Gas drilling halted

THE Victorian government has put a hold on issuing work plan approvals for onshore gas exploration, including at Seaspray, until the community has had its say and scientific facts are known.

Deputy Premier and Gippsland South MLA Peter Ryan said the decision would ensure all the facts were before government and communities ahead of any decision on whether an onshore gas industry would be developed in Victoria.

“We will not be rushed into making a decision on the potential for development of onshore gas in Gippsland until we have a full understating of its effects on communities, farmland, the environment and the economy,” Mr Ryan said.

“This decision means planned drilling by Lakes Oil at Seaspray will not proceed until all the facts are considered and the community has had its say.”

Mr Ryan said the state government’s position on onshore gas was in stark contrast to that of the Labor Party, which when in government issued 73 coal seam, shale and tight gas exploration licences and approved 23 fracking operations without community consultation.

“Under the former Labor Government, the onshore gas industry was given a green light to drill and frack without any understanding of the facts and without giving the community a say,” Mr Ryan.

The news that Energy and Resources Minister Russell Northe had placed a hold on work plan approvals for onshore gas exploration until more information was available, including evidence from the current water study, community views and industry impacts were assessed, was welcomed by local Lock the Gate activists.

Seaspray dairy farmer Julie Boulton said they were incredibly relieved.

“We have some breathing space at last but we are not going anywhere.

“If the government tries to approve drilling in Seaspray again after July 2015, we will still be here, standing strong, united as a community against gas fields in Seaspray or anywhere in Victoria,” she said.

“Our plan to ride horses to parliament tomorrow has been cancelled, but we are prepared to ride horses to the city at anytime if we need to.”

Lock the Gate Victorian co-ordinator Ursula Alquier said although the suspension was welcomed, it did not mean community opposition to gas fields would go away.

“This movement will continue to build in strength and numbers until we see a total statewide ban on unconventional gas,” she said.

“Any party approving onshore gas drilling will have an almighty fight on their hands; communities are united on this.”

However the postponement of drilling has brought warnings from the petroleum exploration industry.

Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association chief operating officer for eastern Australia Paul Fennelly said the decision raised serious questions about whether Victoria was a state that truly welcomed investment in developing onshore gas supplies and regional economic growth and job creation.

“It comes at the same time Queensland has made important regulatory changes to provide greater certainty of tenure to explorers and increased flexibility in planning projects,” he said.

“Along with South Australia, Queensland is making big strides in developing a competitive regime for development of onshore gas resources.”

Mr Fennelly said industry would continue to support the fact-based community consultation process outlined by the Victorian government, one based on science rather than misinformation.

“However, applications for work programs should be addressed on their merits and the gas industry’s proven record of safe operation and strong community consultation over a number of decades should be given due consideration.

“We acknowledge that consultation with the community is critical.

“But it is disappointing to see emotional factors overriding scientific evidence and decades of operational experience.”

Victorian Greens leader Greg Barber congratulated Gippsland residents on winning a short term halt to gas drilling.

“The government has listened to the community who’ve expressed their view loud and clear,” he said.

“Land and water for food production is the most precious thing we have, but fossil fuel exploration threatens both.

“The Seaspray community has campaigned strongly against onshore gas exploration, and this decision is a clear attempt to silence their protests.

“Unfortunately neither Labor nor Liberal commit to making this ban permanent.

“The Greens will, while also supporting the transition to renewable energy sources,” Mr Barber said.

“I look forward to working with rural communities all over Victoria to ban gas drilling permanently.”

Despite the implied scepticism that the halt to drilling approvals was a short term means of avoiding protests and confrontation in the lead up to the November state election Mr Ryan argued the government was proceeding responsibly.

“In addition to our consultation process, we have committed to the most extensive investigation into our ground water systems ever undertaken, instigated a moratorium on fracking, put a hold on the issuing of new exploration licences and now a hold on issuing work plan approvals for existing exploration licences,” he said.

Mr Ryan said the government’s community consultation would begin with an initial round of open days in June, including sessions in Sale, Yarram, Mirboo North, Inverloch, Bairnsdale and Warragul.

“These open days form one part of our extensive community consultation process, which also includes facilitated meetings with community groups, environmental groups, farmers, local government representatives and individuals, as well as workshops to discuss specific issues in greater depth.” Mr Ryan said.

“The open days will provide the community with all the information and facts so they can make an informed decision on the potential for the development of an onshore gas industry.”

Mr Northe said the government genuinely wanted to engage with the community on the issue through the open days.

“This is not just a listening exercise, it’s an information exercise,” he said.

“We want to ensure that everyone has an understanding of the facts to help them participate in discussions about a potential onshore natural gas industry in Victoria.

“We intend to gain a comprehensive understanding of the issues and the range of views across the community, particularly in the regional and rural communities, before making any decision on this important matter.”

Mr Ryan said more information on the state government’s community consultation process, including planned events, was available online at www.naturalgasinfo.vic.gov.au