Late in 2015 the NSW Government reached agreement with gas-mining company Metgasco about a buy-back of its petroleum exploration licences in the Northern Rivers of NSW. This followed years of community protests against coal seam gas and unconventional gas mining with major campaigns at Glenugie near Grafton, Doubtful Creek near Kyogle and which culminated in massive protest at Bentley close to Casino and Lismore.
The agreement with Metgasco effectively meant that the Northern Rivers became gasfield free. This was what community groups like Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, Lock the Gate and the Knitting Nannas Against Gas had been aiming for in the Northern Rivers area. And local National Party MPs like Chris Gulaptis, Member for Clarence, assured the community that the area indeed was and would continue to be gasfield free.
However, since then community members have learnt about a number of developments that cast considerable doubt on these assurances.
On February 9 2016 the Lismore-based paper The Northern Star published a story about NSW Mining Minister Anthony Roberts stating that the NSW Government intended to unlock new coal seam gas reserves "to local mining companies that will supply into local markets rather than export".
In support of this plan Minister Roberts claimed that NSW last year had come within a hair's breadth of "catastrophic" gas shortages because of a lack of a local supply.
This is a repetition of the spurious arguments that were used by the Government during the Northern Rivers community campaign to declare this part of the state gasfield free. It completely ignored the fact that NSW had a very plentiful supply of gas from interstate and there was no danger of gas shortages, catastrophic or otherwise.
The next development which caused concern was the release of the NSW Department of Planning's Regional Plan.The Draft North Coast Regional Plan which was put on exhibition in March is the "proposed blueprint" for the next 20 years. According to the foreword it "outlines a vision, goals and actions that focus on a sustainable future for the region as it grows that protects the environment, builds a prosperous community and offers attractive lifestyle choices for residents."
The Draft Plan also states clearly that gas mining in the Clarence -Moreton Basin is still on the agenda. "The North Coast also includes areas of the Clarence-Moreton Basin, which has potential coal seam gas resources that may be able to support the development and growth of new industries and provide economic benefits for the region..." It also states that the NSW Department of Industry is mapping coal and coal seam gas resources in the region.
If the two developments above were insufficient to cause community concern about the government's intentions, early in May the community learned of another indication of the government's desire to restart gas-mining in the region. Marketing material, prepared by NSW Trade and Investment bureaucrats, was presented in March to a mining conference in Toronto attended by thousands of mining investors from more than 100 countries.
Investors were told that a 16,000 sq km area of the Northern Rivers, the Clarence-Moreton Basin, "has very good petroleum potential" and that almost all the wells drilled have yielded gas or oil.
Was the marketing promotion a "bureaucratic error" as claimed by some local politicians? In the very unlikely event that it was, it indicates that the Government is performing very poorly in communicating its policies to the bureaucracy. Presumably the inclusion of gas-mining in the Draft Regional Plan was also a "bureaucratic error".
The Northern Rivers community has good reason to be very suspicious of the Baird Government's commitment to a gasfield free Northern Rivers.