The National Party’s pre-election promise to buy back controversial coal-seam gas exploration licences on the northern rivers was a just another stunt’ to shore up support for its north coast MPs, according to state Labor.
The deadline for the petroleum exploration licence (PEL) buyback scheme, announced to great fanfare by the Nationals a week out of the election in March, is set to expire tomorrow (Tuesday).
But opposition energy spokesman Adam Searle says the coalition’s buyback scheme, the main plank in its much-touted ‘NSW Gas Plan’, has been exposed as ‘an act’ , with no announcement of the buyback in sight.
Nationals’ Lismore MP Thomas George, who almost lost his seat in the election after sustained regional opposition to CSG, remains silent on the issue.
The CSG issue dominated the election campaign on the north coast, and paved the way for the historic win by the Greens in the seat of Ballina, a former lifelong National Party electorate.
Mr Searle says the Baird government’s claim it was listening to community concern about CSG was a ‘PR stunt’, with the latest budget showing the PEL buyback scheme expires tomorrow.
‘This budget makes clear the PEL buy back scheme was just an election ploy by the government,’ he said.
‘At the last minute to midnight, the Liberals and Nationals twigged to the heavy opposition to the expansion of coal seam gas in NSW and cobbled together a plan to get through the election.
‘The end of the buyback scheme just confirms what communities knew from the start: the scheme was a disingenuous PR stunt.
‘The majority of the PELs reclaimed had no CSG stores worth extracting – the companies didn’t even want the licences anymore,’ Mr Searle said.
The attack comes just weeks after another move by the Nationals aimed at banning ban CSG in the region failed miserably at its state conference earlier this month.
Despite much publicity beforehand about the move, north coast Nationals MPs Mr George, Chris Gulaptis (Clarence), Geoff Provest (Tweed) and their leader and deputy premier Troy Grant, were left red-faced when not even a vote was taken on the issue after MPs supporting CSG from elsewhere in the state objected.
In March, Mr Grant, accompanied by Mr George in Lismore, announced the government would buy out PEL 445, which covers 70 per cent of Mr George’s electorate.
Around the same time, energy minister Anthony Roberts, announced that under under its new ‘gas plan’, the government, if re-elected, would extend its buy-back scheme for CSG licences until 30 June .
In a report in Fairfax Media at the time, Mr Grant denied the party was panicking before the election.
He said he was ‘extraordinarily cranky that Labor has the audacity to come up here to the northern rivers and make promises that they can’t keep and write cheques they can’t cash’.
Gasfield Free Northern Rivers co-ordinator Dean Draper described buyback plan for PEL 445 at the time as having ‘absolutely no substance, it’s a weak commitment to negotiate after the election’.