STATE politicians continued to back their government’s “historic” Strategic Regional Land Use Policy yesterday as mining, agricultural and environmental representatives continued to expose its shortcomings.
Politicians, including member for Tamworth Kevin Anderson, who support the amended plan released on Tuesday, say it will empower landholders and ensure a balance between the agricultural and the resources sector.
But its opponents from both sides of the mining and coal seam gas debate believe it’s still underdone.
NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell yesterday defended the policy, saying if both miners and farmers were criticising the plan, it showed that the government had got it right.
Mr O’Farrell said for the first time in history, the government was identifying and protecting agricultural land and valuable water resources while providing certainty for companies investing in regional NSW mining and coal seam gas projects.
In the New England North West component of the policy, the government has mapped out more than 1.5 million hectares of biophysical strategic (or prime) agricultural land (SAL) after increasing the amount by 569,000 hectares, since the draft plan was released earlier in March.
A two-month community consultation and engagement process gathered facts and opinions from the region’s stakeholders on where the SAL should be mapped, as well as fielding other concerns about the policy.
While that increased the amount of the region’s SAL from 9.6 per cent in the draft plans to 15.3 per cent in the final policy, farmers, landholders and environmental activists say they’re still not guaranteed that land is “quarantined” from mining in the future.
Farming and environmental groups rejected the plans as soon as they were released, saying the government had abandoned rural communities in favour of the mining and gas companies.
The Lock the Gate Alliance, a group that has orchestrated several coal seam gas blockades and protests across the north, said it was an “appalling policy” and was nothing more than an invitation for “high-pollution” activities.
The alliance’s regional co-ordinator, Carmel Flint, said it didn’t resolve the land conflict and miners could expect to find the gates locked when they approached farmers in the North West.
Mr Anderson said he was pleased the community feedback from the consultation process led to the Liverpool Plains and the cotton producing region around Gunnedah being considered as SAL and subject to the tough new “Gateway” process.
“(It) sets about protecting our agricultural industry to ensure it can be sustainable and produce food and fibre into the future,” Mr Anderson said.
The Gateway process will see an independent, upfront scientific assessment of significant mining and coal seam gas proposals on SAL, before it can proceed to a development application.
One of the amendments since the draft was to scrap an “exceptional circumstances” provision that would have seen projects bypass the Gateway process.
Mining companies and advocates say it has just added another layer of bureaucracy to an already stringent approvals process in the state.
The North West’s biggest gas stakeholder, Santos, said the plans substantially increased the regulatory burden on the industry.
While the company acknowledged science-based assessment and decision processes for its projects were necessary, it said the new regime would be both time-consuming and challenging to work within.
“Combined with the already extensive state and commonwealth regulations, (the) announcement makes the approvals process in NSW the most rigorous in the country,” Santos’ Eastern Australia vice-president James Baulderstone said.