In my blog on coal seam gas (CSG) on 31 March, I mentioned that the newly elected New South Wales government had promised to apply a tougher assessment process to mining and coal seam gas extraction.
Politically, this is going to be difficult task for the NSW government. They will have to balance their two major political party interests – farming and big business. Exactly the two sides lined up against each other on the CSG debate.
As a water scientist, I have highlighted concerns that unregulated CSG mining might impact on surface and groundwater resources in mining regions. Given the scarcity of water already for agriculture in these areas, this is something we probably cannot afford to let happen (see also my Blog on Groundwater and CSG on 14 April).
On 21 May, the NSW government acted on their promise, announcing a 60 day moratorium on new exploration and licence issue. But was this really an act of a government committed to policy reform on a tough issue, or just one trying to buy some time? As Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said at the weekend “60 days is nothing, these projects take three years, I don’t know what they are doing down there (in NSW)”.
More substantially, also included in their new policy statement, the NSW government will require all new coal, gas and petroleum licence applications to submit an ‘Agricultural Impact Assessment’. Perhaps a reasonable thing to do, but I doubt that already existing ‘Environmental Impact Assessments’ (EIAs) have stopped too many mining projects in this country in the past 30 years, so perhaps we should not expect too much more from the, yet undefined, ‘AIAs’.
The Deputy Premier of NSW, Andrew Stoner said the aim is to reform legislation so that mining does not override agricultural values.
The government’s statements in May were welcomed by groups including the NSW Farmers Association, which said it looks forward to further discussions. However, the statement hasn’t calmed the strong concerns that have built-up in people who may be directly affected. In fact, more and more people are anxious, with exploration looking likely in the water catchments for Sydney’s main water supply dam ‘Warragamba’, as well as in prime agricultural land across the eastern half of the state.
Federal opposition resources spokesman, Ian MacFarlane, has weighed into the debate saying that he was “utterly appalled that exploration permits were being granted over residential areas”, according to quotes in last Saturday’s The Australian newspaper. MacFarlane’s federal electorate in southern Queensland covers areas affected by CSG development
In its announcement on 21 May, the NSW government also committed to introducing an ‘Aquifer Interference Regulation’ to “…better regulate activities that impact on our vital aquifers.” The existing definition of aquifer interference relates only to the extraction of silica sands and road-base material.
Setting and, more importantly, enforcing regulations on aquifer impacts from CSG extraction is not going to be easy, given the lack of good groundwater monitoring data in many parts of NSW and Queensland.
The new NSW CSG policy in NSW is also silent on the key issue of possible impacts of pumped groundwater, potentially high in salt and other contaminants, when it is stored on the surface or released into local streams (accidentally or intentionally) (see my 31 March blog for more on this)
There have been several very well attended public meetings across NSW over the last few weeks, and the public temperature is certainly rising on CSG, especially in affected rural areas.
This issue is certainly not going to go away.