Santos has been fined by the NSW environmental watchdog for using water from its controversial $3 billion coal seam gas project for irrigation without approval.
The energy company copped a fine of $1500 by the Environment Protection Authority for using treated water from its Narrabri project in the state’s north to irrigate lucerne on its own land.
The penalty followed a “thorough and detailed investigation” that found the irrigation from the Leewood site caused no environmental harm or was unlikely to, the EPA said in a statement.
“Santos stopped irrigation activities at Leewood while the matter was resolved but will not be permitted to recommence irrigation until they have obtained the approval,” the EPA said.
The rebuke was “embarrassing” for Santos and revealed its “cavalier attribute to water regulation”, said Georgina Woods, a co-ordinator for Lock the Gate Alliance, which opposes the project.
The water use without a permit required of all irrigators was “a breach of trust as much as a breach of law,” Ms Woods said. “This episode bodes ill for Santos’ gasfield project and reinforces our conviction that coal seam gas is not worth the risk.”
Santos, though, plans to fight the fine, saying its “water treatment and irrigation of water at Leewood is, and has always been, fully lawful”, a spokeswoman said.
“Santos will, through the relevant administrative review process, submit that the penalty infringement notice should be withdrawn.”
Jeremy Buckingham, the Greens resources spokesman, said the fine “was a slap on the wrist for a big gas company like Santos who see the weak penalties for breaches as merely another cost of doing business”.
“The Greens call on the government not to grant any approval for the use of treated coal seam gas water until it can be proven safe and for an increase in penalties for breaches of licences or lack of appropriate approvals,” he said.
Santos rejected the concerns, noting the water irrigated at Leewood “complies with Australian Standards for irrigation water”, according to the spokeswoman.
Santos said the lucerne was used as stock feed. The EPA, though, said the crop “perished and was not harvested”.
The company has been dealing with a range of environmental challenges from opponents, including having to respond to some 23,000 submissions.
Last month, a range of government agencies repeated demands for more information about Santos’ plans for the proposal that would develop an 850-well gasfield, saying the company’s response had been inadequate.
The energy company last month placed the Narrabri project back on its non-core priority list, fuelling renewed speculation Santos may seek a buyer for the venture.