Salt in the Wound: Social Impacts, Public Health and the Narrabri Gas Project

The proposed Narrabri Gas Project flouts dire climate predictions and as Dr. Alison Ziller argues, the negative, but lesser publicised, social harms for the region just add insult to injury.

Active coal seam gas well.

Much of the opposition to the Narrabri Gas Project focuses on environmental and climate change impacts, but a discrete theme of concern is the likely social impacts of the project and the social justice issues they raise.

The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment summarised these impacts in a report to the Independent Planning Commission saying the Narrabri Gas Project would be likely to result in 200 more jobs in the local area, and be unlikely to put pressure on public infrastructure, services, the housing and rental market, or increase labour costs. However, some adverse impacts ‘… could … be intangible, in terms of affecting community cohesion, the mental health of certain people, and peoples’ sense of place’.1

The jobs estimate is provided by the applicant, Santos.2 After an initial influx of construction workers, Santos estimates 200 operational workers will be needed. 50 of these workers would be their current employees, 50 workers would be recruited from elsewhere and might relocate to Narrabri, and 60 would live elsewhere. That is only 40 jobs for local residents are envisaged, not 200.

Santos also notes that ‘The job opportunities created by the project will be highly skilled and well paid… ’ and Often socio-economically disadvantaged groups in a community are unable to take advantage of economic benefits’.3 4 In other words, there might be 40 highly skilled jobs available in the locality but these are unlikely to be available to local people currently needing work. Given the number of unemployed people in Narrabri (some 359 in 2016) it is difficult to class this as much of a social benefit for the local area. And if fewer than 50 workers actually relocate to the town, the flow-on benefits to local businesses will be small.

In short, the material social benefits to the town are, in reality, minimal, yet the Department and Santos both overstate these. At the same time, they diminish adverse social impacts, such as ‘community cohesion, the mental health of certain people, and people’s sense of place’ by framing them as “intangible”.5

Each of these social impacts is linked to the social determinants of health. As the epidemiological literature explains, the bigger the social gradient – that is the size of the gap between rich and poor – the more likely people are to suffer from chronic stress, social exclusion, workplace stress, unemployment, lack of social support and addiction to alcohol and/or other drugs.6 In unequal societies everybody suffers, but particularly those at the bottom of the ladder.

“In unequal societies everybody suffers, but particularly those at the bottom of the ladder.”

There is nothing intangible about these social determinants and they can be documented for Narrabri. The steep social gradient in the Narrabri LGA is evident in the income profile. A significant proportion of the population experiences unemployment and low income particularly, but by no means exclusively, the Aboriginal population. Unemployment and low income are associated with social exclusion, addiction to tobacco and alcohol, and stress, and indicators of these are also available.7 Rates of several causes of potentially avoidable death – basic indicators of public health – are less favourable for Narrabri than NSW as a whole.7 Rates of intentional self-harm, suicide, domestic violence and breaches of apprehended violence orders are all higher than for NSW as a whole. These are not only tangible social harms, they are life-threatening. Labelling them intangible is, to say the least, inaccurate.

Equally tangible is the extreme distributional inequity of what is proposed, and this is the crux of the matter. Introducing a project into an already disadvantaged community, where most of the benefits of the project claimed by the Department and by Santos will accrue to the state and people living somewhere other than Narrabri, while the most serious costs will be experienced locally and will serve to further exacerbate existing inequalities. In social terms, these costs are likely to include direct impacts on public health arising from the impacts of construction,  pollution mishaps and environmental damage, but also from exclusion of most of the resident population from any benefits. This lack of distributional equity will itself contribute to these adverse impacts. In the same way that the social determinants of health have been insufficiently considered, distributional inequity has not been recognised by the Department as a significant public health issue.

In its final assessment report, the Department relied on three main strategies to offset these social impact considerations. First, there is a proposal to pay $14.5m to Narrabri Shire Council through a Voluntary Planning Agreement (VPA). However, only 21% ($3m) is for community initiatives or local infrastructure. The VPA does not appear to earmark any portion of the fund for actual social infrastructure. The money has not been tied to an analysis of social need in the local government area.

Second, the Department proposes a social impacts management plan (SIMP)  is made a condition of consent. However, as a condition of consent, the SIMP is a requirement on Santos. Santos is not a community development organisation. It would need to engage consultants to write the plan and possibly implement part of it, such as data collection and on-going analysis. Expenditure on consultants is money not spent on actual social initiatives.

According to the draft conditions of consent, the SIMP is required to identify negative social impacts – but these should be identified before a planning authority determines whether a project should go ahead or not, and not left till afterwards. The SIMP is also required to identify opportunities and monitor the effectiveness of actions to address social impacts – but the council, the community consultative committee and representatives of the local community would only play an advisory role about what should happen – not a decision-making role. The real power would rest with Santos. There is no deadline for the preparation of the plan and no penalties for non-compliance, late compliance or ineffective compliance. There is no auditor. If the SIMP is meagre, biased or simply inadequate, there are no consequences.

“There is no deadline for the preparation of [a social impacts management plan] and no penalties for non-compliance, late compliance or ineffective compliance. There is no auditor […] there are no consequences.”

The third strategy is a Gas Community Benefit Fund. If this is similar to others administered by the Rural Assistance Authority then this Fund will only support short term ephemeral projects for which the Shire and community organisations must compete via an application process. The amount that will actually be disbursed each year is unknown – gas royalties may, after all, be quite small.

In short, the likely social benefits of this Gas Project for the residents of Narrabri Shire are few. The distributional inequity of the project is substantial. No work seems to have been done to identify whether the adverse impacts of this project on an already disadvantaged Shire could, in fact, be offset by social mitigation actions and as a result, there is a strong likelihood that the available monies will provide some benefit to consulting firms but may not result in tangible and long term benefits to the local residents.

This would add insult to injury. Adding insult to injury is a social harm. In a socially disadvantaged community such as Narrabri, where rates of chronic stress are already high, introducing a resource project which will further exacerbate those inequalities is a serious social injustice, and one that will have tangible and material impacts on peoples’ lives, livelihoods and health.

1. DPIE Final Assessment Report p xvii
2. Santos EIS Appendix T1 p 51
3. Santos Reply to A Preliminary Review and High Levell Gap Analysis of the Narrabri Gas Project SIA by the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining (p4)
4. Santos Reply to A Preliminary Review and High Levell Gap Analysis of the Narrabri Gas Project SIA by the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining (p10)
5. See footnote 1
6. Wilkinson R and M Marmot (eds.) 2003, The Social Determinants of Health, The Solid Facts, 2nd edition, World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe.
7. For example via HealthStatistics NSW
8. Potentially avoidable deaths is based on an international classification and includes some infections, some cancers, diabetes and some accidents.

Alison Ziller is a lecturer on social impact assessment in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University. Alison is also a consultant social planner specialising in social impact assessment (SIA). Alison wrote The new social impact assessment handbook (Australia Street Company, 2012) and is the author of several publications relating to the role of public sector agencies in commissioning and reviewing SIAs, and has extensive experience reviewing SIAs for councils and state government departments. She recently prepared two SIAs for the NSW Environmental Defenders Office working with members of the Sydney Environment Institute and has assisted other community groups and non-profit agencies address SIA issues for a number of years.

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