NSW Government wants to make it harder for protesters to disrupt gas and mining on private land.
Proposed new laws are set to be introduced by NSW Resources and Energy Minister Anthony Roberts, to significantly increase fines for protesters on private property and grant police broader powers to deal with demonstrators.
Mr Roberts said the Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Amendment Bill would create a new offence of aggravated unlawful entry on private property, with a maximum penalty for $5500 – well above the current fine of $550 for similar offences.
The definition of a mine would be extended to include gas developments. Interfering with a mine is an indictable offence under the Crimes Act.
The Bill would also give Police additional powers – to search and seize people who intend to ‘lock-on’ at mine sites and to move protesters on in public places.
Santos coal seam gas project at Narrabri and the Pilliga forest has been plagued by protesters for several years, with about 30 incidents of unlawful entry to its water treatment facility at Leewood in 2016.
Mr Roberts said the laws targeted eco-fascists and he would consider extend penalties for protesters to include jail terms in the future. The report stated virtually none of the people “rounded up” at the Narrabri protests were from the local area.
Lock the Gate responded angrily to the Mr Roberts’ announcement this morning, issuing a press release quoting North West farmers who have locked on to equipment to protest Santos.
Coonamble farmer Neil Kennedy has chained himself to the gates of Santos’ construction site in the Pilliga several times, most recently last month.
“If the Government had done its job and protected the Great Artesian Basin from coal seam gas none of us would be having to protest in the Pilliga.
“Whacking farmers with higher fines for protesting in defence of our water and our way of life is only going to make people more angry.”
Narrabri farmer Stewart Murray welcomed protesters from outside the district and said higher fines wouldn’t prevent future dissent.
“This is a state-wide and nation-wide issue, so why shouldn’t everyone be involved? The government and Santos don’t get it.
Mr Roberts said the government supported the right to legal protests in accordance with the law, but unlawful activity was risky and costly.
“Unlawful activities put the safety of protesters and workers at risk and are costly for businesses and the public. Communities also suffer, with the deployment of Police resources.”
Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association chief executive Malcolm Roberts supported the proposed changes and said unlawful protest had targeted local landholder families and gas industry workers.
NSW Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee said mine workers faced increased safety risks from illegal protests.
Sydney Morning Herald reported on Monday government had also ushered in smaller alternative penalties to court prosecution for a range of offences.
Mining without authority - currently a $1.1 million fine plus $110,000 per day for a company if successfully prosecuted in court - can now be punished with a $5000 penalty notice.
Prospecting without authority - currently a $550,000 fine and $55,000 per day under a prosecution - may now be dealt with via a $5000 penalty notice. Failure to provide information and records to an inspector - currently a $1.1 million fine and $110,000 a day under a prosecution - is now punishable with a $5000 penalty notice.
Mr Roberts said the the alternative penalties do not remove the option of a full prosecution but allow the regulator "to choose the most appropriate action based on what has taken place.
Following announcement of the Bill, Santos reported to Police that during Monday night more than $75,000 worth of equipment was damaged or stolen from its fenced-off sites - including solar panels, batteries, solar regulators and security cameras.
The new laws will be debated in Parliament this week.
- With Sean Nicholls and Peter Hannam