Narrabri: gas miners want in

Farmers say renewed interest in expired mining leases is bad news

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Farmers say a worst-case scenario is developing around the Narrabri Gas Project as small gas companies partner with Santos.

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Expired petroleum exploration licences cover a huge slab of the state, from Dubbo, Gulgong and Scone, extending north and taking in the Liverpool Plains all the way to the Queensland border.

Expired petroleum exploration licences cover a huge slab of the state, from Dubbo, Gulgong and Scone, extending north and taking in the Liverpool Plains all the way to the Queensland border.

TWO mining companies with expired petroleum exploration licences are trying to reactivate them on the back of the Narrabri Gas Project being approved.

That the companies want to reactivate the expired PELs in northern NSW is no surprise to Mullaley cattle farmer Margaret Fleck.

She said opponents of the Narrabri Gas Project - proposed by Santos and approved by the Independent Planning Commission on September 30 - expected it.

"We all told the IPC's hearing into the Narrabri Gas Project the Santos project was a Trojan horse, we told them this would happen, and it has," she said on Monday.

Being right is no consolation to Ms Fleck, as the PELs cover a large expanse of the Liverpool Plains.

Two companies, Comet Ridge and Carbon Minerals, are looking to reactivate expired PELs.

On October 1 Comet Ridge told the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) it welcomed the IPC's approval of the Narrabri Gas Project and said it had a "substantial acreage position to the north and west of the project site".

Comet Ridge said it expected a return to exploration and appraisal on PELs 427 and 6.

Comet Ridge is in partnership with Santos on PELs 6, 427 and 428, has an equity stake of between 30 per cent and 68pc for CSG operations and predominantly 100pc for conventional yield.

Carbon Minerals, which describes itself as 'seam pioneers of the Gunnedah Basin' unveiled a works program and budget to the ASX in March.

The company put total investment at about $10 million this year and its contribution would be 35pc in PELs 1 and 12.

Santos is acknowledged as "operator" of those PELs and holds the remaining 65pc stake.

Seeking to reactivate the expired PELs seems at odds with Santos's public insistence the Narrabri project is "contained".

At Santos's 2018 annual meeting chief executive Kevin Gallagher told shareholders Santos had no intention of drilling CSG wells on the Liverpool Plains.

"The Narrabri Gas Project is contained. Our plans are simply not to drill in the Liverpool Plains," he said.

In July last year the Boggabri branch of the National Party moved at the party's state conference that all PELs be extinguished as they expired.

The National's Boggabri branch chairman Pat Murphy moved the motion at the state conference in Inverell, and it was adopted unopposed.

Mr Murphy today stands firm and says in light of the Narrabri Gas Project's approval, "we have to start from scratch, we have to resolve the legacy issues and come back to what's a fair go".

He said the fossil fuel industry complaining about business uncertainty when it came to government policy and regulation was one-eyed.

"Landholders are business people too, and the Liverpool Plains is sacred farming country, it's top shelf."

He said there had been some buybacks of PELs, particularly in the Northern Rivers, where voters are concentrated.

The Nationals' Parkes federal electorate council chairman Brendan Moylan agrees with Mr Murphy and said while this year's state conference had been abandoned because of COVID-19, politicians would be expected to report to members their efforts to effect the party's stance on the PELs.

Mr Moylan said when Mr Murphy's motion was put to the floor of the conference there was no pro-gas, anti-gas divide in the room, all agreed expired PELs should be extinguished.

"There's obviously a need for gas, but the Narrabri project would provide enough for the NSW market, there's no need for zombie PELs," he said.

"Landholders must retain the fundamental right to say 'yes' or 'no' to access their land."

In early 2015 buybacks of expired PELs were hailed by then Resources and Energy Minister Anthony Roberts as 'action four' of the NSW Gas Plan, a step towards meeting September 2014 recommendations from then chief scientist and engineer Mary O'Kane.

Professor O'Kane spent 19 months leading the 'independent review of coal seam gas activities in NSW', and made 16 clear recommendations, some of which the government has begun to undertake.

By September 2015 the state government had bought back 16 PELs and reduced the CSG footprint across NSW to 8.5 per cent of the state, from 60pc.

Ms Fleck said it was clear the government had not fulfilled Prof O'Kane's recommendations.

"Drilling through a crucial recharge area of the Great Artesian Basin certainly does not meet recommendation five from the chief scientist," she said.

A spokesperson for Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said the licences were a matter for the NSW state government.

An anti-CSG billboard in the North West. The fight against gas continues.

An anti-CSG billboard in the North West. The fight against gas continues.

"The federal Liberal and Nationals government has made it clear that gas will play an important role in our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting manufacturing and cheaper energy," the spokesperson said.

"We support new projects where appropriate approvals have been provided."

The offices of NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall and Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud have been asked for comment, but at the time of going to print had not replied.

Landholders must retain the fundamental right to say 'yes' or 'no' to access their land. - Brendan Moylan

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