The NSW Aboriginal Land Council is eyeing off suburban Wollongong for coal seam gas exploration, sparking a showdown with prominent elders and activists.
An application to examine a huge area of land stretching from Primbee in the south to Clifton in the north was lodged by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council in March, NSW Trade and Investment confirmed yesterday.
The proposed site covers densely populated neighbourhoods, vast stretches of coastline and a massive chunk of the environmentally sensitive escarpment.
Chairman of the Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council Roy Kennedy blasted the decision as "sneaky" and "offensive".
"This goes against the very grain of who we are, what we stand for and what we have fought for," he said. "We're trying to protect our country and people who should be backing us up want to rip it up."
The application is one of five lodged by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council this year. Its chief executive officer, Geoff Scott, did not return calls yesterday.
In previous statements, he has argued Aborigines deserved to benefit from the mining boom.
"For decades Aboriginal people have gotten little more than scraps from mining activities and this strategy is about Aboriginal people breaking through into the real economy and driving financial benefits back into the land rights network," he said.
Mr Kennedy dismissed that justification.
"This is not the right way to go about helping future generations; all this does is sacrifice our culture and heritage by putting money and mining first," he said.
"We're outraged our very own state body would be acting against our obvious interests."
Of the prospecting applications lodged by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council this year, one covers more than 47,000sq km of land on the Northern Tablelands.
The discovery of that application caused widespread alarm and anger in the community.
Other applications target land near Murwillumbah, White Cliffs and Mudgee.
Even if the Wollongong proposal, known as a Petroleum Special Prospecting Authority, is approved, drilling would not be permitted - at this stage.
The NSW Aboriginal Land Council could use a joint-venture partner to stump up the cash and skills needed to successfully explore the proposed area.
Sharralyn Robinson, chief executive officer of the Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council, said the strategy undermined previous battles against unsustainable mining.
"This puts me in a very tricky position because we're funded by our peak body and while I have the utmost respect for them and their history, where this is concerned, I'm really at a total loss," she said.
"I think Geoff's heart and soul might be in the right place, but the question is, at what cost? When are we going to draw the line in the sand and realise it's not all about the money?"
Mr Kennedy and Ms Robinson said the application had been lodged with no local consultation.
Stop CSG Illawarra spokeswoman Jess Moore said she was "shocked" by the latest twist in the coal seam gas debate.
"Leaders of the Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council have voiced very strong opposition to coal seam gas in the past so this decision just seems completely out of step with their wishes," she said.
"I think there's obviously merit in the Aboriginal community trying to ensure a future for the next generation, but of the many possibilities, it's sad they feel the path to that is coal seam gas development."