A company linked to energy giant Santos has purchased land in the Upper Hunter in an apparent move to ensure the controversial Hunter Gas Pipeline project remains alive in face of fierce community protest.
If built, the 413 kilometre pipeline would pass through hundreds of kilometres of agricultural and conservation land between the Narrabri gas project and Newcastle.
Under the terms of its project approval, Santos must begin construction on the pipeline by October next year.
However, it has met widespread community opposition along the route. Most landholders have refused access to the company's representatives for survey work.
In a recent twist, the Department of Planning gave approval for the staging of the pipeline to Santos subsidiary Hunter Gas Pipeline Pty Ltd.
The approval allows Santos to construct "laydown yards... to securely store construction equipment, pipe and other materials".
It coincided with the purchase of a property Nicholsons Lagoon Road, Quipolly by the directors of a private company negotiating land access for the project.
The 20 hectare property intersects the pipeline route.
The new owners have given Santos access to survey and peg a laydown area on their property.
Santos said the property was purchased on the open market from a "willing seller who was aware of the proposed use of the property".
"Santos has a commercial lease agreement with the purchaser to use the property for approved activities related to the Hunter Gas Pipeline," the spokesperson said.
But Farmer Margaret Fleck said she was concerned about the implications of the property acquisition.
"Santos knows there is overwhelming opposition to its Hunter Gas Pipeline route through the Liverpool Plains food bowl. So rather than negotiate with farmers and landholders, it seems its contractors or associated entities are simply buying up properties where they're available," she said.
"Clearly, Santos and its contractors still do not understand just how determined the Liverpool Plains community is to defend Australia's food bowl and our properties from destructive coal seam gas and high pressure gas pipelines.
"Santos will never build its Hunter Gas Pipeline, and it will never build its Narrabri Gas Project."
President of the Hunter Gas Landholder Rights Alliance Inc Mick Fetch said Santos' "stageing application" was an underhanded way for the company to claim construction had begun.
"Nearly all landholders in the Hunter Valley along the pipeline route are opposed to this destructive project," he said.
"Landholders are not talking to Santos, so we see the staging and purchase of property as a knee jerk reaction to the deadline that's approaching.
"Santos is getting desperate and that's why it has requested this staging. This project has hung over our heads long enough, and unfortunately with a staging process it looks set to hang over our heads for longer.
"Santos shouldn't be allowed to hide behind the cloak of confidentiality. Landholders in the region deserve to know where these lay down areas will be located."