Calls to cancel Metgasco’s gas exploration licences on the north coast have grown louder with MPs from all sides of politics joining the chorus since the government suspended the miner’s operations at Bentley late last week.
On Friday, NSW opposition leader John Robertson visited the Bentley blockade camp, and yesterday, Greens senators Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters paid a visit to congratulate the hundreds of people who helped force the decision by the state government.
Other MPs who visited the camp at the weekend include NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham and Labor’s far north coast spokesman Walt Secord.
The protest camp is set to be dismantled this week but opponents of gas mining say they’ll continue the fight against the industry in northern NSW, including the controversial Pilliga Forest coal seam gas (CSG) project and Maules Creek coal mine near Gloucester.
The calls to cancel Metgasco’s licence also follow the referral of the company to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) by energy minister Anthony Roberts over unspecified shareholdings and interests.
It was also revealed at the weekend that the company’s biggest shareholder was awarded NSW government contracts worth close to $1 billion last month, making it the largest electricity supplier to the government.
On Thursday, Fairfax Media reported that ERM Power, whose chairman is in business with the nephew of corrupt former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, is Metgasco’s biggest shareholder with a 12.8 per cent stake.
Tainted by corruption
The Nature Conservation Council (NCC) of NSW says Metgasco’s Bentley project was the latest large coal and CSG development to have been ‘tainted by corruption allegations’ and that its licence should be cancelled altogether.
NCC campaign director Kate Smolski said it was ‘troubling that yet another major resource development had been referred’ to the ICAC.
‘This pattern highlights profound flaws and corruption risks inherent in the NSW planning system,’ Ms Smolski said.
‘If the government is serious about rooting out corruption in the planning system it must adopt all 16 of the recommendations made by the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 2012.
‘Changes to planning laws over the past decade have increased the state government’s powers in regard to mines and other large developments, overridden important environmental approvals, and restricted third-party merit appeal rights.
‘These changes have led to an overall reduction in accountability and transparency for major project assessment and approval, and increased the risks of serious corruption.
‘One of the original tenets of the coalition government’s recent review of the NSW planning system was to address the risks and perceptions of corruption and restore the focus on community engagement, accountability and the public interest. We are still waiting.’
Ms Smolski said Metgasco’s licence suspension ‘gives the community a reprieve, but Mr Roberts should go further and cancel it once and for all’.
‘The suspension represents a partial victory for the community, which has demonstrated its unequivocal opposition to CSG development at Bentley and in other parts of the state.
Fight to continue
‘However, the fight to protect our productive farmland and sensitive natural areas from coal and gas developments will continue until the government honours its promises and creates legally enforceable no-go zones that permanently protect these areas,’ she said.
Clarence MP, Chris Gulaptis, one of a handful of Nationals who represent the north coast, also wants the exploration licence cancelled because, he said, of the ongoing ‘angst’ the company’s plans had created in the community.
Senator Ludlam told the Bentley camp yesterday that the community win at Bentley would inspire people facing unconventional gas mining in his home state of Western Australia.
‘Big gas is ready to pounce in many parts of Western Australia and I’m so glad to be able to take home stories about the success at Bentley to help prepare communities,’ he said.
‘Communities shouldn’t have to protest just so that they can protect their land, water and climate from big gas and coal, all for the sake of foreign-owned mining companies getting richer.’
Senator Waters, the Greens’ federal mining spokesperson, told the Bentley camp that the success of the blockade there ‘marks a turning point in the national fight against big gas and coal ruining our land, water and climate’.
‘Communities across Australia have watched on and have seen that, with enough dedication and passion, people power can and will prevail,’ she said.
‘Mining magnates should be very worried, just like at Bentley; communities across the country are strong and they will not be walked all over.
‘They will stand up together for their land, water and climate, which their livelihoods rely on.
‘Originally, when we had planned to visit Bentley, we thought we’d be standing in solidarity against Metgasco. It’s wonderful to be here to congratulate everyone instead,’ Senator Waters said.
The Greens are working in the parliament to give landholders the right to say no but have had no support from the other parties, including the Nationals.
Shareholder wins contracts
On Saturday, Fairfax Media revealed that Metgasco’s largest shareholder, ERM Power, won an open tender to supply electricity to government departments including NSW Health, Attorney-General and Justice, and Education and Communities.
ERM chairman Tony Bellas, the media group reported, is in business with Mr Obeid’s nephew Dennis Jabour and has links to controversial Liberal Party identity Nick Di Girolamo, who have both been targeted by the ICAC probe into infrastructure company Australian Water Holdings.
Mr Bellas is also a former director of Australian Water Queensland, for whom Mr Obeid’s son Eddie Obeid Jnr once worked.
ERM, according to the Fairfax Media report, told the stock exchange in an April 24 statement that the contracts, worth $900 million over three years, meant ERM is now the largest electricity supplier to the NSW government.
ERM, the report said, has also been able to secure a $100 million, 12-month extension to a four-year contract with the federal government.
Under the contract ERM supplies electricity to 80 government departments including Parliament House, Government House, the Australian War Memorial and NSW defence sites including RAAF Williamtown and Holdsworthy Barracks.
Energy minister Roberts said he had no concerns about the awarding of the contracts, while ERM chief executive Philip St Baker said in a statement that the company ‘has not, and has never had any, connection’ with Mr Obeid and his family, Australian Water Holdings, Australian Water Queensland or Mr Di Girolamo.
Mr St Baker told Fairfax Media that ERM Power was not represented on the Metgasco board nor involved in its management, and ‘exercises no influence over the company’.
That was echoed by Metgasco in its statement saying it ‘is not aware of any matter involving the conduct of Metgasco, its staff or of its shareholders that would constitute grounds for an investigation by ICAC’.
An angry chief executive Peter Henderson told ABC radio on Friday that Metgasco had received no warning of the suspension and would seek compensation from the state government.
Camp to be dismantled
Meanwhile, Gasfield Free Northern Rivers spokesman Adam Guise said the Bentley camp would likely be dismantled this week but Metgasco’s actions would be closely monitored.
Mr Guise told media the success of the camp was a ‘beacon of light’ that had emboldened and motivated others to fight against an invasive gas industry threatening northern NSW, including at the Pilliga and Gloucester.
Shadow minister for north coast Walt Secord and Lismore Cr Isaac Smith accompanied opposition leader Mr Robertson to Bentley on Friday to congratulate the blockaders.
‘We wanted to congratulate the community firsthand. It was their win and their spirit that forced the state government to back down,’ Mr Secord told Echonetdaily.
‘The Nationals have to hang their heads in shame. They still support CSG and exploration for unconventional gas. The decision was simply to get Lismore MP Thomas George and Tweed MP Geoff Provest past the 2015 state election.
‘After March 2015, the National Party will be back to its old tricks and they will be allowing CSG and unconventional gas exploration on the north coast,’ Mr Secord said.
On Thursday, Mr Secord told Parliament the licence suspension was a community victory and welcomed.
‘It is a victory for north coast families and north coast farmers, but it is a victory that had nothing to do with the Nationals,’ he said.
‘The Nationals had to be dragged to this morning’s decision. Unfortunately, the Nationals are trying to spin a completely different line.
‘They claim that they always were there in the fight to stop the expansion of coal seam gas and unconventional gas industries in the northern rivers, but the north coast community has a long memory. They know the duplicity of the Nationals.
‘Just last month, the NSW minister for resources and energy, Anthony Roberts, attacked farmers and locals who were protesting against coal seam gas and unconventional gas exploration on the north coast and described them as “extremists”.’
Mr Secord said, ‘the community will not forget that the member for Lismore, Thomas George, the member for Ballina, Don Page, the member for Tweed, Geoff Provest, and the member for Clarence, Chris Gulaptis, all were advocating for the expansion of unconventional gas and coal seam gas exploration on the north coast’.
‘This was evident in Lismore’s Northern Star article of 12 September 2012, which reported that those very same Nationals members of Parliament, in relation to reissuing 21 coal seam gas licences, were “on a conference call with Northern Star in a bid to sell the policy to north coast readers yesterday”.
‘Earlier this week, the state government was doing everything in its power to facilitate exploration of unconventional gas and coal seam gas at Bentley near Lismore.
‘The government was ready to bring in 800 police and the riot squad to break up lawful peaceful protesters.’