THE NSW government has offered to renew 22 coal seam gas exploration licences including in Sydney's water catchment on the same day it unveiled a strategy to protect key agricultural and water resources.
Critics attacked the decision yesterday, claiming it broke an election promise and would open the door to the CSG industry.
But the government said renewing licences did not move CSG miners any closer to production approval and any applications would need more assessment.
Illawarra explorer Apex Energy has received a renewal offer for its controversial title in the area around Helensburgh and Darkes Forest, which includes parts of Sydney's water catchment.
Apex and its joint venture partner Ormil Energy have also asked the Planning Department to extend the expiry date for them to drill 16 exploratory boreholes in the area.
Ultimately, Apex hopes to win approval for a 20-year project that would include a total of 150 to 200 wells and which it believes could supply up to 20 per cent of Sydney's gas needs.
Stop CSG Illawarra campaigner Jess Moore criticised the offer and said it showed "the government thinks CSG profits are more important than safe drinking water".
"Dressed up in words like 'protection' this is nothing short of betrayal. It puts land, water and communities at risk," she said.
"[Premier] O'Farrell promised to ban exploration and mining in the drinking water catchment. Yet drinking water catchments have just been declared open for CSG development."
The list of renewals means exploration licences will once again cover much of the Illawarra, with the exception of the area from Clifton in the north to Dapto in the south, where there are competing claims by Apex and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
The offers came as the government released its Strategic Regional Land Use policy, which included a statewide aquifer interference policy, new codes of practice for the CSG industry and a new Land and Water Commissioner.
"The package of policy initiatives . . . provides the most robust measures to protect the environment and our water resources ever provided in the state's history," a spokeswoman for Resources and Energy Minister Chris Hartcher said. "Coal seam gas activities with unacceptable impacts will not be approved."
Renewed licences would be subject to the new requirements.
Apex's corporate development manager Chris Lawrence said the policy would not result in major changes for the company.
"There will be some further reporting requirements further down the line but it really won't alter what we've been proposing to do because we were already following best practice," he said.
"We've been through every regulatory body and agency . . . so where else can we go?
"These are all the experts and it's been stated many, times on the public record by Sydney Catchment [Authority] that they don't perceive a risk to the catchment."
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