Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The Narrabri gas project has been given another green light, this time by Environment Minister Sussan Ley. But was there ever any doubt Ley would wave through the project, which has already been championed by her own government, including the energy minister and the prime minister? 

The project received the backing of the New South Wales Independent Planning Commission (ICP) last month. Political forces have made the project a sure thing from day one. To say no to it now would be to turn against the mythological status the government has bestowed upon gas, as Australia’s saviour fossil fuel.

Ley’s approval is another sign regulatory and ministerial assessments have become meaningless in the face of corporate interests, lobbying and intense political pressure.

“The system in a sense has been corrupted from the beginning,” Mark Ogge, energy analyst at The Australia Institute, said.

“You’ve got this situation where politicians basically advocate for environmental approvals and put pressure on bureaucrats to make those approvals.”

Santos and its political supporters put enormous pressure on the IPC to endorse the project. Even as the commission was deliberating on its verdict, Prime Minister Scott Morrison listed it as one of 15 projects of national significance that should be accelerated under federal environment laws.

This pressure has meant the government has been unable to independently assess whether the project was viable or sustainable, Ogge said. 

“We’re meant to be assessing whether these projects are in the public interest based on science, but instead we have the PM and the energy minister and all sorts of politicians putting pressure on the people who are ultimately making the decision.”

Santos, the company bidding for approval, has not even decided whether it will finance the development. It said it would now start a 12-to-18-month appraisal process before making a final decision. 

But that hasn’t stopped the project from being written into the government’s energy policy as the star of its “gas-fired” recovery plan. 

Santos doesn’t win its battles on its own — it has the backing of Australia’s most powerful political forces, allowing it to kickstart billions of dollars’ worth of projects even when demand for gas falls.

With another hurdle cleared, it stands to be one of the biggest winners in the government’s COVID recovery plan — assuming the project does in fact go ahead.