Last week gas company Metgasco had their drilling rights for an exploratory well in the Northern Rivers reinstated after the NSW Supreme Court quashed a Baird government bid to suspend the company’s licence.
Now, Metgasco wants to move back in on the Rosella gas well at Bentley, which last year attracted thousands of blockaders who eventually succeeded in turning the company away.
The uproar prompted election promises from Labor and the Greens to make the district ‘gasfield free’ and eventually caused the government to cancel the licence on the grounds of inadequate community consultation.
In a judgment handed down on Friday Justice Button ruled that, in spite of the fact the community may not have liked the outcome of consultation, the government’s moves to suspend the licence due to its alleged inadequacy were unlawful.
A spokesperson for Metgasco, who works for Citadel public relations, did not deny there was very strong opposition to the company’s activities, but maintained “it’s got nothing to do with opposition”.
“You know what, they have a licence to do it, they’re allowed to,” the spokesperson said.
“They’ve paid money for a licence, they’re legally allowed to do it, so why would you not do it?
“What would be the point of having a company? If your reason for being was to explore for gas, why would you not do it?
“People don’t like lots of things, and they still happen.”
The spokesperson said that opposition to developments – shopping centres, for instance – are sometimes opposed but go ahead anyway, and suggested the situation at Bentley was analogous.
“Your idea that if people don’t like things then they don’t happen, if that was pursued further,” the spokesperson said, “then we wouldn’t have any bridges or roads”.
The spokesperson subsequently asked not to be quoted on those views, but Metgasco’s indication that it wants to start drilling in around three months time necessarily requires a similar perception of the opposition from the community, at least two local mayors, the Greens, Labor and the local member.
Now that Metgasco’s court challenge is over and it is keen to start drilling, the ball is in the government’s court.
In suspending the licence and defending the decision in court, it has made clear it does not think the exploration should go ahead, and the Minister for Natural Resources and Mines, Anthony Roberts, issued a statement on Friday advising the government “is awaiting legal advice” before it responds to the judgment.
Aiden Ricketts, a spokesperson for Gasfield Free Northern Rivers who lectures in law at Southern Cross University, said his “reading of the judgment is, in a sense, that the government’s Gas Pan is in tatters because they’ve lost control of the industry”.
“Up to a few months before the Bentley blockade there was a section in the Petroleum (Onshore) Act that basically gave the government a power to cancel a gas licences on the basis of public interest.”
He said there was no test for ‘public interest’, meaning that the clause would effectively have empowered the minister to cancel the licence without risking a court challenge.
But Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, along with Labor and the Greens, wants a specific piece of legislation to prevent gas developments in the region.
Ricketts said that while “the government may not do that, a middle position it could and should adopt” is the reintroduction of a public interest test.
“Under the existing legislation,” Rickets said, “they’ve basically got one arm tied behind their back”.
As the law currently stands the government will be required to pay compensation – which the minister has signalled a willingness to do – if it cancels Metgasco’s exploration licence.
In light of the court ruling and associated delays, Metgasco is now making further demands for a four-year extension of the licence.
Rickets said that, given there will need to be negotiations over compensation, the government should introduce new legislation so that it enters those discussions with “some sort of power in its hands”.
“Now they’ve got a situation of a company that’s saying we’ve got the piece of paper, we won in court, we don’t care what the government says.”
CEO of Metgasco, Peter Henderson, has stated in the wake of the decision that the company will need police protection to carry out its activities in the face of resurgent community opposition.
Henderson’s statements follow revelations last year that at the height of the blockade the government had planned to send 800 police to Bentley to manage the vast crowds camped out to prevent drilling equipment being installed at the exploration site.
“The government needs to have some sort of power in its hands to say that’s an unreasonable situation,” Ricketts said.
“[Metgasco] get the bare legal right to come in, they [will]get another massive civil protest.
“Is the government going to throw police at it or are they going to say ‘you’re on your own’?”
He said that the community is ready to restart the blockade as soon as they “see real evidence that something physical was going to happen on the ground”.
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