Philip Pells, a retired hydrologist, said the planning system needed to have an equivalent to an Independent Commission Against Corruption to police projects such as Narrabri.
“A significant flaw in the system is that the judge (IPC) simply disappears and hands over to a ‘police force’ which is not independent (EPA) – one which has expressed different opinions to those of the ‘judge’ during the whole process,” Dr Pells said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment said the department would review and determine the required management plans in consultation with other agencies.
“The department routinely rejects management plans that do not adequately meet the requirements of the conditions or industry best practice,” she said.
“Given the significance of the project, a range of independent advisory committees will be established to advise on the project’s monitoring and management, including a Greenhouse Gas Emissions Advisory Group.”
A spokeswoman for the EPA said the authority was “currently reviewing the development consent in consultation with other agencies and will regulate to ensure final conditions are met”.
Georgina Woods, a coordinator for the Lock the Gate Alliance, said that while some of the conditions imposed on Santos were clear-cut, others would be discretionary.
While the IPC has never had an enforcement role, leaving it to government departments that were often keen promoters of State Significant Developments was “quite a serious loophole”, Ms Woods said. Such a gap contributed to “the severe lack of faith the community have with Planning in regard to major resource projects”.
Santos was approached for comment.
Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said a final determination on the Narrabri project under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act must be delivered within 30 business days following its referral.
A spokesman for Ms Ley said the the project’s environmental impacts would be “rigorously assessed under national environmental law”.
However, the federal minister can extend the assessment timeframe and add extra conditions to the project approval.
Then-federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt imposed extra conditions on the Shenhua coal project with his approval in 2015, following a green light from the IPC’s predecessor the Planning Assessment Commission.
Mr Hunt required Shenhua to draw up vegetation and groundwater management plans, which five years later are yet be lodged.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Mike is the climate and energy correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.