Nearly a year has passed since my last visit to the Pilliga and there are some notable changes. All the old rusted well heads have been cleaned up and painted dark green or hidden in boxes of the same colour. Many more signs are displayed on well gates, and line the roads where the pipes are laid. The new reverse osmosis plant installed by Santos last year is mostly hidden from public view, but it is clearly temporary as it is made up of a series of containers. Compared to the enormous Queensland plants, it is a toy. In conclusion, the Narrabri Gas Project is a neat, pretty gas field, with minimal infrastructure. It may fool politicians and the public but investors are not stupid, they have been to a real gas field and this isn’t one yet.
The first bore to be fracked in the Pilliga was done at night in 2004 by a couple of drunk Eastern Star Gas (ESG) drillers with nitrogen and a book on fracking. All the ESG gas wells are not being used by Santos as they were so badly constructed, leaving around 70 – 80 capped wells in The Pilliga.
The NSW government is currently drilling monitoring bores between two old ESG wells fracked with nitrogen. The Queensland drilling team are to drill in two places at three varying depths. The drilling rig is currently on Plum Road, west of the Newell Highway and is awesome, the biggest ever seen in the area. What would normally take 4-6 weeks will be done in three with this advanced rig. Signs with the NSW government logo and ‘Watering Monitoring Bore under construction’ are all over the drill rig and fences, presumably so the site cannot be mistaken for a CSG well.
In the maze of the Pilliga Forest the 22 spill sites are hidden from politicians, investors and the public. In an attempt to rehabilitate these sites Santos has thrown around gypsum and sulphur. The gypsum breaks up the salt and helps it float away and the sulphur brings the pH back from alkaline towards acid. Irrigation systems dilute the salt and flush it into creeks but at the same time the salt has spread beyond the survey pegs, which marked the outside of the initial spill. The spill area is covered with woodchip, supposedly from local native trees. Two water trucks are available to spray 2mm of water over the spill site every hour, 24/7 for 90 days. Two years ago I saw the spill site created by the reverse osmosis plant at Bibblewindi site, and little has changed except recently planted small trees are struggling to grow within a new fence. Little regrowth has appeared naturally.
The roads and the three crossings over Bohena Creek to the eastern side of the Forest remain unusable in floods. Lots of money has been spent to maintain X Line Road, the sandy main road into the forest but it is currently very corrugated from overuse. Heavy equipment could not be moved for a month in a very wet season and workers would not be able to monitor or maintain wells or get to drilling rigs designed to operate 24/7.
After a relevantly wet year in 2016, a week ago the grass in the area was green, but if current high temperatures persist it will dry out quickly and bush fires could be a problem. Fallen leaves, shrubby undergrowth, logs lying on the ground, 4-5 gas flares, an estimated 20,000 litres of diesel, methane leaks from infrastructure, a spark, a strong wind and I don’t even want to think about it.
Situated on the outskirts of Narrabri, the man camp for the fly in fly out construction workers has expanded, but it appeared to be not fully utilised. As the man camp has a gym, a shop and contractors can only have one beer a day or be sacked, local businesses may not profit from the huge influx of workers as they have for a very short time in other towns. Due to past experience in Queensland, workers are not allowed in the town pubs. An application for an extension of the man camp has been submitted to Council and land has been set aside for two more camps on the Newell Highway. Over the last couple of years these small blocks on the Newell Highway have been snapped up by Santos supporters to keep protesters out of the area.