Activists are hoping that a bill to tighten the rules governing unconventional gas exploration and production in New South Wales will pass the Legislative Council on August 13.
Such is the groundswell of opposition to this part of the fossil fuel industry, a Greens Bill has support from NSW Labor and a couple of small right-wing parties.
Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham told Green Left Weekly that he expects the Bill to pass, with amendments proposed by Labor.
“There was a lot of rhetoric during the election campaign, from all political persuasions, over which party would best protect land and water from coal seam gas. This bill gives all parties the chance to stop coal seam gas in NSW,” Buckingham said.
The Greens’ draft Petroleum (Onshore) Amendment (Prohibit Coal Seam Gas) Bill 2015 was introduced in May. It aims to amend the 1991 Act to outlaw prospecting or mining for coal seam gas and other unconventional gas in NSW.
A Greens briefing paper says the Bill allows the minister to refuse to grant new licences or renew existing licences.
Importantly, it ensures that licences can be cancelled without compensation from the state. It does not cancel existing petroleum licences, but rather prevents them from being expanded or redeveloped.
The Bill also reinstates the “public interest test”, introduced by the Coalition government in 2013 but subsequently repealed in 2014 with support from NSW Labor. At the time, it was used to cancel three coal licences, which had been granted by corrupt former Labor MP Ian Macdonald, without compensation.
The Bill allows the five production licences at Camden and one at Narrabri to continue to produce gas, but stops them from drilling new wells or refracking existing wells to increase production. These wells will be capped once production ends in a few years.
It would prevent Metgasco from drilling at Bentley, near Lismore, as the company would not get approval for its Petroleum Production Licence.
It would prevent AGL from gaining a production licence at Gloucester, north-west of Sydney, as it prohibits the minister from granting new petroleum titles. Its five production licences at Camden, in south-west Sydney, would come to an end when the existing wells run out — expected to be in about five years. The Bill would allow the minister to cancel AGL’s exploration licence without compensation.
It would also prevent Santos from drilling any new wells in north-west NSW, as prospecting for coal seam gas would be illegal.
Santos has a production licence at Narrabri. It would be able to continue to produce gas until the wells run out. But refracking or increasing production from these wells would be illegal.
The minister would also be able to cancel Santos’ exploration licences and its Petroleum Assessment Lease without compensation. Santos’ applications for production licences would not be approved.
“The Greens’ opposition to coal seam gas has been clear, and we are acting immediately to put this position to the new parliament,” Buckingham said.
“We know there is no gas shortage. We know that CSG pollutes the environment. We know it is widely opposed by voters. We know clean renewable energy is the way forward. It’s time to ban this toxic industry and move on.”
But while NSW Labor has adopted a more critical position on unconventional gas over the past two years, it does not agree with the Greens on banning the industry. It is proposing a set of amendments to the Greens Bill which, it says, aims to codify the 16 recommendations for the industry made by the Chief Scientist in September last year.
Labor’s amendments to the Green’s bill push for tighter regulation of the industry.
If adopted, the new law would still impose an immediate moratorium (the time of which is not specified) on all unconventional gas exploration and imposes “no go zones” in specific areas: the Northern Rivers of NSW, core drinking water catchment areas, the recharge zone of the Great Artesian Basin, national parks and other environmentally significant areas, residential areas, critical industry clusters and prime farming land.
NSW Labor’s amendments do not state a position on compensation to the industry.
At the time of writing, the amended bill seems to have the support of the Christian Democrats and the Shooters and Fishers — a product of the impact of the people-power campaign, which has splintered the Nationals’ base in regional NSW.
The Bill, if passed, will still have to be voted on by the Legislative Assembly. For those fighting to protect their land and water from the industry — such as in the Northern Rivers where more than a million hectares are still under threat from coal seam gas mining —this Bill comes not a moment too soon.
Buckingham said he’s happy NSW Labor and minor parties now support a tightening up of the laws governing this industry.
“The Bill, with Labor’s amendments, puts a stronger regulatory framework in place. If it were up to the Greens, we wouldn’t have any [unconventional gas] exploration at all.
“But any Bill that ensures greater uncertainty for the unconventional gas industry will put more pressure on the government to not issue licences in areas where they shouldn’t. It is time for the government to act decisively and protect land and water.”
[A rally to support the Bill has been organised by Lock the Gate Alliance for Thursday August 13 at 10am at NSW Parliament House.]