-determined, freedom of information documents have revealed.
However, after reassurances from the Prime Minister's office, the Santos coal seam gas project appeared on the list of 15 commercial projects that would be fast tracked for the sake of a post-COVID economic recovery.
The Australian Conservation Foundation recently won a seven-month battle to force the federal government to release key documents that underpinned the fast-tracking decision making process.
Emails from July 2020 show the NSW government asked for Narrabri to "be removed from the PM's list" because "any impression that the outcome of the IPC [the NSW Independent Planning Commission] process is pre-determined could undermine public trust in the process".
A senior official in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet responded, pointing out both the NSW and Commonwealth governments had publicly backed the Narrabri project because of its potential to increase gas supply, so the fast-tracking shouldn't be controversial.
"In terms of ensuring public confidence in decision-making processes, I think that can be managed effectively through ensuring the messaging is appropriately deferential to where things are at in the relevant approval process," the PM&C official wrote.
"I'm not sure inclusion in the major projects list materially alters the public perception of the project being supported by both governments as a priority, subject of course to relevant regulatory approvals."
The NSW IPC gave Santos' project phased approval in September 2020, four months after appearing on the fast-track list.
Lock the Gate NSW coordinator Georgina Woods said the NSW government was right to be concerned fast-tracking the project would undermine the final decision and place undue pressure on the independent panel.
"It makes it appear as though the federal government was campaigning in favour of the gas field," Ms Woods said.
"This was all theatre by the Commonwealth, to create an atmosphere that this gas field was necessary - which is a view we obviously disagree with."
In January 2020, the NSW government and the Commonwealth struck a $2 billion energy deal which will require NSW produce an additional 70 petajoules of gas per year into the east coast market, in exchange for the construction of new interconnectors, the underwriting of new non-coal power generation, and funding for emissions reduction projects.
Ms Woods said the deal was another example of the federal government placing pressure on the IPC to approve the Santos project.
"The MOU was cited in the IPC in its final decision.... there was a lot of pressure exerted by the federal government in favour of gas projects," Ms Woods said.
The Narrabri Gas Project has been on hold as it awaited the outcome of a challenge in the Land and Environment Court, which was resolved in the company's favour this month. Santos chief executive Kevin Gallagher said the legal process had pushed the project timeline back by 12 months.
ACF spokeswoman Jolene Elberth slammed the federal government for dragging out the freedom of information process.
The government attempted to use five different exemption categories to prevent the release of the documents. Ms Elbert said it had now effectively conceded none of the exemptions apply by releasing all the information ACF first requested in July 2020.
"These documents, which reveal something of the rushed and messy process behind 15 projects being given priority treatment, should never have been kept secret from the public," she said.
"The fact that the Minister eventually released all of the documents only once ACF took this case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal shows the FOI system is not working in the public interest.
"Australians have a right to know how our governments make decisions about protecting or not protecting the environment we all share. ACF will seek costs in this matter."