Researchers trialling a potentially groundbreaking chlamydia vaccine for koalas are concerned their results could be compromised if a gas company is allowed to explore in the area.
Santos, the company behind the Narrabri Gas Project, holds petroleum exploration licences on the nearby Liverpool Plains in north-west New South Wales.
It has applied to undertake seismic testing, which uses reflected sound waves to map the structure of the rocks below ground.
University of Sydney researcher Valentina Mella said the vaccine trial was “life-saving”.
Dr Mella said 46 out of 50 koalas in the study lived in areas that Santos had earmarked for seismic testing.
“There are no studies that actually show if those types of surveys can affect koalas,” Dr Mella said.
She said she was most concerned about the potential for seismic shocks to induce a stress response.
“Any type of interference that is not natural can affect the results,” Dr Mella said.
“We don’t know how stress affects immune responses.”
A potential rebound
Dr Mella said the vaccine could be a turning point for the survival of koalas.
“Once these animals are infertile they don’t produce young anymore, and that’s it,” she said.
Gunnedah farmer and koala advocate Rob Frend said chlamydia was a major driver of extinction among the local population.
He said the seismic testing was an intrusion they could do without.
“It’s another foreign intervention,” Mr Frend said.
“It may be quite harmless but one cannot be absolute about those things.”
He urged the company to prioritise the local environment in any activity.
“If Santos management won’t listen to us farmers, maybe shareholders will,” Mr Frend said.
Application under review
In a statement, the NSW Resources Regulator confirmed it had received an application from Santos to conduct a seismic survey.
“The regulator will consider the review of environmental factors as part of its assessment,” executive director Peter Day said.
A Santos spokesperson told the ABC the company did not expect its testing would have any effects on local wildlife.
“Seismic surveying is low-impact and non-intrusive,” they said in a statement.
The company said it appreciated the importance of the vaccine trial.
“Santos … will carry out our activities in a way that does not put the research or koalas at risk,” the spokesperson said.