The rapid growth of the coal seam gas (CSG) industry — despite broad public opposition and proven risks — is bringing the gap between policy and public will into stark relief.
Approvals to mine CSG have been granted and maintained in NSW despite:
- The mounting evidence about risks from CSG mining;
- A lack of peer reviewed research into the impacts of CSG mining in an Australian context; and
- Insufficient community consultation.
This process has been facilitated by the NSW government. In reports covering the launch of an audit of coal and coal seam gas licences, NSW Resources and Energy Minister Chris Hartcher is quoted as saying “Nobody knew what was happening because they were just handing them out, taking millions of dollars in payment for them”. Further, in May 2011, 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.”
CSG mining in NSW is currently administered under the NSW Petroleum (Onshore Act) 1991 (rather than the Mining Act 1992 as one might assume). This is significant because this legislation grants greater rights of access for exploration and production and landholders are not protected by the right under the Mining Act that enables property owners to “veto the granting of a mining lease over the surface of their land”.
In NSW, areas designated for CSG mining are defined by licences issued under the Petroleum Act and, as it stands, 25% of NSW is under an exploration licence. Development can also require state environmental approval. However since 2005 this could be approved under Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, under which the Minister for Planning could deem development to be of ‘state significance’ and bypass environmental and local planning controls. While the O’Farrell government has partially repealed Part 3A, this ministerial override remains.
Meanwhile, there is mounting evidence CSG mining poses serious risks. The industry puts huge demand on water supplies, particularly ground water, damages aquifers and produces large quantities of contaminated water that can pollute soil and water sources. It requires extensive above ground infrastructure, including an area of cleared vegetation for each gas extraction site, water storage, access roads and a gas pipeline, and can cause seismic activity and subsidence. Mining and burning CSG also releases methane – a potent greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere.
However, peer reviewed research into the full impacts of CSG mining, particularly in an Australian context, is lacking. Indeed, even the Australian Government’s Climate Commission could not conclude whether or not CSG is a suitable transition fuel, due to insufficient scientific research.
Moreover, as campaigns around the country raise awareness about CSG and approvals, the gap between policy and public will is increasingly clear. An August 2011 Galaxy poll found that 74% of people in NSW support a moratorium on CSG mining until more is known about the health and environmental impacts; steps routinely dismissed by the state government. And community anger — not only at government failure to show caution in the face of big risks — extends to being excluded from such important decisions.