When New South Wales Minister for Resources and Energy Anthony Roberts cancelled the three coal seam gas (CSG) exploration licences held by Leichardt Resources near Kandos, Nowra and Moree on October 14, he said it was because the company had failed to fulfil its licence conditions. The alleged compliance breaches included failure to engage with the community.
Roberts had earlier complained that it was the previous Labor government that made it easy for “speculators and cowboys” to be granted licences without proper regulatory oversight.
The three licences in question were granted by the then-Labor minister Ian Macdonald in April 2009. Macdonald has since been found by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) to have engaged in corrupt conduct in the granting of coal exploration licences.
Roberts seems anxious to create the impression that he is “cleaning up” the CSG exploration industry. Should the Coalition win the NSW election next March, it will undoubtedly re-allocate the licences to what they it portray as “reputable” companies.
AGL is a CSG exploration licence holder that presents itself as a stable, responsible company. If you believe its press advertisements it is more than ready to consult with the community and listen to any concerns they might have.
In April this year, AGL took out full page advertisements in NSW newspapers. Under the banner, “Working together to respect the views of farmers”, it publicised an agreement with NSW Farmers, Cotton Australia and the NSW Irrigators’ Council, which it said provided “further assurances” that a landholder’s decision to say no to CSG operations would be “respected”. Which, for their lawyers, could well mean that they’ll still respect the landholders in the morning after they’ve fracked their property.
In April last year, AGL conducted an audit of 120 CSG well heads at its operations around the Camden and Picton area. Apparently it was unable to detect any problems such as leakages. The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) then conducted its own tests between September and December.
Neither AGL nor the EPA made their findings available to the public. It took an application under the NSW Government Information (Public Access) Act by community group Stop CSG Macarthur to learn the results of the EPA’s tests.
The report revealed that the Camden gas field leaked methane gas at nine of its 95 CSG wells. These included two “significant” and four “major” gas leaks in a CSG field that is within 200 metres of residential housing.
The two significant leaks had methane emission readings in excess of 50,000 parts per million.
A CSIRO report given to the office of the NSW Chief Scientist last year identified two potential hazards from methane: being flammable at sufficient concentrations and as an asphyxiant displacing oxygen needed to breathe.
Stop CSG Macarthur secretary Michael Streatfeild said: “I find this astounding: that AGL expects us to live in their gas field but they do not want us to know what risks or fugitive emissions we are expected to live with.”
Lock The Gate Alliance Sydney coordinator Dan Robins said: “Residents want to know why the NSW government’s two kilometre buffer zone for CSG in residential areas does not apply to the thousands of residents living in the Camden area right now.”
An AGL spokesperson thought it important to inform the residents that corrective action was taken to repair the leaks, and the EPA wanted to point out that the leaks did not amount to “a breach of AGL’s Environment Protection Licence.”
But Greens spokesperson, Jeremy Buckingham said AGL had been “a serial offender with multiple breaches at their Camden facility.” He said the failure of AGL to detect the leaks “brings into question AGL’s ability to regulate itself or to be honest about their operations … AGL are currently blocking the release of EPA audits of their coal seam gas operations at Broke and Gloucester, raising the question: what else do they have to hide?”
One thing that it does not seem keen to advertise is that the three Petroleum Production Leases that were given to AGL Upstream Investments at Camden and Picton were granted by Macdonald between October 2004 and May 2008. Two earlier leases, in September and October 2002, were granted to the company by Eddie Obeid, another former Labor minister found by ICAC to have engaged in corrupt conduct.
The other major CSG operator that joined AGL in media advertisements “respecting” landholders’ right to say no to CSG operations on their property was Santos. It too did not appear to want to advertise that the Petroleum Assessment Lease that was granted to Santos NSW near Narrabri in October 2007, together with the Petroleum Exploration Licence near Coonabarabran the following year, were also granted by Macdonald.
The chairperson of AGL Energy, Jerry Maycock, does not appear to be much of a fan of statutory regulation. He is reported as saying, “we obviously need the capital markets to fund listed companies … but you do spend a tedious amount of time on compliance and non-value adding work, and it’s not as much fun as focussing on the real business issues. We’re there to take measured commercial risks to earn better returns, and that’s getting lost in the plethora of complaints.”
These words will no doubt give great comfort to the residents of Camden. They really ought to understand that compliance with obligations and complaints about the impacts of AGL’s operations on residents’ health are just no fun at all.
If Roberts was in any way serious about the speculators and cowboys in the NSW CSG industry he would call an immediate halt to all CSG operations and establish a Royal Commission into the industry starting with an examination of the 30 CSG licences granted by Macdonald and Obeid.