Sunday, 24 February 2013

Coal Seam Gas - Do you really trust the Liberals?

The O'Farrell Liberal government has been dragged kicking and screaming to the decision it made this week to introduce a 2 km Coal Seam Gas exclusion zone around residential areas. I said in parliament this week that the decision does not go far enough. The decision made by the O'Farrell Liberal Government leaves 11 Coal Seam Gas wells in water catchment areas south-west of Sydney untouched. Those coal seam gas wells are located within 500 meters of the World Heritage listed Wollemi National Park.

Mr O'Farrell asserted 6 months ago that he had the toughest standards for the Coal Seam Gas industry. It now seems his toughest standards were not tough enough. He is happy to blame the former government for all the problems but will not accept responsibility himself. The people of New South Wales made their decision about the former government in March 2011. The people of New South Wales gave the O'Farrell Liberal Government a mandate to implement all his promises and guarantees. And I suggest he's beginning to fail them. 

If Mr O'Farrell thought the coal seam gas decisions made by the former government were wrong - and he certainly advocated that in the election campaign - why did he, six months ago, allow the renewal of the licences given by the former government? It is only two weeks ago on 5 February 2013 that the Minister for Resources and Energy Chris Hartcher told the Centre for Independent Studies: 

"Coal Seam Gas is no good to us still in the ground. You have to take it where it is. You can't say you don't want to develop it here." 

In November 2011 the Labor Party reflecting on the errors it made in government called for a moratorium on Coal Seam Gas because it had the potential to damage drinking water and compromise food security. The Labor opposition called for the immediate commission of an independent enquiry into the Coal Seam Gas industry chaired by scientific experts to assess the real impact of Coal Seam Gas; and that Coal Seam Gas exploration licences should be suspended before irreparable damage occurred. The opposition was ignored and Coal Seam Gas exploration licences were renewed by the O'Farrell government. 

There has been a widespread campaign undertaken in NSW opposing the exploration and extraction of Coal Seam Gas. The concerns of the community has crossed the complete political spectrum, from farmers concerned about its impact on prime agricultural land, to conservative broadcaster Alan Jones campaigning in support of farmers since 2011, National party MPs concerned about the impact on food and drinking water supporting the farmers, and people in residential parts of Sydney such as in my electorate in the St Peter's area. What has now caused Mr O'Farrell to move so quickly and to cut His Energy Minister off at the knees so comprehensively? There is a Federal election due, and the people in the Federal Electorate of Macarthur are starting to make things uncomfortable for the Liberal party. 

The decision made by the O'Farrell Government has caused outrage in the mining industry who talk about the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of investment being affected by this decision. Looking at the Energy Minister's comments on 5 Febraury 2013 they have every right to feel that they were ambushed. Whilst it is the view of the opposition that the decision doesn't go far enough, the opposition wants an independent enquiry of experts not only to make the right decision about the future of the industry, but to ensure a transparent enquiry can provide some public confidence in the integrity of government decision-making process. 

For decades right throughout NSW have governments pursued economic interests at the expense of the environment. In my electorate groundwater is poisoned by carcinogenic pollution for which there is virtually no solution. Hazardous industries were permitted to expand on an uncontrolled basis with environmental concerns being dismissed. My views were dismissed as being those of the parochial local mayor wanting to hold up progress. All the guarantees of environmental protection over the decades have been shown to be just hot air and the public have lost faith in the integrity of the government decision-making process. The public's loss of confidence in the government's decision-making process is in my view completely justified. 

Calling for an independent enquiry by experts into the industry is not just a political attack on the government of the day. It is a genuine call designed to ensure that the Coal Seam Gas industry if is to have a future in this state is environmentally sustainable. It is one thing for the public to have a difference of opinion with the government's decision-making process, it is another when the public don't trust that the government's decision-making process is honest. 

There is no question that New South Wales needs a regular supply of gas, and without it prices will escalate to a level that will impact severely on ordinary households. The industry needs certainty for it to invest its money. We the public need to have confidence that coal seam gas extraction will not compromise our drinking water or food security. 

This is a very significant issue that has to be resolved for the future interests of New South Wales. It has to be beyond politics. It requires leadership. It requires integrity. And it requires intellectual rigour, something that the O'Farrell government seems to be lacking.

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