* State panel imposes tight conditions on project
* Canberra expected to approve Narrabri
* Santos to spend 12-18 months on appraisal drilling
MELBOURNE, Sept 30 (Reuters) - An Australian state on
Wednesday approved a A$3.6 billion ($2.6 billion) gas project
planned by Santos Ltd, clearing the biggest hurdle for
a long-opposed development that the government says could help
fill a supply gap expected from 2024.
The New South Wales Independent Planning Commission said it
has imposed strict conditions on a "phased" approval of the
Narrabri coal seam gas project, after thousands of critics
raised fears it would drain and contaminate groundwater, damage
the Pilliga State Forest and worsen climate change.
"Following its detailed deliberations, the Commission
concludes the project is in the public interest and that any
negative impacts can be effectively mitigated with strict
conditions," the state commission said.
The Narrabri project, 520 km (320 miles) northwest of
Sydney, could meet up to half of New South Wales' gas needs,
helping to replace gas from the rapidly depleting Bass Strait
fields that have supplied Australia's southeast for 50 years.
The Australian government has the final say on the project.
It is expected to approve it as part of a strategy unveiled this
month to boost gas supplies, drive down energy prices and fuel a
recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
"Approval of projects like Narrabri backs both our gas
sector and all Australian gas users - creating jobs in New South
Wales as we recover from COVID-19," Australian Energy Minister
Angus Taylor said in a statement.
The country's environment minister, Sussan Ley, has 30
business days after receiving the state's report to reach a
decision on the project.
Santos welcomed the approval nine years after acquiring the
project and accepted all the imposed conditions.
It plans to spend 12 to 18 months on appraisal drilling
after receiving all approvals, but did not say when it aimed to
make a final investment decision (FID) on the project, on which
it has already spent A$1.5 billion.
"We'd aim for an FID within basically a couple of years,"
Santos Chief Executive Kevin Gallagher told Reuters on Aug. 20.
The commission required Santos to provide more information
on its groundwater modelling before allowing it to move from
appraisal to construction.
Planning approval for a gas pipeline from the project would
also have to be in place before Santos could start construction.
Pipeline operator APA Group said on Wednesday it
plans to build a A$500 million pipeline to transport Narrabri
gas across the state.
The Climate Council, which opposes the project, said Santos
could still face financing and environmental hurdles due to
growing opposition to fossil fuels.
"Approving this project and developing new gas is
fundamentally at odds with protecting Australians from climate
change," said the Climate Council's Will Steffen, a researcher
at the Australian National University.
($1 = 1.4004 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Richard Pullin and Tom