The Guardian Australia
NSW Labor pushes Berejiklian government to ‘come clean’ on reported Shenhua coalmine deal
New South Wales Labor has called on the Berejiklian government to “come clean” on whether it has reached a deal to buy out the exploration licence for the proposed Shenhua Watermark coalmine in the Liverpool Plains.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Tuesday that an agreement had been reached that would see the government pay the Chinese mining company to walk away from the project, which has been fiercely opposed by farmers in the region for more than a decade.
But the government is publicly stating that a lease for the mine remains under assessment.
Shenhua bought the exploration licence for $300m in 2008. The company handed back 51% of the licence in 2017 in a deal with the government worth $262m.
There have been questions about the mine’s future for more than a year, with one option floated to further reduce the mine’s footprint.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported the price the government had agreed to buy back the licence would be less than $200m.
The reported deal comes as the future of the coal industry plays a central role in the 22 May Upper Hunter byelection campaign, with Nationals leader John Barilaro calling it a “forever” industry.
“The government needs to come clean here – is there a deal? How much is the deal for? Landowners deserve certainty,” Labor’s natural resources spokesman Paul Scully said.
“The last time the government bought back 51% for $262m, the government denied it at the time and then admitted it a few weeks later. Is the same thing happening again?”
The former NSW and federal independent MP, Tony Windsor, who lives 20km from the proposed mine site, has raised concerns about the risk posed to groundwater for years.
He said uncertainty over the project had caused strain for people in the region and the government needed to be upfront about its plans. Windsor said he had thought for a long time the project would not go ahead.
“It should never have been approved,” he said on Tuesday. “The current government, for the past two years, has subjected people to the quandary over will it happen or won’t it happen. They’re just playing a game to suit themselves now. I just wish they’d tell the people.”
The anti-mining group, Lock the Gate, has for years raised concerns about the mine’s potential impact on agricultural land as well as koala populations in the vicinity of the mine site.
“Any action by the Berejiklian government that will end the shadow of this coalmine hanging over our national foodbowl on the Liverpool Plains would be very welcome,” the group’s NSW spokesperson, Georgina Woods, said.
Woods said it had been a costly mistake to approve the mine and the Berejiklian government needed to give farmers and Gomeroi traditional owners certainty by making its plans clear.
“What these people need now is certainty so they can finally breathe a sigh of relief, and plan for the future,” she said.
“After so many years of turmoil, the Berejiklian government, and in particular deputy premier John Barilaro, needs to put the politics to one side, and show locals the respect they deserve by confirming the details of this deal.”
The independent MLC, Justin Field, said the licence should never have been granted by the former Labor government, nor should the Coalition government have approved the mine.
“The taxpayers of NSW have been left to find half a billion dollars to buy out a coal project they never wanted in the first place,” he said.
“The government should clear up the status of the negotiations to buy out Shenhua today and give the community certainty after a decade-long fight to protect the agricultural and environmental values of the region.”
Shenhua said it would be inappropriate to comment “as the mining lease application is still being assessed”.
The Guardian has requested comment from the deputy premier and resources minister John Barilaro.