NSW coal seam gas moratorium passes first hurdle

Sydney Knitting Nannas outside NSW Parliament, June 3. Photo: Pip Hinman

Since 2011, efforts to impose a moratorium on coal seam gas (CSG) mining in New South Wales have failed. But on June 3, a bill passed in the Legislative Council with only the Liberals, Nationals and the Pauline Hanson's One Nation party opposed.

[UPDATE: On June 4, the NSW government bought forward the debate in the Legislative Assembly, where they had the numbers — 38 to 36 — to defeat the bill.]

The Petroleum (Onshore) Amendment (Coal Seam Gas Moratorium) Bill 2019, introduced by Independent MP Justin Field, was modelled on one put by the NSW Greens in 2011 and 2015, and Labor (which drew it up in 2015 but never put it).

This bill seeks to impose a moratorium on the prospecting and mining of coal seam gas in NSW and reintroduces the public interest as a ground for decisions relating to petroleum titles.

It also sets out seven areas of “no go zones” for gas mining, including: the Northern rivers of New South Wales; core drinking water catchment areas; recharge zone of the Great Artesian Basin; national parks and other environmentally significant areas; residential areas; critical industry clusters and prime agricultural land.

The moratorium would be reviewed in three years and that the moratorium could only be lifted if the industry could demonstrate that it was consistent with the 2014 Chief Scientist’s Independent Review of Coal Seam Gas Activities in NSW and that it would not have any impact on the hydrology of any water source.

Field told the Sydney Knitting Nannas and Friends who had organised a solidarity action outside NSW parliament earlier in the day that the arguments against a moratorium were flawed that showed that NSW did not have a good enough industry policy.

He said the gas did not deliver jobs, and it had shown that it could not operate without disrupting important water systems, including aquifers, catchments and recharge zones. Queensland's experience of the industry is a poignant reminder.

Abigail Boyd from the NSW Greens said that CSG “makes no environmental or economic sense and has no social licence”.

Marie Flood from the Sydney Knitting Nannas and Friends said the Liberals and Nationals were simply following Latham and Walton, and did not address the genuine concerns of farmers and communities where the CSG industry was trying to establish itself. "The acknowledgement by all supporters of the bill of the farmers' long campaign was a plus", she told Green Left.  

The “defence” of the gas industry was hammered home by the Australian Workers Party national secretary Daniel Walton whose views in the Daily Telegraph were read out by Mark Latham of PHON. Latham, a former Labor leader, used his time in the chamber to goad Labor.

Walton has been selected by the federal government to be part of the federal manufacturing taskforce for the National COVID-19 Coordinating Commission — a joint union-corporate body tasked with implementing a gas-fired COVID-19 recovery.

Adam Searle from NSW Labor argued that while that party was “not necessarily against CSG mining”, and was “not against gas in general”, it would not support a still largely unregulated industry in NSW. A parliamentary committee recently established that only 2 of 16 recommendations from Professor Mary O’Kane’s 2014 report had been implemented in full, and half had not been implemented at all.

Searle said that Santos’ project for 850 gas wells in the Pilliga Forest, a recharge zone for the Great Artesian Basin, which has still not gone to the Independent Planning Committee, was yet to prove that it could be delivered safely and within the Chief Scientist’s recommendations.

The February parliamentary inquiry showed that the government and industry have yet to resolve critical issues, including that farmers are being left to bear “uninsurable” risks posed by coal seam gas activities.

The moratorium bill passed by 20 votes to 17, and now goes to the Legislative Assembly where its supporters have to win over two MPs from the government side. The fight for country, water and agricultural land continues.

[Pip Hinman is the public officer of Stop Coal Seam Gas Sydney.]

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