ENERGY: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
NSW farmers win breakthrough on gas exploration
, April 12, 2014
Two of Australia’s largest gas-producers, Santos and AGL, have signed landmark agreements with the NSW Farmers Association, NSW Irrigators Council and Cotton Australia, undertaking not to explore or develop gas deposits on private land without the prior approval of the landowners.
The agreement, if applied universally, would take the sting out of farmers’ objections to coal-seam gas-drilling, and provide the foundation for fair compensation for farmers for access to and use of their land.
The agreement says: “Gas companies confirm they that will respect the landholder’s wishes and not enter onto a landholder’s property to conduct operations where that landholder has clearly expressed the view that operations on their property would be unwelcome.”
The exploration companies are not obliged, legally, to agree to this; but the failure of the law to protect farmers’ rights over their land has caused massive protests in both New South Wales and Queensland, and fierce opposition to coal-seam gas exploration across both states.
This has adversely affected the exploration and development of natural gas in both states. The agreement paves the way for a resolution of the impasse.
The NSW Farmers Association has been in the forefront of negotiating, on behalf of farmers, with both mining and energy companies.
It set up the NSW Farmers Mining and Coal Seam Gas Communications Project as a one-stop shop for farmers and landholders for up-to-date and accurate information on mining and coal-seam gas in New South Wales.
The project provides information and runs workshops for farmers. It aims to improve the capacity of farmers across NSW to negotiate with exploration companies seeking access to their land. It also seeks to raise awareness of the NSW Government’s Strategic Regional Land Use Policy package and how that will apply to minerals and petroleum developments in their area.
The president of the NSW Farmers Association, Fiona Simson, said, “This is a significant win for our farming families. We had been told by many companies for a number of years that this is how they operate, but we asked them to put it in writing.
“After much negotiation and hard work on the part of the three farming representative groups in NSW, I am very pleased that we can sign an agreement today.
“We congratulate Santos and AGL on their willingness to take a leadership role within their industry in Australia and recognise that respecting landholder rights is a cornerstone of any social licence when it comes to working with farming families and rural and regional communities.
“We strongly encourage other CSG [coal-seam gas] operators in NSW to show their commitment and sign up to this agreement.”
NSW Irrigators Council economic policy analyst Stefanie Schulte said the signing was an important milestone for future engagement between gas companies and private agricultural landholders. “Giving landholders the choice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and having this choice respected, is something we have worked hard to achieve.”
Cotton Australia’s CEO Adam Kay said: “This is great news for cotton-growers in NSW because it protects their property rights.”
NSW Farmers Association, NSW Irrigators Council and Cotton Australia said they would continue to advocate strongly for the right to say “yes” or “no” to operations to be enshrined in legislation.
All three farming groups will also continue to advocate for independent and robust science, and for baseline and ongoing water-monitoring, on the effects of CSG drilling and extraction on agricultural land.
The groups will also continue to advocate for a more rigorous process by which approvals are made for CSG exploration and drilling.
Ms Simson concluded: “Farming groups have always had consistent policy on this issue. We are not against the industry, but landholder rights must be respected, and today is a big step in the right direction for the future of our farming families.”
The gas companies were equally enthusiastic about the agreement. AGL managing director Michael Fraser said the new principles formalised the respectful and collaborative approach AGL has always taken with farmers.
“Today we promise that we will continue to respect farmers who say yes or no to our operations. While the arbitration rights will remain in law, AGL has never exercised these rights and expect we never will,” Mr Fraser said.
“This is an important step in facilitating the development of the state’s natural gas resources for the benefit of the whole community.
“These principles reflect the vital role farmers play on the land and what AGL has always done — listened with respect. The success of coal-seam gas in NSW rests entirely on the trust we have developed with the farmers who host us on their land....
“We have more than 200 access agreements with farmers across the state — these relationships are very important to us and AGL has never needed to exercise the arbitration rights available under law.
“It’s about having respectful conversations, being clear about what’s involved and the benefits for the landholder.”