Australia announces tougher environmental rules for coal and coal seam gas mining

March 12, 2013

Australia’s Environment Minister Tony Burke announced that the government will impose tougher environmental hurdles on coal and coal seam gas mining.

National environmental laws will be amended to force coal seam gas and large coal mining developments to now receive national government approval and assessment of their impact on water, Burke said.

Australia has a booming coal seam gas industry with around $50 billion worth of projects underway in the country's northeastern Queensland state. However, public concern about environmental impacts has threatened to hurt the minority Labor government at national elections on September 14, with several election-swinging seats near coal seam gas developments in New South Wales state.

An alliance of community groups launched a political campaign against coal seam gas mining, arguing that existing extraction licences or applications in Australia now covered an area 18 times the size of Great Britain, Reuters reported.

Under current Australian laws, state governments approve coal seam gas and coal mine projects. New projects will now also need national government approval, with companies providing environmental impact data to a new independent expert scientific committee.

"Up until now, we have only been able to take account of water to the extent there has been an impact on issues such as threatened species or a RAMSAR (protected) wetland," Burke said.

In February, the NSW government banned coal seam gas exploration near residential areas, wineries and horse breeders.

The southeast Victoria state last year barred hydraulic and stopped issuing new coal seam gas exploration licenses until a national regulatory framework was put in place.

Burke said projects already underway would not have to begin the time-consuming approval process again.

"It will not be a broad trigger that affects everything relating to water," he said. "My department is writing to every company affected advising them as to what the additional information is, so that they can get to work on that."

The coal seam industry in New South Wales is still in the early states of development. Energy firms such as Dart Energy Ltd. say coal seam gas resources can be developed without causing environmental damage and that limiting the industry will push up gas and electricity prices.

AGL Energy, which has invested in coal seam gas developments in New South Wales, said the fuel was one of the multiple new sources of domestic gas supply needed as the country ramps up its gas exports in a few years just as domestic gas supply contracts expire.


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