The Illawarra is rich with coal seams. Mined since about 1850, these seams lie at the southern end of the Sydney Basin – a natural geological feature with coal deposits – that is approximately 350 kilometres long and an average of 100 kilometres wide. The Illawarra coal seams are particularly close to the surface, generally 250 – 300 metres, and in some areas they break through. These seams contain gas.
To mine or explore for coal seam gas in NSW two things are essential. First, a licence to access the gas within a given area is needed – a title granted by the NSW government that both stakes out an area and requires that exploration or mining take place. Second, development consent – approval to drill and run wells – is needed.
CSG exploration licences cover most of the Illawarra, and more applications have been lodged. Four pilot wells have been drilled, one in Darkes Forest and three in conjunction with Metropolitan Colliery.
Sixteen exploration wells in the northern Illawarra have also been granted development consent – though this is currently invalid.
Status of development consent
In 2009 a CSG exploration project spanning two drinking water catchments (Woronora and Nepean) and two exploration licences (PEL 442 and PEL 444) was given development consent. Fifteen wells were approved, and a consent modified to include a sixteenth well in 2011.
It is worth noting that the project areas were zoned ‘high conservation’ until 2009, when the Department of Primary Industries requested that the appointed Administrators of Wollongong City Council downgrade the zoning to allow CSG drilling in and around SCA Special Areas west of the Escarpment. The Administrators complied, against the advice of Wollongong City Council staff, the then Department of Environment and Climate Change and the Sydney Catchment Authority – bodies respectively tasked with working for the local community, protecting the environment and protecting drinking water supplies.The Woronora and Nepean catchments feed dams that provide drinking water to two-thirds of people in NSW; and the Special Areas, in which eleven of the sixteen wells sit, are designed and legislated to protect drinking water supplies by keeping out substances that could affect the quality of water. Keeping the catchments healthy is essential to protecting water quality and is a principle function of the Sydney Catchment Authority. In fact, fines of up to $44,000 can be imposed for simply entering in the Special Areas.
The development consent states that drilling and operation of the wells has to take place before the expiry of one of two relevant licences (unless the director-general of planning department steps in). The two relevant licences – PEL 442 and PEL 444 – expired in February and April 2012, and PEL 442 has lapsed.
Sustained opposition from the local community delayed any drilling on the project and an administrative error by the owners, Apex Energy and Ormil Energy (ASX:OMX), saw the renewal application for PEL 442 lodged late. As such, in June 2012 the Department of Planning confirmed that development consent for all sixteen CSG wells is currently invalid.
This outcome is the result of the extraordinary and tireless efforts of so many in the Illawarra community, standing together to stop CSG mining. It shows the strength of the campaign to date and marks a serious setback to the local project. It puts a freeze on the immediate threat of CSG development in the Illawarra.
Of course, the freeze on the local project does not reflect change at government level. The NSW government still supports industry expansion, and still permits CSG development in drinking water catchments.
To get this project up and running again, the Apex Energy / Ormil Energy joint venture must apply for a change to the development consent, and the Government will need to grant them both this and a new licence.
Indeed, two new licences have been applied for already over Wollongong. These applications vie for the same area – that of now lapsed PEL 442 – which take in parts of the drinking water catchment. Apex Energy has applied for Petroleum Exploration Licence 138. The NSW Aboriginal Land Council has applied for Petroleum Special Prospecting Authority 58, despite strong objections from the Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council.