Resources company Metgasco misled the public over its drilling operation in northern NSW by saying it was seeking a less controversial type of gas. It was for this reason the government suspended its licence on Thursday.
Statements such as those on Metgasco’s website that it was drilling for conventional gas were now considered by officials to be incorrect. The company was in fact exploring for “tight sands” gas, an unconventional gas extracted using the contentious fracking technique.
Resources Minister Anthony Roberts said Metgasco had not undertaken genuine community consultation and concerns had been raised “about the way in which Metgasco has characterised its activities”.
He later told ABC Radio that companies that failed to gain a "social licence" to operate were "probably better off going somewhere else".
The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, a peak industry group for the coal seam gas industry, warned the decision, which came just days before Metgasco was to start drilling, “sets a damaging precedent” for resource development in NSW.
“The industry is concerned that the presence of protesters at an operational site should not mean that genuine consultation with the community has been ineffective,” it said. “Companies willing to invest tens of millions of dollars in projects to bolster the state’s gas supply now face an uncertain future.”
Lock the Gate Alliance national president Drew Hutton, whose organisation opposes coal seam gas, said the decision cast a cloud over all similar operations in NSW. “[The decision] sends the message that, until they have a social licence, they can expect enormous community opposition similar to what Metgasco encountered," he said.
Northern Rivers resident Charles Wilkinson, who said he was also a Metgasco shareholder, was “horrified” by the proposal and unimpressed by the company’s public relations.
“When they kept pushing the same line that it was a conventional gas well we thought … this is just full of lies,” he said.
Metgasco was criticised last month over its handling of a hoax email written by Lismore teenager Kudra Falla-Ricketts, which falsely announced the company was shutting down the project due to community opposition. The company referred the incident to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, prompting claims its action was heavy handed.
Kudra said on Thursday she “spent the whole day just hugging people” after learning of the drilling suspension, and questioned whether Metgasco’s operations would ever resume.
“I think they’d have to be pretty stupid to come back here," she said. "It’s very clear that the community does not want them, and we will do whatever we can, non-violently, to keep them out," she said.
Metgasco chief executive Peter Henderson did not respond to requests for comment.