Australia’s most productive agricultural region, the Liverpool Plains in North-West NSW, is under siege from BHP Billiton and coal and gas companies.

The farmers through the Caroona Coal Action Group have demanded that the state government undertake a comprehensive and scientific study to determine the likely risk to the water resources from coal and coal seam gas (CSG) extraction. The State government and the Minister for Primary Industry, Ian McDonald are playing a spoiling game on behalf the miners to rort the process and have initially refused to provide any funding.

Pam Allen, ex-state Planning Minister, is the allegedly independent chair of the working group. So far they have produced a terms of reference of the study which is classic repressive tolerance (with apologies to Herbert Marcuse). She is not independent but steeped in Labor party cronyism. This job has been done on a process to ensure the result is what they wanted rather than the proper outcomes.

The working group is dominated by mining stakeholders and the mineral council. They are in cahoots with McDonald’s office so it’s just part of their extended mandate to define policy and rort processes to suit. It is debatable why are they or BHP are on a working group to prepare this terms of reference.

The final outcome is supposed to be a rigorous study to determine whether they should be allowed to do any business in the region. The disclaimer on the study has been writ large and loud. It will have no bearing on decision-making as the government has part 3a of the Planning Act to guide them in their deliberations. Why would they need a science that addresses the impact on the environment?

The latest in the in the flawed process has been a series of “community consultation” meetings to have input on the Terms of Reference. At the three meetings in Gunnedah, Narrabri and Tamworth the overwhelming consensus was that the terms of reference were rubbish and did not address the core problem. The miners did not participate in the meeting in any way other than to make statements on behalf of the government about the purpose of the study.

The study has become an information collection exercise rather than a rigorous effort to determine the extent and risk of aquifer damage from mining and CSG extraction. BHP are flatly opposed to any rigorous assessment of risk. An independent process would mean that they would be divorced from the process — not protecting their vested interests. The miner’s control of the working group supported by the chairman and State Government has ensured that the terms of reference have been dumbed down.

This process needs to thrown out and an independent committee established to prepare a technical terms of reference that addresses the core problem. The Commonwealth Government has agreed to fund $1.5m under Senator Wong’s water initiative for the Murray-Darling Basin but appears content to provide funds rather than ensure probity.

The Federal Government needs to exercise some muscle to ensure that a proper result is achieved.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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