A coal seam gas company’s bid to save its Illawarra exploration project has triggered a flood of community opposition and again raised fears about mining in the water catchment.
Apex Energy’s approval for a 16-borehole exploration project around Darkes Forest and Maddens Plains expires tomorrow.
Planning authorities are now considering its application to extend the expiry date for three years after the first borehole is drilled, effectively allowing an indefinite extension as no start date is listed.
Despite the fact the project itself has not changed, the application generated 129 public submissions plus another 16 from groups including Stop CSG Illawarra and the National Parks Association.
Last year, Apex’s application for the 16th borehole received 1045 submissions from the public.
The scrutiny reflects the depth of community concern about environmental risks linked to CSG, and the political heat the O’Farrell government faces over it.
By comparison, coal company Gujarat NRE’s application to expand its mine and open a new longwall beneath the water catchment only received 23 public submissions and two from interest groups.
Stop CSG Illawarra spokeswoman Jess Moore put the difference down to greater community awareness about Apex’s project and its threat to the catchment.
‘‘It’s outrageous that I can be fined up to $44,000 for walking in the catchment yet the government will allow CSG development in that area,’’ she said.
Gujarat’s proposal faced harsher criticism from government agencies than Apex’s, which is located partly in the water catchment and is still at the exploration stage.
Further approvals would be required before production.
Wollongong City Council opposed Apex’s time extension, saying even with stringent environmental controls it would be hard to argue CSG activities would have only a neutral or beneficial effect.
The Office of Environment and Heritage said it would be ‘‘unlawful’’ to drill the three proposed boreholes in the national park.
Apex’s application said more than 10,000 boreholes had been drilled in the southern Sydney basin during the Illawarra’s long mining history, but only 50 exploration boreholes had been drilled by the coalmining industry in the timeframe they had followed.
An independent panel will determine the application.
A spokesman for Planning Minister Brad Hazzard said the government’s new Strategic Regional Land Use Policy applied Australia’s ‘‘toughest protections and regulations’’ to CSG mining.