Environment Minister Tony Burke
Environment Minister Tony Burke

Regional land use policy questioned

FEDERAL Environment Minister Tony Burke is seeking assurances the New South Wales Government's regional land use policy meets the requirements set out in the National Partnership Agreement on coal seam gas and large coal-mining developments.

Independent MP Tony Windsor used question time in Parliament on Monday to ask Mr Burke if the land use policy satisfied the protocols set out in the NPA.

In his answer, Mr Burke made reference to a new "gateway process" established under the land use policy.

"It involves an expert panel and it is at that point that the independent scientific committee will plug its information into the New South Wales process," Mr Burke said.

"So there is a direct pathway for the national partnerships that were established and expected."

But Mr Burke did admit the "jury is still out" on how the policy would interact precisely with the NPA.

Under the NPA, the Federal Government will provide $150 million to establish an independent expert scientific committee which will provide advice on CSG and large coal mining development proposals that are likely to have a significant impact on water resources. The advice of the committee is not legally binding, but the funding is contingent on the states meeting their responsibilities under the NPA.

Later, during debate in the lower house on the bill to create the scientific committee, Mr Burke said after question time he had instructed his office to seek more information from the NSW Government to ensure its regional land use policy met "the expectations of the Commonwealth".

Mr Windsor said while he did not expect an answer from Mr Burke immediately, he hoped it would be forthcoming by the end of the week.

"I am not trying to play some sort of political game, I just want to get to the bottom of this - to have a very serious look at the aquifer interference policy and the strategic land use policy that have been announced, as well as this so-called gateway process that various industry groups may have to go through to gain acceptance at a state level," Mr Windsor said during the debate.

Mr Windsor, who was the driving force behind the NPA and establishing the scientific committee, expressed concern the state's policy did not have sufficient legislative backing.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives rejected a number of Senate amendments to the scientific committee bill that would have given the environment minister extended powers to deal with CSG projects.

The amendments would have given the federal minister the final say on almost all land-use decisions for CSG and coal mining projects.

Mr Burke said the amendments were devised by Coalition senators Bill Heffernan and Fiona Nash and the Australian Greens, an agreement he described as a "rather surprising unity ticket".

"But I want to make clear that while I appreciate the compliment from the senators involved and from the coalition over there that they would like me to have an interest in pretty much every land use decision in country New South Wales and most of southern Queensland, we really do not think it is an appropriate policy to go down the path of," Mr Burke said.

"It would completely blow up the agreements we have with the states.

"I cannot imagine Queensland and New South Wales, for a minute, having anything to do with the National Partnership Agreements if we said we were now going to have federal oversight over every land use decision they made.

"It would be reasonable for them to reject it because it is something that is within their province."

Mr Burke succeeded in having other amendments passed that dealt with the issue of salinity.

"They (the amendments) clarify that I must obtain advice from the committee when I believe a coal seam gas or large coal mining development will have a significant impact on water resources, including but no limited to the impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity," he said.

THE REGIONAL LAND USE POLICY

It will create maps of the state's best agricultural land. The mapped land then will become part of regional land use plans for all areas of the state and while some regions have already been completed, consultation on the maps for the far and mid north coast will not begin until early next year.

Once mapped, the new regional plans will create a "gateway trigger", demanding all resource projects undergo an upfront assessment at the start of the exploration process, rather than as part of the production licence application.

The gateway process will mean resource projects in mapped areas will have to meet criteria to go ahead on the basis of a scientific assessment by an "independent, expert panel".

If the panel considers the proposal does not meet the criteria, it can issue a certificate with conditions, which then have to be addressed by the miner or CSG company as part of the development application.

Until the maps are officially approved, the north coast regions will be relying on the existing regional land use plans.

Despite the wait, all mining and CSG proposals will have to assess any impacts on farming, as part of an agriculture impact statement (AIS).

This statement will form part of the normal mining and CSG proposal application process, and should mean all projects address various issues including land and water characteristics, agricultural production, weed management and evidence of consultation.

The new Aquifer Interference Policy will apply to the north coast, as part of its expansion across the state.

It sets out "minimal impact considerations", against which the government's water office will assess any potential impacts from resource projects, including on groundwater.

Alongside all of these parts of the package, there will be a land and water commissioner appointed to provide independent advice to the community and government about mining and CSG proposals.



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