Metgasco Throws 'Tactical Court Tantrum' Over Northern Rivers Coal Seam Gas Rebuff

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The controversial coal seam gas company Metgasco has today announced it will sue the government for compensation over the illegal suspension of its drilling license near Bentley, where it will seek to resume drilling despite the certainty of further mass protests against the company.

Local residents of the Northern Rivers of New South Wales and their supporters have vowed to resume blockading the gas well, known as Rosella, and Metgasco Chief Executive Officer Peter Henderson called on the government to provide police backing to allow it to drill.

“We expect the government will provide all necessary police protection to allow the lawful activities to be undertaken safely and securely and we were given assurances in this respect as part of our discussions with government,” Henderson said in a release to the stock exchange this morning.

The company previously had its exploration license suspended by the state government after pressure from thousands of community members, who erected a blockade against gas extraction in the region. The dispute reached the point where the government was considering sending in 800 police to allow Metgasco access to the blockaded Rosella well.

However the government eventually capitulated, instead suspending Metgasco’s license for ‘lack of adequate consultation’, a decision which was later struck down in the New South Wales Supreme Court.

As a result of this illegal suspension, the company this morning revealed it plans on the “initiation of court action for damages from the New South Wales government in relation to its unlawful suspension of the company’s 2014 drilling program”.

The government has for months been in negotiations trying to chart a course forward in the wake of the court decision, which does not force coal seam gas activities on the unwilling Northern Rivers community, which the Greens, Labor, and effectively the Coalition Government, have promised to keep ‘gasfield free’.

The company will also seek a judicial review in the courts to have the petroleum exploration license which covers the Rosella test well renewed, a move which stems from previous complaints about the lost time and resources which resulted from community opposition and the government’s intervention.

It will also appeal to the courts for the award of a production license in the area, which is currently under consideration.

In a brief statement to media the New South Wales Minister for Energy and Resources, Anthony Roberts, said the government had noted Metgasco’s announcement's statement that it was willing to resume negotiations and said that “the government also remains ready to continue negotiations in good faith with Metgasco”.

However those negotiations will be contingent on a warning from Henderson that they would not come “at the expense of having to indefinitely suspend… business activities”.

New South Wales Greens Mining spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham (pictured below) hit back at Metgasco's announcement today, stating that his party supported the community which “will be there to meet [Metgasco] in large numbers and with determination to protect the land and water”.

“It’s outrageous and belligerent that this company would sue taxpayers for compensation and threaten to resume drilling when their social licence to operate in the Northern Rivers has so comprehensively been rejected,” Buckinham said.

Buckingham also hit out at the National Party, which suffered badly at the last state election over its support for the coal seam gas industry, and particularly Lismore MP Thomas George whose electorate takes in much of Metgasco’s interests in the region.

Buckingham said George had broken a promise to ensure the company’s licence was cancelled by June 30, and his colleague Tamara Smith, who took the neighbouring seat of Ballina at this year’s election largely on an anti-coal seam gas ticket, said she would “be standing on the frontline with the community at Bentley”.

A spokesperson for local opposition group Gasfield Free Northern Rivers and constitutional lawyer lecturing at Southern Cross University, Aidan Ricketts, said he believes Metgasco was engaging “mostly in a bargaining gambit”.

“They’re basically trying to screw the New South Wales government for as much taxpayer money as they can get; they’ve got frustrated with how slow that’s moving so they’re having a tantrum, pulling out of negotiations, and trying to force the government’s hand,” Ricketts said.

“But they could well be forcing the government’s hand to cancel the licences in the Northern Rivers.

“I tend to think, at least, the real place where the focus falls is on how weak the existing mining petroleum legislation is that it would even enable the company to make these sort of threats, and how weak the government is to not use its legislative powers to deal with this.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that the Northern Rivers would not put up with the return of Metgasco to Bentley. I don’t think anyone doubts that.”

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Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.

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