The Office of Coal Seam Gas has withdrawn permission for Metgasco to drill a tight-sands gas well at Bentley and the police operation to force the company’s access to the site, due next week, has been cancelled.
The trigger appears to be that the application by the junior minor was flawed, characterising the well as a ‘conventional well’ when it is in fact unconventional gas the company was planning to explore for.
It follows an announcement this morning that The Lock the Gate Alliance and Gas Field Free Northern Rivers were today set to release documents alleging that the gas company does not have a proper permit to drill.
Mr Roberts said the Office of Coal Seam Gas (OCSG) has informed Metgasco of the suspension on the grounds that it did not fulfil a condition of its exploration licence, namely to undertake genuine and effective consultation with the community as required.
He would not be drawn on how long the licence would be suspended or whether it would ultimately be cancelled, referring the issue to to the OSG.
Mr Roberts also announced that he has written to the Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption following receipt of information concerning shareholdings and interests in Metgasco Limited.
In a statement released this morning Mr Roberts said ‘OCSG is conducting an ongoing audit of all Petroleum Exploration Licences across NSW and is focused on ensuring company compliance with title conditions.
‘I have been advised by OCSG that fundamental concerns have been expressed by members of the affected community about the way in which Metgasco has characterised its activities.
‘On 13 May 2014 the Director of OCSG and the NSW Land and Water Commissioner held a meeting with local landholders, at which matters of consultation between the community and Metgasco were raised.
‘The Director of OCSG has now suspended the approval to construct the Rosella E01 gas exploration well.’
Mr Roberts pointed out that this suspension refers to Petroleum Exploration Licence 16 (PEL 16) which covers the Bentley site near Lismore and was originally granted by the Carr Labor Government in 1996.
‘Metgasco must now demonstrate to OCSG that it has complied with this fundamental condition of its licence,’ he said.
Mr Roberts also announced that ‘in accordance with Section 11 of the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act, I have referred this to the Commissioner to ensure that any decisions pertaining to PEL 16 have been made entirely properly and without any undue interest or influence.’
He declined to be drawn further on the matter, saying it was inappropriate given it was now before the commission.
He said on ABC radio this morning the gas industry had ‘done itself no favours’ with respect to its level of communication and community consultation and added the suspension gave all concerned the opportunity to ‘take a chill pill [and] settle down’.
Up to 800 police were expected to descend on the site early next week to force the removal of ‘lock-on’ devices and escort a massive drill rig against the wishes of the vast majority of local residents.
Police were set to make an announcement on the operation this morning but it has now been cancelled in the wake of the announcement.
Lock the Gate said it was too early to determine whether the protectors camp on adjacent land in Bungabee Road, Bentley, would now be disbanded.
‘We need to read the fine print first, said spokesperson Ian Gaillard, on ABC radio this morning, adding that the licence had ‘only been suspended at this stage, not revoked’.
‘It’s time for people to celebrate their hard work. Thousands and thousands of people hours have been put into this and angst that people have been put through,’ he added.
‘The language is moving to adaptive management, which is what the industry does, in seeing how they can get this through.
‘It’s required a great effort. We’ve had to come out here and camp for long periods of time, just to get our voices heard – and faced with the threat of all these police.’
He put the responsibility for misinformation clearly at the feet of Metgasco, saying they had made out their unconventional gas operation had been misrepresented as conventional gas.
Fellow Lock the Gate spokesperson Carmel Flint was euphoric at the news, which followed a meeting between Bentley landowners and Land and Water Commissioner Jock Laurie on Tuesday.
At that meeting landholders handed in letters before walking out saying they were not being listened to. Read our full report here.
‘Characterisation of the well as a conventional well meant the permit was inappropriate for a tight-gas well,’ Ms Flint told Echonetdaily this morning.
‘The farmers made it very clear they didn’t want it and the community didn’t want it. It was very clear it wasn’t just one or two people disaffected.
Ms Flint said the reality was just sinking in and described the win as ‘pretty amazing.’
‘It gives everyone a lot of hope. Great that if they know they stand together they can protect their land and water against this sort of industry.
‘I think there’ll be a massive party at Bentley this weekend,’ she said.
Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell, who has been consistently critical of Metgasco’s plans said she was ‘overjoyed’ at the news but added ‘we’ve got other mining companies in the region with licences’ and this was only ‘one well among potentially thousands’.
Social licence critical
The Greens mining spokesperson, Jeremy Buckingham has welcomed the news, saying that it was a huge win for the people power and the community and a clear demonstration that a social licence is both real and necessary.
‘This is a fantastic win for the people of the northern rivers that have united in great spirit and determination to protect their land, water and community,’ Mr Buckingham said.
‘The Bentley blockade is a physical manifestation of the social licence and shows that a social licence is not only real, but necessary for an industry like coal seam gas to operate.
‘People across NSW consider coal seam gas as unsafe and unnecessary. From western Sydney, to the northern rivers, to Narrabri, to Gloucester, the community is saying no and that they are prepared to put their bodies on the line to stop this industry.
‘Metgasco have patently failed to win the support of the community and are finished. They should pack up and leave.
‘The Greens want a total ban on coal seam gas because it is unsafe, unnecessary and unwanted,’ he said.
Good outcome: Page
Retiring Nationals MP for Ballina, Don Page, who has been silent on the issue since the outset of opposition to the industry described the decision today as ‘a good outcome’.
‘Let’s wait and see how it plays out but I think, for the moment anyway, we’ve got a potential outcome and the risk of people being injured and the risk of police being involved in what would have been a very ugly situation moving forward has been averted.’
Page MP Kevin Hogan also welcomed the move.
‘I’ve continually said that CSG in Page is not appropriate. It has become a community issue not a political one, and I congratulate Mr Roberts for suspending Metgasco’s licence on the grounds that the company had not undertaken ‘genuine and effective consultation with the community,’ he said in a media release this morning.
Minister Roberts meanwhile made special mention of the representations made to him by Lismore Nats MP Thomas George on the issue.
This came as news to one Knitting Nanna, who rang ABC North Coast to comment.
‘We’ve been sitting outside Thomas’ office once a week every week for two years and not once during that time has he ever come out to speak to us,’ she said.
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