The Current Situation

The current status of CSG projects in and around Sydney's water catchments.

Water catchment view

The NSW Government

There are five drinking water catchments managed and protected by WaterNSW (formerly the Sydney Catchment Authority) — Warragamba, Woronora, Upper Nepean, Blue Mountains and Shoalhaven. These cover less than 2% of the land in NSW and supply drinking water to 60% of the state’s population.

Licences are titles granted by the NSW Government that define an area for oil or gas exploration, and require that exploration take place.

Development consent for CSG wells — approval to drill and run them — has also been granted in NSW drinking water catchments. This includes the approval of wells in ‘Special Areas’, buffer zones established to protect drinking water quality. Unauthorised or illegal access to these areas attracts fines of up to $44,000.

A well has been drilled in the Warragamba catchment, though an extension of time to allow Apex Energy’s 16 CSG well project in and around the Woronora and Upper Nepean catchments to go ahead was rejected by the Planning Assessment Commission in July 2013 — despite the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure recommending approval. Subsequently, in March 2015, Apex’s CSG licences were cancelled.

In November 2013, the NSW government bowed to public pressure and introduced a temporary moratorium on CSG exploration and mining in Sydney’s drinking water catchment ‘Special Areas’ – though this could be lifted at any time. It’s a welcome announcement and a win for the campaign – offering temporary protection – but it doesn’t change the fact that the government must keep the promise it made before election.

In July 2105, the last remaining licence over the water catchments (AGL’s massive PEL2 licence) was sold back to the NSW government and cancelled, leaving the Illawarra free of CSG licences for the first time since the Stop CSG Illawarra campaign started in 2011.

The current lull in activity is likely just temporary however. The government has refused calls to put a permanent ban in place, even within the water catchment ‘Special Areas’.

The Federal Government

The Federal Government could also step in and ban CSG prospecting and mining in drinking water catchments. But they have not. While they have announced changes to trigger Federal approval of CSG projects that could affect water resources, they fall far short in the detail.

All the Water Trigger does is bring a CSG project in for possible consideration. That’s all. And it does this when a CSG company reports that their project may have a significant impact on water .

There is no guarantee that it will then be assessed and there is no guarantee that the changes will stop projects or prevent damage to water resources. The Act fails to define trigger points beyond an abstract definition of significant – defined as an impact which is “important, notable, or of consequence, having regard to its context or intensity”. There are no objective, quantifiable limits in the Act. Indeed, it does not even mention drinking water catchments.

The proposal also makes the Environment Minister the sole decision maker. The Minister will take advice from the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on the impacts on water resources, but purely as information “to be considered”.