By Adam Norton, originally published on the 1st of October on the Guardian

A former New South Wales judge has called for “independent” to be dropped from the name of the state’s planning commission after it approved the controversial Narrabri coal seam gas development, arguing the body is effectively controlled by the government.

The commission on Wednesday gave what it described as “phased approval” of the $3.6bn project in the state’s north. The decision, which included 134 conditions, was welcomed by the proponent, oil and gas company Santos, and the federal and state governments, but criticised by local farmers, conservationists and Indigenous traditional owners.

Paul Stein QC, a retired court of appeal judge now speaking as a committee member of the Centre for Public Integrity, said he was “deeply concerned” that the NSW Independent Planning Commission had been diminished by changes introduced by the government in March following complaints by mining and resources interests.

They included allowing the planning minister, Rob Stokes, to impose a tight timeframe in which a decision had to be reached and appointing new members to the commission.

“We believe the IPC shouldn’t have the word independent in the title anymore because they’re essentially under the control and direction of the minister,” Stein told Guardian Australia.

“This was a massive inquiry, highly technical, and it was ordered to be finished in 90 days, and that was only extended to 120 days because [Santos] put in further submissions. It is very hard for a tribunal or commission to withstand such intense political pressure.”

Stein said he did not want to comment on the development itself, but believed the process had been compromised.

He said a decision of the complexity of the Narrabri development could need up to six months to properly consider under normal circumstances, and feared that future applications for mining and resources developments that came before the commission “might be seen as a bit of a foregone conclusion”.

The centre’s concerns follow the environment group Lock the Gate attempting in mid-September to raise evidence suggesting the development would have a greater impact on groundwater in the region than previously believed but being told it was too close to the decision deadline.

Both Stein and Lock the Gate said the political pressure for the project to be approved had been heightened by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, saying developments such as Narrabri needed to be accelerated to help drive a “gas-fired recovery” from the coronavirus recession and listing it as a development that would have its assessment fast-tracked under national environment laws.

Stokes’ review of the commission, and changes to its operation, followed a backlash from mining groups to recent decisions, including the rejection of a coalmine in the Bylong Valley.

The minister did not respond directly to Stein’s concerns. He said the state government welcomed the decision, which followed “extensive consultation and expert analysis” by both the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and the commission. He said the commission was granted an extension of time “to ensure all submissions from the community were properly considered”.

If developed in full, the development would involve up to 850 coal seam gas wells being drilled on 1,000 hectares of a 95,000-hectare site that includes Pilliga forest and nearby grazing land. Santos says it could provide up to 200 terajoules of gas a day for domestic use for 20 years, equivalent to 50% of NSW demand, and create 200 ongoing and 1,300 construction jobs.

The planning commission heard evidence from hundreds of people and groups, most of them opposed. Objections included that it could damage groundwater relied on for agriculture, affect biodiversity in the Pilliga forest and release substantial greenhouse gas emissions at odds with Australia’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement.

The panel of three commissioners assessing the proposal – Stephen O’Connor, John Hann and Prof Snow Barlow – found the project was likely to provide “a net economic benefit” and said it was satisfied potential impacts, including to groundwater, could be effectively managed.

Stuart Khan, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of NSW, said he was concerned that the commission suggested the project could produce 840,000 tonnes of salt waste, nearly twice as much as Santos had estimated would be produced in its environmental impact statement. Salt could contaminate ground and surface water if not disposed of properly.

Khan said he believed the commission may have “called Santos’s bluff” by requiring the company to seriously pursue ways to beneficially reuse the salt. “If that pursuit is successful that will be very good outcome, but there are certainly some major challenges ahead,” Khan said.

Elaine Johnson, the principal lawyer with the Environment Defenders Office, representing the north-west alliance of landholders, traditional owners and community members, said the organisation was disappointed by the decision and looking closely to ensure it complied with the law.

But she said there were a number of legal and regulatory approvals required before the gas field could be developed. They included an assessment under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and Santos providing groundwater modelling and satisfying the department it had a plan in place to deal with salt waste.

Santos’s chief executive, Kevin Gallagher, welcomed the decision. He said once all approvals were in place the company would start a 12 to 18-month “appraisal drilling program”, including expanding its water monitoring, to inform its final plans.

“[The] approval is a significant step forward for the Narrabri community, a majority of whom support the project and the jobs, business opportunities, infrastructure and community investment that will come with it,” he said.