CSG Licenses Still In Mining Hands Despite Close Shave State Election For Thomas George

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Advocates of a ‘gas field free’ Northern Rivers have attacked Nationals MP Thomas George for not ensuring Metgasco’s controversial coal seam gas licences covering his Northern Rivers electorate of Lismore were bought back under a government scheme which has now closed.

The region descended into revolt last year as Metgasco sought to drill a test well near Bentley, and thousands of local community members blockaded the site to give affect to their determination to keep the region gas field free.

In an interview with New Matilda the day he was returned to office after a near-death experience at the polls earlier this year, George insisted the government had a sure-fire plan to ensure the community’s demand to remain CSG-free was met.

He said the Coalition would buy back the coal seam gas licences across the area. He noted that the government had cancelled Metgasco’s licence to drill at Bentley on the grounds of inadequate community consultation – a decision which it was being sued over at the time – and that it expected to win that case.

“When we buy back the PEL (Petroleum Exploration Licences), I have less than two per cent of my electorate covered by the PEL — it’s not an issue,” George said at the time.

When questioned yesterday, George said he had never put a date to when the licences would be bought back, and that he remained committed to making sure that happens. It seems clear, though, that he had hoped the licence would be regained by government under the buy-back scheme.

“The buyback scheme was a program in which PEL holders could approach government and surrender their license for a fixed fee, which was $212,500,” George said.

However the scheme closed Thursday, after an extension period from June 30. The coal seam gas exploration licenses in the Northern Rivers have not been relinquished by the companies that hold them, which has left many in the community angry at George and his neighbouring National MPs.

“The ending of that scheme does not preclude the government [from]negotiating with PEL holders,” George said yesterday. “Further PEL buy-backs from titleholders may be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

“As promised, I will continue to encourage the government to negotiate the purchase [of]PEL445s,” he said.

The government is now entangled in a fresh court battle with Metgasco, which is seeking compensation after its right to drill at Bentley earlier this year was upheld by the courts.

In the initial Supreme Court case, decided in late April this year, Justice Button ruled that the government’s claim the community had not been adequately consulted was not proper grounds for the suspension of its licence.

Making matters worse for George, who suffered a swing of more than 20 per cent in a traditional Nationals’ heartland, Metgasco announced plans this week to start a new program of seismic testing in the Rock Valley area, which forms part of George’s electorate.

At the time of the state election in late March, community anger over coal seam gas was reaching fever pitch, with some farmers even dumping cow dung out front of George’s electoral office, while the Greens ran a concerted campaign in lockstep with the anti-coal seam gas movement.

Adam Guise was the Greens’ candidate for Lismore at the last election, and he very nearly unseated George, while his running mate Tamara Smith took the neighbouring seat of Ballina. Yesterday, Guise told New Matilda that the National member’s failure to buy back the licenses was troublesome but not surprising.

“It is a bit disappointing considering how close the election was that a member can promise these things and not deliver on them, again,” Guise said.

“I think it just proves that the Nationals will lie and cheat to win elections and once they get into power they’ll do whatever they want and they won’t follow through with promises,” he said.

A spokesperson for the main community group opposing coal seam gas expansion into the region, Aidan Ricketts from Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, said George’s promises “were not particularly genuine”.

“He hasn’t applied himself to it in any visible way, he hasn’t kept people informed about it,” Ricketts said.

“All we get from the government is ‘oh yeah, don’t worry about those [PELs] they’re still under negotiation, so we can’t say anything’. There’s this veil of secrecy that shrouds coal seam gas in the Northern Rivers,” he said.

A spokesperson for the New South Wales Energy and Resources Minister, Anthony Roberts said “the government is engaged in good faith negotiations with Metgasco, however the negotiations are confidential during this process”.

While that occurs, Metgasco’s Supreme Court bid for compensation continues. The company has requested police assistance in its expected return to Bentley. A repeat of last year’s fiasco – which saw the government consider sending 800 police to enforce the company’s right to drill against thousands of protestors – looms large.

The community insists it will return to the Bentley blockade if and when Metgasco attempts to drill, but the government is hoping it doesn’t come to that as it maintains that its plan to wind back licenses issued by Labor is working.

“Opponents of the NSW Gas Plan PEL buy-back scheme claimed it wouldn’t work, yet 16 licenses have been bought-back and cancelled and reduced the footprint of CSG across the state from more than 60 per cent to just 8.5 per cent,” Roberts’ spokesperson said.

As one of those critics, Ricketts said that the situation “demonstrates that the Gas Plan is pretty much broken because all they’ve managed to do is buy out all the defunct licenses companies wanted to sell, but it does nothing about the licenses the community are actually worried about”.

Ricketts noted that Labor and the Greens have reached a bipartisan position to legislate to make the Northern Rivers ‘gasfield free’, by repealing Metgasco’s licenses and offering the company a set sum in compensation.

In contrast, the Coalition government is unwilling to go so far as to legislate to scrap the Northern Rivers PELs amidst concerns over perceptions of ‘sovereign risk’.

“We have outlined our Strategic Release Framework, under the NSW Gas Plan, that is a triple bottom line assessment of economic, social and environmental facts with community consultation conducted upfront and we believe this is the best path forward for NSW,” Roberts’ spokesperson said.

As well as a community spokesperson, Ricketts is an expert in constitutional law who lectures at Southern Cross University, and he said the government clearly has the power to legislate as Labor, The Greens, local councils and the community are demanding.

He noted that the Coalition government is quite willing to compulsorily acquire people’s homes to make way for motorways, but they’re not willing to do the same to mining companies, although he maintains the same legal principles apply.

“It’s in the DNA of the Liberal Party the sanctity of private property – and that’s the problem,” he said.

Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.

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