Farming and mining balance needed: Hartcher

THE New South Wales government has renewed the exploration licences for BHP Billiton’s Caroona Coal longwall project and China Shenhua Energy’s giant Watermark coal project in the Liverpool Plains but has imposed various environmental conditions.
Farming and mining balance needed: Hartcher Farming and mining balance needed: Hartcher Farming and mining balance needed: Hartcher Farming and mining balance needed: Hartcher Farming and mining balance needed: Hartcher

NSW Resources and Energy Minister Chris Hartcher.

Blair Price

Both ELs expired in February, a month before the state Coalition massacred the long-reigning Labor party in the state election.

"The community have expressed a number of concerns over the handling of coal exploration and mining under Labor and we've listened," Resources and Energy minister Chris Hartcher said on Friday.

"We understand there needs to be a balance between agricultural land and mining and we're determined to get that balance right.”

Both Gunnedah Basin projects have been prohibited from any possible open cut or longwall mining on or under alluvial flood plains and the black soil of the Liverpool Plains.

Both projects are also not permitted to longwall mine underneath any deep alluvial aquifers.

The Caroona coal project was previously excluded from longwall mining under floodplains or under deep alluvial aquifers back in 2009.

A BHP spokesperson said the steps it had taken also included committing to no mining of any description outside of the targeted exploration area, or any open cut mining anywhere on the EL area.

“It is important to note that an exploration licence is not a licence to mine,” the spokesperson said.

“BHP Billiton can only mine if we satisfy the strict environmental assessment requirements in the planning approvals process and demonstrate benefits for the economy and community.”

While BHP will need to assess possible longwall mining areas which do not fall into the prohibited criteria, Shenhua has a variety of new conditions to satisfy.

The state government said these include maintaining the “prime agricultural activity” on the land it has acquired or plans to buy in the Watermark project area.

Proposed open cut development must further retain an undisturbed 150m horizontal environmental buffer between mining and the Gunnedah/Namoi groundwater system under any future mine plan.

“Shenhua will also continue to make ongoing contributions of $1 million per annum to a community fund, as well as continuing open participation in the successful Watermark Coal project Community Consultative Committee," Hartcher said.

The government’s decision to renew the licences is already coming under fire from environmental groups.

Nature Conservation Council chief executive officer Pepe Clarke told the Sydney Morning Herald that the government had inappropriately renewed the licences while regional land use plans were still being developed.

But Hartcher also provided no assurance that either of the projects will get approval.

“The granting of renewals of exploration licences in no way moves the applicant any closer to the granting of a mining lease and any application for a mining lease and development consent will be subject to a comprehensive assessment process that provides for full community input."

Shenhua’s first major overseas development was targeting 10 million tonnes per annum of thermal coal production for at least 21 years.

The Chinese coal miner paid $A299.9 million to the NSW government in 2008 for the five-year Watermark exploration licence.

Shenhua had also agreed to shell out another $200 million to the government upon receiving a mining lease for the project.

On this issue, Hartcher indicated to the SMH that similar payment structures to the government will be avoided in the future.

''When you pay $300 million, there is an implicit guarantee you'll get your lease,'' he told the newspaper.

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