Environmentalists have slammed the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure for recommending approval for an additional coal seam gas (CSG) borehole in the Illawarra, south of Sydney.
Apex Energy was granted approval to drill 15 CSG exploration boreholes in the region in 2009, and last September applied to drill a 16th well to determine the extent of its gas deposits in the area. The proposed borehole lies within the Woronora Catchment Special Area, which is land set aside to protect the water supply to southern Sydney and Wollongong.
Peter Turner from the Northern Illawarra Sustainability Alliance says the decision contradicts the state government’s attempts to assess the impact of CSG mining in NSW.
"They’ve made this recommendation for approval only shortly after the NSW Coal Seam Gas Inquiry started," he told New Matilda. "This is an inquiry that’s supposed to determine the impacts of coal seam gas mining. It hasn’t made any determination, and yet the Department of Planning has gone ahead and said yeah it’s okay you can go exploring for coal seam gas mining … that’s just crazy."
The Sydney Catchment Authority, the Office of Environment and Heritage, and the NSW Office of Water have all raised objections to the company’s proposal.
There were also 1045 members of the public who made submissions to the department in response to the borehole application.
Dave Burgess from the Total Environment Centre says the recommended approval undermines the authority of the government bodies set up to protect the state’s water catchments.
"There’s no doubt that Sydney Catchment Authority, Environment and Heritage, and the Office of Water are finding it very difficult to report accurately on what they see as happening in the Sydney water catchment. In fact they’re finding it very difficult to fulfil certain obligations of their governing Acts," says Burgess. "Approvals of additional boreholes and experimental wells, whether it’s right or wrong, generally lead the proponent (Apex in this case) to an expectation that a full development will one day occur."
The NSW Office of Water also raised concerns about the company’s longer term objective of producing commercial quantities of coal seam gas. The department rejected its calls for a groundwater monitoring program to be established on the basis that it would involve further surface disturbance to protected areas.
The Office of Environment and Heritage raised concerns that vegetation clearing for the borehole would have an impact on the Prickly Bush-pea, a threatened plant species found only in the area. However, the department concluded that the administrative costs of a proposed offset strategy for the plant would outweigh any potential benefits.
Chris Lawrence from Apex Energy told New Matilda that the company has adequately addressed environmental concerns cited in the submissions sent to the Department of Planning.
"We believe those matters raised have been satisfactorily addressed, as confirmed by [the department]. The nature of the extensive approvals process is iterative, where each of the authorities has input and any issues are addressed, sometimes requiring modification to aspects of a proposal and/or applying further conditions to an approval," Lawrence said.
"Apex believes, as should be confirmed by the approval authorities, that the extensive environmental assessment has identified any potential risks to the environment by the proposed activities, and they will have been adequately addressed."
However the proposed borehole faces a potential roadblock from the Sydney Catchment Authority (SCA), even if approved by the Planning Assessment Commission.
Because the propsed borehole lies in a SCA Special Area, the authority must approve Apex’s plan before it can grant land access to the site.
"For Apex Energy to be allowed access to drill the exploration bores located on SCA and [National Parks and Wildlife Service] land, the SCA requires the company to prepare an Environmental Management Plan to ensure water quality and the ecological values of the Special Areas are protected. Works can’t start without the SCA approving the plan," said an SCA spokesperson.
The application has been referred to the Planning Assessment Commission.
It will host a public meeting in Helensburgh on Monday 17 October to hear concerns from the general public prior to determining whether or not the project will go ahead.
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