Coal-seam gas (CSG) exclusion zones for existing residential areas and villages on the north coast and across NSW have come into force today, but anti-CSG campaigners say the zones don’t go far enough.
The exclusion zones prohibit new CSG exploration and development within a two-kilometre buffer, with proposals now on display to include future major residential development in Lismore and Ballina shires (at Goonellabah and Cumbalum).
Planning minister Brad Hazzard says people living in residential areas with existing CSG exploration licences have nothing to fear because production licences have to be approved as part of a development application (DA) process.
But the Lock the Gate Alliance says the ‘devil is in the detail’ which hasn’t yet been released. Community opposition to CSG exploration and mining in the northern rivers is set to continue given that larger-lot rural residential areas (zoned R5 which range in size from 4,000sq metres up to 2.5 hectares) including Rosebank and Richmond Hill near Lismore, Coffee Camp near Nimbin and Fairy Hill near Casino, are not included in the buffer zones.
The northern rivers has thousands of these smaller lifestyle or hobby-farm sized rural lots.
The Lock the Gate Alliance says the buffer zones should be expanded to those areas as well as around homes on rural properties.
Leaving rural homes out of the exclusion zones, the alliance says, is a real concern for many people and should be addressed.
Alliance spokesperson Steve Phillips said the government’s proposal ‘confirm that CSG is unsafe around families and communities, yet farming families are not protected with the same 2km buffer as urban families’.
‘This disparity is causing major anguish in rural areas and really needs to be addressed,’ Mr Phillips said . ’It’s a major oversight that towns and villages are not protected from coal mining by this measure, with open-cut mines set to encroach on places such as Gloucester and Jerrys Plains posing a severe risk to public health and communities. ’The alliance has also called on the premier to deliver on his pre-election promises by allowing the gateway panel to reject projects on prime agricultural land and by extending the exclusion zone to family homes on rural properties. ’We’re yet to see the details of the Government’s announcement, but it is good to see them moving forward with the CSG exclusion zones on towns and cities. That is a positive step forward, although we are awaiting confirmation as to whether it will properly protect rural villages across NSW.
‘We’re also very anxious to see the details of the Critical Industry Clusters that have been mapped, because we have concerns that the areas may have been reduced and loopholes introduced. It’s crucial these areas are properly protected. ’Most importantly, we still have outstanding concerns that the Gateway Panel seems to still lack any power to actually ‘shut the gateway’ and reject a mining application. ’This means that rural communities still don’t have any certainty about whether the gate will be locked, and prime agricultural land and water resources are still at risk from a permissive process that can’t say ‘no’. ’For example, the rural businesses of the Jerrys Plains area are now under threat from the Drayton South coal mine, which threatens very significant thoroughbred studs and vineyards.
‘This mine will be a major test of the NSW government’s resolve to protect our most important rural assets over the next few months,’ Mr Phillips said. Still exposed
The Nature Conservation Council (NCC) says that while urban area residents are spared the impact of CSG mining, for many others, it will ‘not deliver peace of mind’.
NCC spokesperson Kate Smolski said the threat of CSG development ‘is still very real for large parts of the state’ but ‘at least 90 per cent of NSW is still not protected.
‘Drinking water catchments are still not protected, neither are important natural assets like the Pilliga Forest, which is set to be carved up and polluted by gas development.’
Ms Smolski said two key flaws in the new arrangements were the inability of the ‘gateway’ process to block destructive proposals and the ability of landholders to opt out of the exclusion zones around critical industries.
‘Under the gateway process, a panel conducts a preliminary review of an application before a full development proposal is submitted.
‘This process is flawed because the panel has no power to refuse. The gateway is permanently propped open, leaving productive agricultural land exposed to mining and gas development.’
‘Futhermore, the government is permitting gas and mining companies that have bought agricultural land within critical industry areas to opt out of the exclusion zones.
‘This will result in critical industry clusters being hollowed out from the inside.
‘The announcement also fails to address the impact of coal mining on the environment and communities.
‘Local communities across the state, will still be threatened by air and water pollution from the rapid expansion of the coal mining industry, Ms Smolski said.
Feds fail first test
Meanwhile, the Australian Greens say the new federal environment minister has failed his first test on CSG by ‘waving through Santos’ proposal to drill CSG exploration wells in the Pilliga forest in NSW’.
Greens mining spokesperson Senator Larissa Waters said ‘it’s clear the Abbott government is charging full steam ahead with its gas-at-all-costs approach at the expense or our land, water and communities,”
‘Minister (Greg) Hunt has decided Santos’ CSG exploration drilling and associated clearing does not require federal assessment, despite clear threats to groundwater and impacts on threatened species.
‘The notion that punching holes through an aquifer to ‘explore’ for coal seam gas is any less damaging than punching holes through an aquifer to ‘extract’ coal seam gas is pure nonsense, and is typical CSG industry spin which minister Hunt has bought.
‘Minister Hunt should have taken a closer look at this dangerous proposal and required federal assessment of its impacts, including applying the new water trigger to protect these aquifers which recharge the Great Artesian Basin.
‘The minister has left himself wide open to challenge by the community in the courts. Our environmental laws are there to protect areas of significant environmental value, not to be ignored when it doesn’t suit the big mining companies,’ Senator Waters said.