Residential buffer zone re-examined as state hosts ‘summit’ to discuss economic problems caused by gas supply shortage
New South Wales is under intense pressure to water down tough coal seam gas regulations announced before the federal election as the Abbott government vows “anarchist” anti-CSG protesters who disrespect the law will not sway its determination to kick-start the industry.
As protests to proposed new coal seam gas wells escalated before the federal election, the NSW government, with the encouragement of the then federal Coalition resources spokesman, Ian Macfarlane, and to the dismay of the gas industry, announced that no exploration or drilling would occur within 2km of a residential area, a proposed residential area or “critical industry clusters” such as horse studs and vineyards.
But the rules were never gazetted nor explained in detail. A spokeswoman for the NSW planning minister, Brad Hazzard, said on Monday that the NSW government “hoped to finalise [the rules] shortly” in response to feedback from the public, but added that they were “just one important part of the government’s overall package of CSG regulations”.
The NSW resources minister, Chris Hartcher, is hosting a “summit” on Thursday about the economic problems facing the state because of its gas supply shortage, which the industry blames primarily on the state government’s own restrictive and unpredictable planning rules.
The former Labor resources minister Martin Ferguson and the Business Council of Australia president, Tony Shepherd, will join industry leaders at the summit to discuss NSW’s looming energy security “crisis”.
Macfarlane, now the federal industry minister, told Guardian Australia that while he had said NSW needed a buffer zone “the bottom line is … it needs to be a buffer from major urban population centres not from hamlets, and the gas companies are saying the system in NSW right now is simply not practical or workable”.
Macfarlane said he wanted “a sound rational policy based on science and facts, with an understanding of community concerns and values, but it will not be dictated by anarchists, people who have no respect for the rule of law, people who chain themselves to other people’s vehicles – that is not the way I do business.”
But Drew Hutton, president of the Lock the Gate alliance of farmers and environmentalists opposed to coal seam gas wells, said blockades and tactics of non-violent non co-operation – including protesters locking themselves to vehicles – would continue.
And Hutton accused Macfarlane of “back-flipping completely” on what he had said about coal seam gas regulation before the election.
Releasing footage of a speech given by Macfarlane in April in which he took some credit for the buffer zone idea and promised to back farmers who wanted to stop CSG wells on their land, Hutton accused Macfarlane of “a brazen act of political deceit”.
Macfarlane said the gas industries’ problems in NSW were caused by both the length of time it took for the state government to grant permits and the restrictive buffer zone and planning rules.
He said the rules in Queensland and NSW should be the same, and that the Queensland deputy premier, Jeff Seeney, was reviewing that state’s buffer zone.
“My message to NSW is you will run out of gas and you will lose thousands of jobs in NSW if you do not act,” Macfarlane said.
“I am not saying where it should come from, perhaps it will come from [Santos’ proposed CSG wells] in the Pilliga forest, perhaps shale gas from South Australia will be piped over, but there is a large and rapidly looming gap in NSW gas supply and if we don’t fill it we’ll be losing jobs in Sydney and Wollongong and Newcastle.”
A spokesman for the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association said the industry believed that “reactive policies such as the blanket exclusion zones need to be replaced with regulation that is effective, efficient, transparent, and based on science”.
When he announced the buffer zone in February, the NSW premier, Barry O’Farrell, insisted it was not a pre-election ploy and dismissed claims it could result in rising power prices.
“I am not surprised at push-back from business … [but] business, like our children, needs boundaries,” O’Farrell said at the time.
The NSW government gave Santos approval for eight exploration wells in the vast Pilliga forest in north-west NSW. The company says its proposed CSG operation could supply 25% of the state’s gas needs. Santos, Chevron and Beach Energy have investments in prospective shale gas fields in South Australia.
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