Sean Nicholls and Ben Cubby
March 9, 2011
THE centrepiece of the Coalition’s environment platform for the state election has become a legal minefield with revelations that its planned national park on Sydney’s fringe is layered with previously unpublicised mining licences.
The discovery of the licences, over Dharawal State Conservation Area, has shocked the Coalition and potentially exposes taxpayers to tens of millions of dollars in extra compensation before the park can be created.
The Herald has obtained confidential advice from the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water that shows BHP Billiton holds two active coalmining leases ”which cover almost all of the Dharawal SCA”.
BHP also holds an exploration lease in the north of the area, and another company, Longreach Oil, holds an exploration lease for hot rocks energy.
The coal seam gas explorer Apex Energy holds a petroleum exploration licence. AGL also has a petroleum exploration licence but the company says it specifically excludes conservation areas.
The advice says that if agreements cannot be struck over compensation, legislation would be required to reserve Dharawal as a national park.
”Special legislation to change the category of Dharawal SCA would be needed to extinguish existing mining leases and approved projects, or voluntary agreements would need to be reached with leaseholders to relinquish their interests,” it says. ”Compensation issues between government and industry would need to be resolved.”
The promise to make Dharawal a national park was made by the Opposition Leader, Barry O’Farrell, in January. But the Coalition was unaware of the extent of the leases held when it made the promise and repeated it last weekend as part of its natural environment policy.
At the time, Mr O’Farrell acknowledged that BHP held rights to mine billions of dollars worth of coal and that the Coalition ”would be having a sensible discussion with the relevant stakeholder to get the best outcome for the community”.
The opposition’s environment spokeswoman, Catherine Cusack, last night said she was ”dismayed that Labor have issued more licences and is even considering the renewal of existing leases.
”This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect a fragile area that meets the highest criteria of conservation values.”
BHP has paid application fees to the Department of Industry and Investment to renew its leases, one of which expired last September. The other expires in September. The advice notes that ”a lease is deemed to continue to have effect after expiry if an application has been made and fees paid until the application is dealt with”.
Responding to the announcement in January, Colin Bloomfield, the president of a BHP subsidiary, Illawarra Coal, told the Illawarra Mercury it was ”committed to doing the research that will allow us to mine in the region in the future in a manner which would not only preserve the sensitive nature of the Dharawal State Conservation Area but enable the responsible extraction of the valuable coking coal reserves held in the company’s lease”.
The Coalition pledge was the culmination of a 15-year battle between mining interests and the environment movement, which had sought to have Dharawal set aside as pristine wilderness.
There are more than 200 upland swamps in the area – the highest concentration of hillside swamps on mainland Australia – that filter pure water into Sydney’s drinking water catchment.