Time to kill NSW's 'zombie' permits once and for all

Later this month, when residents of New South Wales's upper Hunter region go to the polls in a state by-election, zombies will be on their minds - zombie gas permits, that is.

In NSW, 12 petroleum exploration licences lie dormant, covering a staggering 56,000 square kilometres of land, including the Upper Hunter.

If the state government agrees to revive these PELs, gas companies will have access to explore for coal seam gas on prime agricultural land.

Regional communities could suffer severe impacts, as is the case across Queensland, where tens of thousands of active and abandoned gas wells lie scattered across prime farmland.

Now, neighbouring farmers are experiencing land subsidence.

Fears of a revival are well founded.

Gas company Comet Ridge and joint venture partner Santos recently announced a desire to renew permits and begin exploration.

The NSW government's gas strategy announcement - due mid-this year - is expected to support some licence renewals and extensions.

Independent NSW MP Justin Field has again introduced a bill to cancel the PELs, which should be voted on later this week.

Reviving zombie permits sends mixed messaging.

While NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean is creating important and popular renewable energy zones to help cut carbon emissions, others are considering creating gas exploration and extraction hubs.

When you add that to the government's support for the proposed Narrabri and Kurri Kurri gas-fired plants, it creates real challenges for meeting the state's pledge for net-zero emissions by 2050.

What does all this mean to farmers?

It leaves them feeling uncertain, with huge areas of farmland at risk of being turned into gas fields, because only the wine growing and equine sectors qualify for exemptions.

While the law allows for compensation to be paid to farmers, these are not standardised and often confidential.

The law also doesn't comprehensively address wider community concerns like the long term, cumulative impacts of farmland degradation.

The federal government may be calling for a gas-led economic recovery, but it could come at the expense of Australia's vital agricultural industry.

NSW must learn the lessons from Queensland, and ideally needs to ban all gas extraction on agricultural land.

There are other options. In world-leading legislation, Victoria recently enshrined a ban on fracking in its Constitution.

Agricultural land must be protected in the national interest. And already, renewable energy from solar and wind is generally a cheaper source of energy.

Zombie gas permits must be killed off, once and for all.

Dr Madeline Taylor is an expert in energy and natural resources law at Sydney Law School and the Sydney Environment Institute at University of Sydney.

This story Time to kill NSW's 'zombie' permits once and for all first appeared on The Canberra Times.