11 September 2012 — The NSW Government’s Strategic Regional Land Use Policy, released on Tuesday, has given the coal industries “carte blanche” to mine across the state, environmentalists and farmers say.

The government headlined its announcement of the policy as “protection for agricultural land and water resources”.

Planning Minister Brad Hazzard said the package of initiatives provided comprehensive protection “for valuable agricultural land and water resources, while allowing for the responsible development of the State’s resources”.

Mr Hazzard said the policy came after more than 16 months of consultation with farmers, landowners, councils and the resources industry.

It includes two final plans for the Upper Hunter and New England North West regions, new codes of practice for the coal seam gas industry and an aquifer interference policy.

However, the Total Environment Centre, The Greens and the NSW Farmers Federation were furious and said promised protection of important agricultural and sensitive lands had been abandoned in favour of miners.

NSW Greens spokesman on mining and agriculture Jeremy Buckingham said the government had betrayed its promise to quarantine important agricultural and other sensitive land from mining.

“Despite his clear election promise to protect farms and water he has given the green light to the coal and gas industry.  Not one inch of NSW will be off-limits to mining and gas development – instead a gateway will provide a pathway to mining,” Mr Buckingham said.

“This policy will not stop coal or gas mining on our precious food producing land like the Liverpool and Moore Plains, the suburbs of Sydney or our drinking water catchments.

“The moratorium on fracking has been lifted without the community being shown any evidence from the Government’s so called independent scientific studies of this technology.

“The Aquifer Interference Regulation has been downgraded to a mere policy, meaning our precious groundwater sources will not be protected by legally binding regulations.

“It is troubling that all biodiversity land mapping has been removed from the landuse plans meaning that the Pilliga and Leards Forests and other sensitive environmental lands are completely left out from these new arrangements.

The Total Environment Centre labelled the policy announcement a “black day for native habitats”.

TEC natural areas campaigner Dave Burgess said both the policy and the plans failed to deliver on the government’s promises.

“Environmental protection has been reduced to lip service and the crucial biodiversity mapping in the original drafts has been removed,” he said.

Mr Burgess said while his organisation had not been surprised by the decision, because “the signs had been there”, they were shocked by the “brazen” disregard of the government’s own promises.

“They are turning healthy landscapes into industrial zones. But the communities living in mining areas, who love their natural environments, will continue doing what they have always done – keep objecting and we will keep a presence.”

Mr Burgess said those communities, under siege by coal and coal seam gas, were told when the process began that “the pendulum had swung too far”.

“It’s now clear that the pendulum has stuck and it’s business as usual for mining in NSW,” he said.

“The mining industry has been given a green light and I think we will start to see exploration licences just rolling out.”

Mr Burgess said NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell had promised regional communities certainty but had handed that certainty to the mining industry “regardless of the environmental and social impacts”.

The NSW Farmers’ Association was also furious and said the policy was a “green light” for the mining industry.

President Fiona Simson said thousands of city and country people just wanted their land and water to be protected.

“What did we get? We got an incomplete package with watered down water protections and a virtual green light for exploration and mining right across most of the state.”

Ms Simson said the government had broken an election promise, ignored the wishes of thousands of people who marched to Parliament House on 1 May and ignored more than 1500 submissions.

“This issue is not just something that affects farmers. It has the potential to affect everyone in our communities. That’s why we’ll be continuing to fight hard for stronger protections for our land and water,” she said.

“We will also be seeking a commitment from the government to review these policies within the next two years to see if they are making a positive difference and amend them accordingly.”

Mr Hazzard said as part of the final plans, the amount of strategic agricultural land mapped for protection in the Upper Hunter and New England North West regions has increased by 670,000 hectares to over two million hectares.

However, these areas could still be mined, subject to a “gateway” process.

But as  The Sydney Morning Herald pointed out the gateway process is  mere policy not law.

“Instead of regulations to protect aquifers from interference, there is a policy open to continual readjustment without reference to Parliament, though it does now apply to the entire state,” it said.

The promised  land and water commissioner will also be only an advisory role, and no areas has been “designated as too precious to be put at risk by excluding mining altogether, as farmers and environmentalists had hoped.”

“While the mining and energy companies now have a more ”certain” investment climate, those working the land remain under great uncertainty. The new policy can gain respect only if the government puts real scientific muscle into its ”gateway” system and gives its land and water commissioner some real power.”

Key elements of the package are:

  • Identification of Strategic Agricultural Land so that proposed projects must go through the new Gateway process, an independent, scientific and upfront assessment of the impacts of mining and coal seam gas (CSG) production proposals
  • A new Land and Water Commissioner to restore community confidence in the processes governing exploration activities in NSW and to oversee land access agreements between landholders and miners
  • An Aquifer Interference Policy that uses science to assess and protect water resources across the entire State
  • The requirement for an Agricultural Impact Statement as part of the assessment of exploration proposals
  • New Codes of Practice for the CSG industry, covering well drilling standards and hydraulic fracturing
  • Standard land access agreements to ensure fair outcomes for landowners;
  • Additional compliance resources (40 positions) to ensure the tough new standards are met
  • CSG producers to invest in local communities through Regional Community Funds.

Mr Hazzard said that key changes to the policy included:

  • The Aquifer Interference policy now applies statewide and is no longer restricted to Strategic Agricultural Land.
  • The “exceptional circumstances” provision that would have allowed certain mining or CSG projects to bypass the Gateway has been scrapped.
  • The amount of Strategic Agricultural Land mapped for protection in the Upper Hunter and New England North West regions has increased by 670,000 hectares to over two million hectares.
  • The amount of Biophysical Strategic Agricultural Land in the New England North West region has been increased by a significant 60 per cent. Some land with moderate soil fertility has been included, which captures the important cotton producing areas around Gunnedah, Moree and Narrabri.
  • In the Upper Hunter, the Viticulture Critical Industry Cluster has increased from 53,292 ha to 107,135 ha, and the Equine Critical Industry Cluster has increased from 183,452 ha to 233,286 ha. In response to submissions, the Viticulture Critical Industry Cluster now includes grape growing areas around Denman and the criteria for the Equine Critical Industry Cluster now includes land up to 18 degrees in slope.

“All mining proposals, whether subject to the Gateway or not, will still go through a full merit assessment process – including community consultation – when they lodge a development application.”

Over two million hectares of Strategic Agricultural Land has already been identified across the Upper Hunter and New England North West regions, with mapping of the Central West and Southern Highlands underway and other areas of the State, including the North Coast, also to be mapped.

Minister for Resources and Energy Chris Hartcher said, “We have spent the last 16 months introducing stringent new controls to regulate the industry and have considered feedback from the consultation process before any coal seam gas exploration licences are renewed.”

The report said The Gateway was “an independent, scientific and upfront assessment” of the impacts of significant mining and coal seam gas proposals on strategic agricultural land will be undertaken before a proposal can proceed to the lodgement of a development application.

“The Gateway assessment will be undertaken by a panel of independent experts who must issue a Gateway Certificate in order for a proposal to proceed to the DA stage.

“The Gateway process has been revised to focus only on the scientific assessment of land and water impacts of projects located on strategic agricultural land. This will include an assessment of potential aquifer impacts based on the advice of the Minister for Primary Industries and the Commonwealth Independent Expert Scientific Committee.

“Other matters, such as the socio-economic impacts and benefits of the proposal, will not be considered at the Gateway stage but will be considered at subsequent stages during the assessment and determination of the development approval.