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South Gippsland supports Bass Coast action on coal seam gas

SOUTH Gippsland Shire Council has added its voice to that of Bass Coast Shire Council in a plea for Victoria-wide action on coal seam gas exploration and mining.

Bass Coast SC intends to submit a motion expressing its concerns about the impact of the burgeoning industry to the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) State Council Annual Meeting on May 17.

The motion requests that the MAV consult with the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) to establish the extent of coal seam gas exploration and mining currently approved in Victoria and request the DPI to establish a working party with the MAV to investigate the impacts of the CSG industry on existing land use patterns and economic activity, the environment and groundwater quality across the state. It also asks the MAV to request the state government to establish a parliamentary committee on coal seam gas to investigate whether the existing regulatory regime is adequate to control unconventional gas extraction and asks the MAV to develop a communications plan to keep councils informed.

At a recent public presentation session, retired Leongatha farmer Wilma Western urged her local council to “get with it” and advocate for the communities in the proposed licence area for coal seam gas exploration. She said: “You need to ask yourselves why it was that Bass Coast Council were aware of the licence application and you were not. You should help to facilitate community consultation when suitable and keep yourselves informed of developments in this application process. You should decide whether you support the principle of CSG mining in our shire. After all, it can have far more impact on agriculture and the environment than electricity distribution networks or wind turbines.”

Coal seam gas mining has been occurring in Queensland and New South Wales since the mid-1990s, but the exploration focus has only recently moved to Victoria. In this state exploration and mining are regulated under the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990. Under the Act, there is no requirement to notify councils or landholders and so many licences have been issued unbeknownst to local councils or Victorian communities.

Bass Coast SC recently resolved to request that the DPI advise it of any applications or changes in applications relating to exploration or mining. Shortly after this resolution, Bass Coast SC was informed by the DPI that an exploration licence application EL5416 had been lodged with the department on February 22, 2012. The application seeks to cover land across Bass Coast and South Gippsland for the purpose of coal bed methane and coal (brown or black) exploration. The applicant is the Queensland-based resources company Leichhardt Resources PL.

Several councillors responded to Mrs Western’s presentation about the threat posed not just by coal seam gas mining but also by CSG exploration.

Cr Kieran Kennedy expressed similar disquiet about the CSG industry and Cr David Lewis suggested Council consult with the community as to what action it should take.

Mayor Warren Raabe told Mrs Western and his fellow councillors about the motion Bass Coast was proposing to take to the MAV State Council meeting and how it was seeking its neighbouring council’s support. He suggested this would be an opportunity for Council to “assert a little muscle on the planning authority, which is the State Government”.

“It looks a bit like a cop-out to me,” said an unsatisfied Mrs Western.

The mayor said that she was the first member of the public to address Council on the subject of CSG, adding: “No decision has been made by this Council about coal seam gas because the State Government is the planning authority.”

Cr Jennie Deane said that she agreed with Mrs Western that the community expected Council to play a lead role even if it had no legal responsibility. Likening the issue of CSG exploration and mining in South Gippsland to the controversy created when overhead powerlines were proposed for the Wonthaggi desalination plant, she said Council should play a similar role in advocating for its ratepayers.

She added: “We need to be very well informed rather than rushing in with objections.”

At the general meeting of Council last Thursday, debate on Bass Coast’s motion regarding CSG regulation for the MAV State Council meeting became bogged down on a question of state versus federal powers. After lengthy debate, Council endorsed the notice of motion put forward by Bass Coast SC regarding CSG exploration and mining and also resolved to request its delegate (Mayor Warren Raabe) at the MAV State Council meeting “propose that MAV liaise with relevant state and federal government agencies to ensure that landowners and the wider communities are adequately protected through all stages of all coal seam gas mining developments and that the MAV request the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) to undertake matching liaison”.

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