Gas plan falls short of Chief Scientist's recommendations and community sentiment

Published: November 13, 2014

The NSW Gas Plan released today falls well short of the recommendations by the Chief Scientist and of community sentiment on coal seam gas mining, and won't solve popular unrest on the issue, according to Lock the Gate Alliance.  

While the NSW Government claims to have agreed to implement all 16 recommendations of the Chief Scientist, their actual detailed response does no such thing.

"There are some important steps forward in this plan, but overall it doesn't deliver on community demands and it also falls well short of many of the Chief Scientist recommendations" said Georgina Woods, spokesperson for Lock the Gate Alliance.

"We have developed a seven point test against which to assess the plan, and it comes up short on most of them.  Most notably, the plan does absolutely nothing to protect important areas within existing CSG licence areas.  There are no new protections for water resources or farmlands.

"This means it is still just open slather across existing licence areas for risky CSG mining. 

"There are no improved safeguards for human health in this plan and rural families are still going to be forced to live just 200m from CSG wells.

"There is also no apparent improvement in community rights in this response.  The NSW Government seems intent on using compensation to buy community support, but they've done nothing to stop landholders and communities being forced into giving access against their will.

"We're also very disappointed that the Government hasn't delivered a standing expert body as recommended by the Chief Scientist.

"We're extremely concerned to see that approvals for exploration activities will be handed over to the Minister for Resources and Energy.  That's putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, and appears to run directly counter to recommendations from the Chief Scientist.

"On a happier note, we are pleased to see cancellation of exploration applications and improved processes on exploration but the same processes should apply to existing licences.  Delivering more independent regulation is also a step forward.

"The people of Gloucester, Narrabri, Camden and the Northern Rivers, who are directly threatened by unconventional gas mining right now, get little or nothing out of this. 

"The entire plan is based on the false premise that there is a gas supply shortage, when it is abundantly clear that eastern Australia has vast reserves of gas slated for export, and there are plenty of options for NSW to access energy without putting our land and water at risk" she said.

Rapid review of the Gas Plan against our seven point test.

1.     Has the horse already bolted?

Whilst the plan purports to update environmental regulation for projects already within the planning process, most of the reforms it delivers only apply to exploration so there is in fact very little change for existing licence areas.  It looks like full steam ahead for the Gloucester and Narrabri projects.

2.     Will sensitive environments be protected?

The NSW Gas Plan does nothing to restrict CSG mining within existing licence areas, despite the Chief Scientist recommending that it should only be allowed in 'carefully designated' areas.  So there is nothing new in this to protect crucial water supplies such as drinking water catchments or recharge zones for the Great Artesian Basin.

3.     Will human health be safeguarded?

There are no new protections for human health in the Gas Plan, nor is there any requirement for improved health assessments prior to CSG mining commencing despite the Chief Scientist recognising there was major uncertainty about health impacts.  Rural families will still be forced to live just 200m from gas wells.

4.     Will the rights of landholders and communities be improved?

There is no apparent improvement in the rights of landholders and communities to make their own energy choices, or to appeal to the courts against poor decisions by government.  The proposed compensation measures are no substitute for responding to the democratic demands of entire regions such as the Northern Rivers for CSG licences in their regions to be cancelled. 

5.     Will there be a 'world class' regime and an independent regulator with teeth?

There is nothing to indicate that the regime will be 'world class'.  Any genuine 'world class' regime would have to be based on the principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development, in order to meet national and international obligations, but there is no reference to that in the Plan.  It is good to see compliance and enforcement handed to the EPA, but they will need to markedly lift their performance and increase penalties to represent genuine disincentives to gas companies.

6.     Will there be a new era of rigorous monitoring and transparency?

The Plan falls short on the standing expert committee recommended by the Chief Scientist.  Such expertise was clearly considered fundamental to improve the scientific assessment and monitoring of the industry, and without it, there is every reason to be concerned the reforms promised will not be delivered.  The Federal Independent Expert Scientific Committee clearly does not have the capacity or the knowledge of NSW needed to deliver the scrutiny required.

7.     Will the risks lie with taxpayers or CSG companies?

The Government response in relation to delivering strong and rigorous insurance protections and an environmental rehabilitation fund as recommended by the Chief Scientist was very ambivalent, committing only to 'further consider' the matter.  That means there is a good chance landholders, communities and taxpayers will continue to bear the financial risk of unsafe CSG mining.

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