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Legislation Critique

NSW coal seam gas controls nothing to be proud of

Kiama MP Gareth Ward claims the NSW coal seam gas industry is subject to the strictest controls in Australia. This is his defence when questioned about the decision by the O’Farrell Government to renew a coal seam gas exploration licence over areas of Kiama, the Shoalhaven and Southern Highlands. But normally laws are judged by their effect and on closer look these so called ‘strictest controls’ are found wanting.

The NSW Government promised before the last state election to rule out coal and coal seam gas mining on prime agricultural land and in sensitive environmental areas. They have done neither. Despite all the new policy documents and media statements it is a fact that there remains no area in NSW where you and I can move to and be guaranteed not to have coal seam gas mining allowed.

The Government recently announced an exclusion zone that would prevent coal seam gas development within two-kilometres of residential areas. But they are allowing local councils to opt out of these exclusions. Instead of empowering councils to choose to expand these exclusion zones to protect agricultural land, water catchments, tourist hotspots or sensitive environmental areas, they have provided no additional protections and refuse to hand these powers to local communities, many of which overwhelming opposed coal sea gas.

The NSW Deputy Premier, Nationals leader Andrew Stoner admitted last month that he would not want coal seam gas development near his place because it would impact on the value of his property. But the Government has failed to provide additional protections for landholders, and coal seam gas companies are still able to force landholders into arbitration to gain access to their land. The choice for many landholders is sign-up or be forced into a time consuming legal process.

The Premier Barry O’Farrell famously said before the last election that under an O’Farrell Government mining would not be allowed in water catchments. He said, “no ifs, no buts, a guarantee”. But it has been the O’Farrell Government that has approved additional coal seam gas wells within Sydney’s drinking water catchment. In an area so sensitive you and I can be fined $44,000 for just walking in, the Government of which Gareth Ward is a member is happy to allow coal seam gas drilling.

The Government has introduced a new planning system for dealing with coal and coal seam gas projects in NSW called the ‘Gateway’ process. This is supposed to provide an additional check and balance on coal mining and coal seam gas development proposals. But the gateway panel under the Government’s own law can’t reject even the most irresponsible projects. The Gateway was supposed to protect agricultural land but under the Government’s own rules a coal seam gas field can still be approved on our most productive agricultural lands.

Communities across NSW have documented contamination incidents, leaking wells, and other environmental problems from coal seam gas. Serious concerns have also been raised about the health impacts in areas of Queensland where the most drilling has occurred. But instead of putting a moratorium on coal seam gas while these risks are investigated, the Government has renewed nearly all of the coal seam gas licences across the state.  Gareth Ward can’t claim this is the fault of the former Labor Government; the decision to renew was made by the O’Farrell Government.

Gareth Ward’s analysis of the Government’s controls lacks credibility. Even if they are the toughest in Australia, they fail the most basic test when it comes to protecting the interests of the community, the environment and existing local business over those of coal seam gas companies. These so call ‘strictest controls’ are clearly not good enough and look much more like the smoke and mirrors the community has come to expect from the NSW Government on this issue.

Justin Field is a member of the CSG Free Shoalhaven group, a Shoalhaven resident and former advisor to the Greens in NSW Parliament on mining and coal seam gas.