Thursday, 23 June 2011

Coal Seam Gas Mining and the Law

Proposals for new gas wells are creating unlikely allies. Not only are farmers and environmentalists united in their concerns about the potential impacts on the environment, they are also worried about potential social impacts as drilling rigs are moved around on local roads and placed within earshot of houses with little or no consultation.

The regulatory framework for gas mining in NSW is 20 years old but it is only now, with the booming interest in developing the state’s gas reserves, that its deficiencies are obvious. We can look at Queensland to see how bad things can get, with pollution of ground and surface waters, clearing of wildlife habitat, interference with farming activities, and leakages so severe that water bores can catch alight.

The current laws in NSW will not stop the same things happening here.

The law is particularly slack when it comes to assessing potential impacts in the exploratory phase. All stages of exploration, including pilot production wells, can be approved without public consultation. Local government is consulted but powerless to stop it.

Full production requires a publicly exhibited assessment of potential environmental impacts but, because these are likely to be of state significance, the decision again is taken out of the hands of local councils and there are limited grounds for appeal. An appeal against the approval of 100 production wells around Gloucester, currently before the Land and Environment Court, is a test case.

A number of councils, including some on the north coast, are demanding law reform to tighten the regulatory framework for gas mining, and a moratorium on all mining until this occurs. This would be consistent with the precautionary principle, a fundamental tenet of sustainable development. 

The NSW Government’s introduction of a 60 day freeze on new exploration licences is unlikely to satisfy these demands, given that 75% of the state is already covered by licences.

            - J Cavanaugh