In the face of a broad and growing campaign, rhetoric from the NSW government is beginning to match some of the risks when it comes to coal seam gas (CSG) mining. This begs the question: what is being done when it comes to CSG?
In an interview about CSG mining on December 1, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell told 2GB’s Alan Jones: “I don’t intend to allow — particularly after the drought we went through over a decade — mining or any other activity to threaten water resources.
“[CSG] exploration licences have been granted, in some cases permission to mine has been granted, in areas, frankly, that should never ever have been on the list.”
He said this was a legacy of the previous Labor government. But he also said his government was developing policy about “not surrendering all our land to mining interests.
“What we’re trying to ensure is that, before any of these things proceed, there is proper scientific study.”
O’Farrell summed up the direction of government policy: “I don’t think any government — particularly the NSW government — is going to approve mining that is going to decimate the land or be unsafe for communities.”
These words mark a significant change to the government’s declared intent when it comes to CSG.
As recently as May this year, the NSW minister Duncan Gay told parliament: “The government provides a number of attractive incentives to encourage exploration, development and utilisation of the coal seam gas industry in New South Wales.”
In August, energy minister Chris Hartcher told mining executives that the NSW government is “open for business” — backing mining growth to drive the NSW economy.
Of course, there’s a context in which this change is happening.
An August 2011 Galaxy poll found 74% of people in NSW support a moratorium on CSG mining until more is known about the health and environmental impacts.
On October 16, thousands rallied across the state, as part of a national day of action to defend water resources.
A report by the Senate committee on rural affairs and transport, handed down on December 1, recommended no further CSG approvals be granted until further research is carried out. It also said some areas may need to be excluded from CSG mining altogether.
However, despite O’Farrell’s recent acknowledgement of the potential risks CSG poses to water resources, existing projects are not being stopped.
Given 25% of NSW is already under CSG exploration licences, his rhetoric is at odds with reality. Water resources are at risk and the government is not stopping it.
Further, it’s still the case that there is no legal requirement for the public to be told about a CSG exploration licence application. Nor do landholders get a say in exploration or production licence decisions.
Worse still, on November 21, a new CSG well was approved in NSW.
It was approved in a Sydney Catchment Authority Special Area — an area designed to protect the quality of drinking water for more than 4.3 million people.
The well flouts local environment controls and was approved despite concerns raised by the Sydney Catchment Authority — the government body tasked with maintaining healthy catchments.
The new well was approved during a parliamentary inquiry into CSG, under a process put in place by the O’Farrell government,
In this context, O’Farrell’s assurances that CSG is a Labor legacy issue, that his government will protect water, and that scientific research must come before further development, are clearly false.
The O’Farrell government is feeling public pressure, but it is clear the health of communities, drinking water, agricultural land and the environment are still at risk. The campaign to stop CSG must continue to grow to win the changes that match O’Farrell’s rhetoric.
Meanwhile, communities can, and are doing, what the government refuses to do.
In the Illawarra, CSG exploration has stalled as a direct result of public opposition. The November 26 Illawarra Mercury reported that Andrew Davis, who chaired CSG company Ormil Energy’s recent annual general meeting, said: “There has been considerable criticism … which has made the obtaining of approvals rather more difficult than was originally anticipated.”
In the Liverpool Plains, a three-week blockade by farmers ended in victory in mid-November, when Santos put off plans to drill exploratory CSG wells at Spring Ridge.
Lock the Gate Alliance president Drew Hutton calls these blockades the “people’s moratorium” against CSG. At a Sydney rally on November 22, he said industry and government could expect this to continue until government action catches up to the needs of communities.