A state government "stay" on handing out or renewing coal seam gas exploration licences has left two applications in the Illawarra in limbo.
Coal seam gas explorer Apex Energy and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council have been waiting months to hear the outcome of their competing title applications covering parts of Wollongong and the Illawarra escarpment.
And they are likely to be kept waiting a while longer, although how long is unclear.
No petroleum exploration or production licences have been granted or renewed since last year's state election.
A spokeswoman for Resources and Energy Minister Chris Hartcher yesterday confirmed a halt.
"The government has placed a stay on granting or renewing any petroleum exploration licences since the election as it works to implement new controls regulating CSG exploration," she said.
Approvals would only recommence when the government's strategic land use policy process was finalised, she said yesterday.
For Apex, that is likely to mean delays, expenses and an inability to drill.
Corporate development manager Chris Lawrence said the time being taken was "overly protracted" and "causing great grief".
His company's joint venture with Ormil Energy had approval to drill 16 exploratory boreholes across two Illawarra titles, but exploration was suspended after a key licence expired in February and was not renewed. It lodged a new application in March, but the NSW Aboriginal Land Council filed a competing claim one week earlier. Neither application has been determined.
Mr Lawrence did not know when to expect a decision. "As a small exploration company, it is having a large impact on us," he said.
"I believe it's probably having a far greater impact on the larger players in the state ... who have far larger problems because of it."
Mr Hartcher's spokeswoman said the government recognised the investment made by many companies "on the basis of the certainty that exists if licence conditions are complied with".
"Licences will not be cancelled without good reason," she said.
Stop CSG Illawarra's Jess Moore said the stay did not amount to a "freeze" and that the draft strategic land use policies were "inadequate".
"The reality is they are not stopping all projects despite the risks," she said.
"They're still approving developments and they're allowing work to continue under existing licences."