The announcement yesterday by coal seam gas (CSG) company Metgasco that it will restart its controversial mining operations on the north coast early next year has sparked a strong backlash by anti-CSG campaigners who have vowed to resist the move.
The company, which suspended its operations after massive community protests earlier this year, saying the political climate was unfavourable, has announced that it plans to drill an exploration well about 12 kilometres northeast of Casino.
It follows recent statements to media by Metgasco boss Peter Henderson that the decision to resume gas operations in the region was owing to ‘recent regulatory and political developments, particularly since the September federal election’.
And newly elected Nationals MP for Page, Kevin Hogan, appears to have backtracked on his pre-election promise to oppose CSG exploration and mining in his electorate, saying Metgasco has a ‘legal right’ to do so.
Labor’s Richmond MP Justine Elliot has accused Mr Hogan of selling out his electorate to the CSG industry.
Mr Hogan said his government’s pro-CSG stance was ‘unlikely’ to have been a major factor in Metgasco’s decision.
Metgasco chairman Nick Heath told media yesterday that the new federal government had made some very ‘supportive comments’ about the industry and was ‘keen to see the coal seam gas industry back on its feet in NSW’.
New federal resources minister Ian Macfarlane last week said that the government was keen to make CSG mining a priority and push its development in NSW.
But Mr Hogan told ABC North Coast that ‘in some ways it’s not Mr Macfarlane’s decision’ and that Metgasco had ‘a legal right to do this because they were issued a licence under the previous state Labor government’.
Mr Hogan said it was therefore ‘predominantly a state government issue’ and Mr Macfarlane’s comments, while not irrelevant, were ‘secondary’.
And NSW Farmers say the state government’s new mapping to protect valuable agricultural land from such mining was ‘very disappointing’.
President Fiona Simson told the ABC that while the valuable farming land was identified and mapped, the government was not willing to take the extra step to protect it ‘and rule them out of development for extractive industries’.
Mr Heath told the ABC that the NSW coalition government wanted new gas supply sources in the state, repeating the widely discredited claim that NSW was facing a gas ‘shortage’.
He also said hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, was likely to be used in the region because the rocks containing the gas were not very permeable.
Fracking is the controversial extraction technique that CSG opponents, including farmers, blame for contaminating underground water supplies and farmland.
Lock the Gate Northern Rivers has labelled Metgasco’s decision to resume its gas operations as arrogant, given the strong community opposition, and that any further exploration or mining by Metgasco would meet ‘massive opposition’.
Lock the Tweed says the company’s proposed use of fracking ‘will bring on a maelstrom of protest and opposition from local communities right across the northern rivers’.
Mr Hogan told media he was ‘exceptionally disappointed’ at Metgasco’s decision and had arranged to meet with the company’s managing director Peter Henderson next week to pass on his ‘belief that there is currently not community support for CSG within the northern rivers’.
‘I believe very strongly this decision flies in the face of where the community stands. I don’t think there is currently enough evidence to say that it’s safe,’ Mr Hogan said in a statement.
‘The concerns of the community about water and air quality, as well as the increasing industrialisation of the farm land, have not been adequately addressed for Metgasco to return to exploring within the northern rivers.’
Mr Hogan also defended opponents of CSG in the community, saying they were ‘fathers, mothers, professionals, farmers and senior citizens who have unanswered questions about the industry and are therefore uncomfortable about it developing here at present’.
He dismissed federal resources minister Ian Macfarlane’s controversial comments recently describing CSG opponents as ‘a noisy minority’.
Lock the Tweed has challenged most of Mr Heath’s claims in support of resuming operations.
Spokesman Michael McNamara said the company chairman’s claim that there was increased public support for the industry ‘flies in the face of the repeated levels of opposition, of 95 per cent and higher, in local surveys right across the northern rivers’.
Mr McNamara said rising domestic gas prices were directly linked to the eastern seaboard gaining access to export markets (and export prices) through the ‘abominable processing and port developments at Gladstone’.
‘As Mr Heath said… the gas produced by Metgasco will go into the same pipes used to take gas to Gladstone. Does he really expect us to believe that Metgasco would sell gas for one-third of the export price?
‘There is no shortage of supply of gas in NSW. This is a furphy created by NSW minister Chris Hartcher (and even he had to retreat from his earlier claims last week) and an increasingly desperate industry,’ he said.
‘In May 2011 Mike Yeager from BHP said that they had sufficient reserves in the existing conventional Bass Strait fields to supply the eastern states’ gas needs indefinitely into the future.
‘The truth of this was borne out in the last week or so when Origin Energy was reported to have signed a contract for enough gas from Bass Strait to supply NSW for nine years,’ Mr McNamara said.
Mr Henderson has told media the suspension of operations by Metgasco six months ago followed NSW government changes to regulatory and administrative procedures, including a two-kilometre buffer zone around residential areas.
Planning minister Brad Hazzard says new mapping of exclusion zones by his department now on public exhibition shows 95 per cent of dwellings in NSW will be excluded from any new CSG activity, but not those near already approved operations.
Mrs Elliot said that throughout the election campaign ‘we kept saying that a vote for the National Party is a vote for CSG mining and today this has been shown to be 100 per cent correct’.
‘At both a state and a federal level we are now seeing locals being sold out by the pro-CSG National Party,’ she said.
‘I stand with the community in opposing harmful CSG mining in our region. This is in contrast to all the National Party members on the north coast, both state and federal, who are allowing CSG mining to occur.’