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.
Sixteen exploration wells in the northern Illawarra were granted development consent – all in and around drinking water catchments – though sustained opposition from the local community delayed drilling past project expiry dates. In July 2013 the Planning Assessment Commission rejected Apex Energy’s application for an extension to the project — despite the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure recommending approval.
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 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 apply for unauthorised or illegal access.
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. Eventually, in March 2015, the NSW government cancelled Apex’s three CSG licences.
In July 2105, AGL’s massive PEL2 licence (covering much of the Woronora and Metropolitan Special Areas of the water catchment) was sold back to the NSW government and cancelled, leaving the Illawarra free of CSG licences for the first time since the Stop CSG Illawarra campaign started in 2011.
The current lull in activity is likely just temporary however. The government has refused calls to put a permanent ban in place, even within the water catchment ‘Special Areas’.