Foster Community Assoc.

Interview: NSW Farmers Association on Coal Seam Gas

As we are all grappling with what the prospect of Coal Seam Gas exploration and mining will mean to our farmers and farm land in South Gippsland, Brianna Casey, Senior Policy Manager for the NSW Farmers Association, explains how coal seam gas exploration impacts on farm land across NSW, including the food bowl of the Liverpool Plains.  Here she is interviewed by Ruby Vincent for A Question of Balance on Community Radio 2ser, 107.3 fm.

Click here to listen to the interview.  … it’s an interview worth sharing.

Overview of the interview

As in the controversy over coal seam gas in The Pilliga, critically important farming areas across the state also have an issue with land use. There are two factors affecting land use in the Liverpool Plains. One is the increasing urbanisation of rural land and the other is mining and coal seam gas exploration, both directly competing with agriculturists. What makes the matter worse is that there is no strategic plan for these different competitive activities.

The Sydney Basin itself is a prime example of good farming land now being used for homes and industries, shrinking an already finite reserve of land suitable for farming. Having made that mistake, there are still those who view the short term economic benefits of housing and coal seam gas as a good thing, rather than seeing the economic benefits of long term, productive farmlands. It makes much more sense for agriculturists to use the land that is most productive rather than consigned to the rural fringes where water and transport become more of a problem and more costly.

Farmers have very little capacity to pass on increased costs to buyers like the supermarket chains, squeezing their own profits. Unfortunately, in New South Wales, the places where the best coal and coal seam gas are also those areas most suitable for farming.

While coal seam gas exploration is still relatively new in this state, Queensland has rushed to embrace it so the situation there is being monitored and even though the industry is still relatively small here, the impacts can be wide ranging. Landholders can still be approached for access, along with access to their water, leaving many communities nervous about the future. Indeed, one of the problems is that many new companies have a poor history of community engagement, leaving some farmers to feel at a disadvantage when negotiating access agreements. In the eyes of the law, landholders do not own the resources under their properties so coal seam companies are entitled to apply for an exploration licence which is followed by negotiated access agreements with landholders.

This is the only way that farmers can limit the exploration access with a 28 day window of opportunity for consensus. If no agreement is reached, legislation allows the company to seek to have an arbitrator appointed in the next 28 days, a precursor for court action. For farmers who want peace of mind and clarity, the whole process should be looked at in a legal sense, another cost to landholders. The NSW Farmers Association believes that those legal costs should not be borne by farmers who, after all, did not invite this activity onto their land.

The recently announced 60 day moratorium, while not really enough time, does allow stakeholders to take a breath and to look at what really is happening. In Queensland, for instance, the coal seam gas industry has moved from having a few drill holes to having 40,000 drill holes on the horizon in a matter of years.

The NSW government’s Strategic Regional Land Use Policy is looking to develop aquifer interference regulations, along with a plan for future land use. There are so many unknowns about how properties will be affected in the short, medium and long term because there are no comparisons for such a new industry but the ‘suck it and see’ approach is worrying for many communities, especially if it is detrimental to their key asset, their farms. Different rules also apply to things like land clearing. Farmers cannot clear certain types of vegetation but miners can, further highlighting the inequities involved in the process.

All parties want certainty. Even the NSW Minerals Council backs a strategic plan for land use. Certainly landholders do, as the people of Sydney’s inner city St Peters discovered recently when told a mining exploration licence had been granted for that area. It seems on this issue it is not just farmers digging in their heels.

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