NSW Rubber Stamps Gas Drilling


The NSW Department of Primary Industries was "uncertain" about environmental impacts of coal seam gas drilling in St Peters when it approved an application by Macquarie Energy, now a subsidiary of Australian multinational Dart Energy.

Documents released as a result of a freedom of information request under the Government Information (Public Access) Act by No Coal Seam Gas Mining in Sydney spokesperson Jacinta Green reveal that the drilling licence approval process relied on a department officer rating risks to the community and environment as high, medium, low or uncertain. These ratings depended on the company’s own assessment.

According to the department’s approval document, dated March 2010, the drilling operation could intersect with the Botany aquifer which lies under the St Peters site. The department officer accepted the company’s claim that the drill will be "solid cased" but was "uncertain" about whether the environment could withstand the impacts, whether they could be reversed or whether the drilling complies with water standards.

Although no further studies were recommended, the officer found impacts could be "fully" mitigated.

The department was "uncertain" whether the operation complied with "standards, plans and policies" for air quality, "greenhouse impacts", and the use of "surface and ground water". It was confident the environment was "highly resilient" to "sediment laden water run-off" while it was "uncertain" about whether damage could be reversed or whether it complied with standards.

The department rated community concern over environmental impacts as "low" on all environmental issues.

Green says this is "pure fiction". When the approval document was prepared, "community concern was non-existent as no-one in the community knew that this proposal existed". There had been no consultation or even notification to community members or local councils.

Green told New Matilda the documents highlight why communities "have a right to be outraged at the complete disregard for impacts on the air, soil, water, environment and communities".

"While the present government cannot be held accountable for what was approved previously, this document highlights exactly why we need a halt on all CSG activity until we are ‘certain’ about the impacts on the environment including water, have some idea of mitigation," she said.

NSW Department of Primary Industries Environmental officer Michael McFadyen told New Matilda yesterday that while he signed off on the approval, another officer was responsible for the assessment. He said that the documents need to be explained "in context" and that he would respond to written questions to the Department of Trade and Investment Regional Infrastructure and Services (TIRIS, which now includes Primary Industries). New Matilda has sent questions about the approvals to TIRIS and will report on answers later.

Dart fails transparency test
Twenty-six of 58 documents concerning CSG approvals have been withheld by the department because Dart Energy does not want them released on grounds that they could prejudice the company’s commercial interests until its application to renew its licence is finalised later this year. This is in stark contrast to their recent public statement in which the company claimed to be "entirely transparent in its operations and to share information openly with local communities and regulators alike".

The department has agreed with the company that it will not release five documents including a brief of the company’s decision to vary its work program and several letters between the government and the company. (The company had originally intended to drill in St Peters this year but have now decided not to drill in Sydney until 2012. They are pressing ahead at Putty near Singleton in the Hunter Valley and Fullerton Cove in Newcastle.) The Government was prepared to release 21 other letters and documents but Dart has requested a review of this decision which will delay their release for at least several more weeks.

Community campaigners, who are arguing that no further licences should be granted until the safety of coal seam gas drilling has been independently proved, say the variation to works documents could contain crucial information about the scope and timing of work which should be released to the community.

Missing from the list of existing documents altogether is a report which the company was required to file as a condition of its licence. Another document recording minutes of the Exploration Titles Committee in 2008 appears to be unavailable because it has been "deleted".

The documents do add a little to who drove Dart’s successful bid for an exploration license across the entire Sydney basis and parts of Northern NSW.

As well as lodging a $25,000 deposit for the license, Dart had to lodge information about their capacity to pay for the $1.6 million St Peters’ drilling operation. The two statements were lodged by Stuart Rose, best known for his management role in controversial developer Rose Developments, which is seeking to develop the heritage coastal town of Catherine Hill Bay, and the Hardie Group, associated with Duncan Hardie, who until 2009 was associated with Huntlee New Town, the largest residential development in NSW. Both these companies struck problems when the NSW Land and Environment court found that their land swaps with the NSW government in exchange for development approvals were unlawful. The Hardie group and Stuart Rose each had a 20 per cent interest in Macquarie Energy. Their companies provided letters to the NSW Department of Primary industries in 2008 providing required assurances that they would have no trouble coming up with $300,000 each towards the cost of the St Peters’ drill. Both these companies were big donors to the Labor party during the NSW Labor government years. Macquarie Energy was taken over by Dart Energy last year.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.