The NSW Government's release of its Strategic Land Use Policy does nothing to allay the concerns of those worried about the long-term impacts of both coal seam gas and coal mining.
Some concerns which have already been identified about this complex policy are listed below.
Firstly, despite farmers' hopes of real protection being afforded to prime agricultural land, no farming land has been quarantined from mining in areas already mapped as Strategic Agricultural Land in the Upper Hunter and New England Northwest regions. Mapping is still to be done elsewhere, including the North Coast – but obviously the government has decided that no farm land, however important for food production, will be quarantined from mining anywhere in the state. The fact that licences have been renewed on the North Coast before the area has been mapped suggests that the mapping is mere window dressing.
Secondly, the moratorium on fracking (hydraulic fracturing of rock to release gas) has been dropped. The Government has introduced a code of practice for this controversial activity but just how effective this will be in preventing the introduction of toxic chemicals into gas wells or in preventing damage to aquifers remains to be seen.
Thirdly, the policy fails dismally to deal with the major issue of disposal of the large volumes of wastewater (usually heavily polluted) produced as a result of CSG mining. This water is usually contained in evaporation ponds which may be effective in dry times but which can fail in wet weather or when too much water is produced. Overflows lead to pollution of surrounding land and streams and vegetation death.
The Government has renamed these evaporation ponds 'temporary holding ponds'. Just how temporary they will be is questionable. We saw this same "temporary" exercise in semantics and spin in relation to a wastewater pond outside Casino in June. (The Government had banned construction of CSG evaporation ponds in July 2011 but, despite this, construction of a pond was permitted outside Casino some months ago. The Government claimed that this pond was a "holding pond" approved by Richmond Valley Council. See CVCC Blog Post on CSG Protest near Casino )
Fourthly, the policy gives no protection to important conservation lands. The biodiversity hotspot of the Pilliga(in central NSW), which has already suffered from poor management practice by CSG miners, continues to be in danger. Leard State Forest, another important area which was mapped as tier one biodiversity land, is destined to be bulldozed for an open cut coal mine.
Fifthly, the release of the Strategic Land Use Policy has pre-empted the Governments' response to the Report of the Legislative Council Inquiry into Coal Seam Gas. The Report tabled on 1st May contained 35 recommendations for Government action. The Government's response is due on 1st November. See NSW Parliament Coal Seam Gas Inquiry website
The reaction to the announcement of the Government's policy from a range of community interests has shown, yet again, how out of touch this Government is with the community it is supposed to be representing.
The strength of opposition to coal seam gas mining in parts of the NSW North Coast was clearly demonstrated in a referendum conducted earlier this month during local council elections in the Lismore Local Government Area (LGA). 87% opposed CSG mining in the Lismore LGA.
It is unlikely that the community will accept Planning Minister Brad Hazzard's claim that the government has the "right balance to protect agricultural land, water and the environment."
Obviously the Government's spin doctors will have a busy time trying to convince the community that it has not been seriously "dudded" in the interests of the miners.