Opposition to coal-seam gas (CSG) exploration and mining on the north coast is looming as the biggest single issue in the local federal election campaign with both sitting MPs slamming the region’s state National Party politicians for abandoning their communities and lobbying for the industry instead.
This week’s latest protest at a CSG test-drilling site at Doubtful Creek near Kyogle was raised in federal parliament as an example of the strong community campaign against CSG, and the federal environment minister has described opposition to it having reached ‘fever pitch’.
Federal Richmond MP Justine Elliot was scathing in a speech to parliament on Wednesday of the Nationals’ Don Page (Ballina), Geoff Provest (Tweed), Thomas George (Lismore) and Chris Gulaptis (Clarence), saying they were too ‘scared’ to stand up to premier Barry O’Farrell on the issue, which is facing massive opposition across the north coast.
And Page MP Janelle Saffin was told by federal environment minister Tony Burke in parliament the same day that the NSW government was refusing to agree to a scientific protocol for CSG development.
Mr Burke said that unlike Queensland, where there are exclusion zones around settled areas, NSW allows coal-seam gas exploration and production licences in urban areas such as western Sydney and sites close to regional population centres, such as the far north coast.
Ms Saffin said this ‘says some concerning things’ about how the NSW government approaches coal-seam gas and the community’s concerns.
Mrs Elliot also told MPs that while there was widespread opposition to CSG in their electorates, the four state National Party MPs and the party’s candidates supported it and actually tried to sell CSG to the local daily newspaper management and editors during a conference call last year.
She also pointed out that the government announced the green light for the CSG industry and renewed exploration licences only days after local-government elections in September at which, in Lismore, a referendum revealed massive community angst with CSG.
‘They rubber-stamped it. The Northern Star said that what happened was that the local members Don Page, Thomas George, Geoff Provest and Chris Gulaptis had a conference call with the Northern Star in a bid to sell the policy,’ Mrs Elliot told parliament.
‘They wanted to tell them how great it all was. What they came up with at the end of it was that one of them, Don Page, who is also the north coast minister, said that he understood that some people would not be pleased but that it was the world’s best policy.’
The Richmond MP said the four ‘stand alone on the north coast. The fact is that they are all too scared to go and tell their boss, Barry O’Farrell, that the people of the north coast do not want coal-seam gas mining.’
Ms Saffin had asked minister Burke about the federal government’s negotiations with the NSW government on using independent scientific assessment of coal-seam gas proposals.
Mr Burke responded that with CSG there are serious matters of land subsidence when there is serious loss of groundwater through CSG exploration and extraction.
He said the federal government has been dealing with the states to make sure that independently paid-for science has to be locked into informing planning decisions, but NSW has not signed up to the protocol.
Instead it has proposals for mining near settled areas on the far north coast, the Hunter, Illawarra and western Sydney.
Ms Saffin said NSW ‘asked for a protocol that is different from every other state and which is deficient’.
‘Minister Burke has written to premier Barry O’Farrell telling him it is simply not good enough to have a situation where one state is willing to make sure that the scientific checks are not done for them.
‘Mr Burke recognises that this is a massive issue. As he said, these are issues that currently do not fall within the ambit of federal legal powers but make a massive difference to the community.
‘The federal government has put down the money to make sure the scientific work can be done, and I have been lobbying for baseline testing in our area as soon as possible.
‘Our community demands this and NSW must agree to this independent scientific testing as a priority,’ Ms Saffin said.
Ms Elliot, who this week stood down as parliamentary secretary for trade citing the conflict with her opposition to CSG, praised community groups and local councils for taking a strong stand on ‘harmful CSG’.
‘Members have to understand that there is a lot of passion and commitment from people in terms of the reality and the impact of coal-seam gas mining,’ she said.
Yet in contrast, she said all that had been seen from local National MPs on the issue had been ‘absolute silence and total inaction’.