The state government has announced it has extended the controversial CSG Petroleum Exploration Licence (PEL) buyback scheme by three months, with energy minister Anthony Roberts saying he was in ‘extended negotiations’ with a number of licence-holders.
The announcement follows concerted pressure on the government over the scheme, which was introduced in the dying days of the March election campaign, and is widely considered responsible for the narrow victory of Lismore Nationals MP Thomas George.
The government has trumpeted the success of the scheme, which has seen 12 PELs bought back, most of them from so-called two-dollar companies.
On Monday night the Knitting Nannas Against Gas camped outside Mr George’s office to highlight the failure of the scheme to acquire either of the two major licence holdings in the northern rivers: PEL 445, which covers much of the state seat of Lismore, and various PELs owned by Metgasco, which had its Bentley licence suspended in June last year.
The passing of the deadline without acquisition of either of the licence-holders also led other political parties to wade into the debate.
Greens Ballina MP Tamara Smith said that the failed CSG-buyback plan ‘demonstrates legislation is needed to cancel coal seam gas licences across the northern rivers’.
‘I have twice asked questions in the parliament of the energy minister Anthony Roberts about the CSG buyback plan,’ Ms Smith said.
‘I am concerned that with the deadline passing, there is a real risk the government will allow the sale and transfer of PEL 445 to proceed,’ she added.
‘The Greens have draft legislation in the parliament and are prepared to negotiate to ensure the government has the power to cancel licences without compensation. The companies have had their chance, but at the end of the day the community, the land, water and environment need to come first on this issue,’ Ms Smith said.
Her colleague Greens mining spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham has gone even further, calling for Mr George to resign over the failure.
George ‘shut down debate’
‘At the time the promise to buy back the licence was made, I said that it was simply Thomas George trying to con voters, one week out from an election, into believing he had a significant response to the widespread opposition to CSG in the region and sadly today this has been proved correct,’ Mr Buckingham said..
‘This broken promise follows the shocking revelation that it was Thomas George who actually shut down debate on a proposal at the National Party conference to ban coal seam gas in the northern rivers,’ he added.
Shadow minister for energy Adam Searle said, the Liberals and Nationals had been ‘completely disingenuous about their so-called commitment to protect the north coast from CSG’.
‘Nationals MP Thomas George is ducking and weaving, offering all sorts of excuses – but all signs are pointing to this buyback pledge being just a cheap pre-election stunt.
‘The minister’s assertion [on radio this morning] that the scheme was extended “due to the ongoing interest of titleholders” raises immediate concern as the focus should surely be on the north coast community,’ Mr Searle said.
Mr Roberts announced the extension in an interview ABC North Coast this morning but declined to be drawn on whether he was in negotiations with either of the licence-holders in the northern rivers.
PEL ‘not transferred’
Dart Energy, the former owners of PEL 445, agreed in March to sell the licence to CSG mining equipment company AJ Lucas but Mr Roberts has confirmed that ownership not been transferred and the department has yet to be asked for approval for a transfer.
‘We extended the scheme owing to the ongoing interest of title-holders,’ Mr Roberts told ABC radio this morning.
‘As you’d be aware, it is a significant decision for title-holders and that’s why we have to extend the scheme to give them the time that they require,’ he said.
‘We’ve made it quite clear to these licence-holders that they have an opportunity to come to us as part of this buyback option, before we start to move forward as part of the gas plan where they will be subject to “use it or lose it” provisions,’ he added.
‘We’re not going to approve the transfer of PEL 445 until we’ve exhausted potential buyback negotiations.’
While Mr Roberts said he was still in negotiation with ‘a number of title-holders’ he would not identify which ones, citing ‘commercial in confidence’ provisions. Nor would he say whether the government intended to buy back PEL 445.
‘But the reason we’ve extended the buyback period is because it’s a very successful program,’ he said.
Mr Roberts said discussions with Metgasco regarding compensation following the company’s Supreme Court win over the suspension of its Bentley PEL were ‘ongoing’.
‘We all want a mutually agreeable solution to this. Negotiations are ongoing. It’s something we’re taking extremely seriously. It’s a priority for this government. Those negotiations will continue but, to be fair, they are commercial in confidence and it’s inappropriate for me to comment further on it,’ he told ABC radio this morning.