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NSW National Party under pressure as ‘Zombie’ PELs come alive in Parliament

Legislation to cancel twelve so-called ‘Zombie’ coal seam gas exploration licences across North West NSW, including in the Upper Hunter, has been formally introduced to NSW Parliament by Independent NSW MP Justin Field, setting up a debate and vote next week, ahead of the May 22 Upper Hunter by-election.

The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party and key independent candidates have both spoken publicly supporting the cancellation of the Zombie PELs with the Nationals Leader John Barilaro signally the Government is in negotiations with Santos over the future of some of the licences.

Independent NSW MP Justin Field said, “These licences have been hanging over the head of regional communities for too long.

“These licences cover some of the best farmland in the state, critically important water resources, the largest contiguous forest and woodland in Western NSW in the Pilliga Forest and culturally significant land to Indigenous peoples of the North West of the State.

“By refusing to make a decision over renewal applications on these expired licenses, communities are left with the uncertainty that a gas company could come knocking at any stage to force access to conduct exploration. That’s an unacceptable situation.

“The legislation makes clear that coal seam gas exploration licences expire at the end of their term unless a decision to renew is made. Those existing licences that only remain in force because of a pending renewal application will be cancelled.

“The Nationals have failed to act in Government so the Parliament should act to cancel these licences and give communities and landholders certainty and protect land and water from damaging coal seam gas exploration and mining,” Mr Field said.

This week the NSW Farmers called for bipartisan support for extinguishing the zombie licences from valuable agricultural land. Farmers President James Jackson said the PELs were “in inappropriate areas where gas extraction can have long term significant detrimental consequences for agriculture, water and the environment and they must be cancelled”.

In 2019 the NSW Nationals Annual Conference, passed a motion calling on the NSW Government to extinguish all zombie PELs in NSW. National Party candidate for the Upper Hunter, David Layzell, has committed to fight for the Zombie PELs to be “snuffed out”. In October last year the Member for Northern Tablelands and Minister for Agriculture, Adam Marshall, told the Moree Champion that he had written to the CEOs of both Santos and Comet Ridge, “imploring” them to relinquish those PELs. Local Tamworth MP Kevin Anderson has also called for the PELs to be “squashed”.

Mr Field said, “This has been National Party policy for nearly two years, but because of their obsession with gas and the significant political donations they have taken at the Federal level from Santos they have failed to adopt it and left farming communities in the lurch.

“This legislation will give the National Party and all parties and candidates an opportunity to put their position on these expired PELs on the public record so the Upper Hunter electorate and the wider community know where they stand.

“If this legislation passes the Legislative Council, then whoever wins the Upper Hunter by-election could be the swing vote that could see this legislation pass the Parliament and the Zombie PELs cancelled for good.

Map of 12 expired Petroleum Exploration Licences

The twelve expired PELs extend over more than 55,000 square kilometres between the Upper Hunter and the Queensland border with four covering the North and West of the Upper Hunter electorate including Scone, Quirindi, and Merriwa (see map below).

In 2020 the Independent Planning Commission gave the Santos Narrabri Gas Project conditional approval triggering public announcements by gas companies that they intend to pursue the renewal of expired licences and recommence exploration across the region.

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