CANBERRA, March 12 (Reuters) - Australia will impose tougher environmental hurdles on coal and coal seam gas mining, responding to mounting public concern about protection of fragile water resources from the impact of extraction, Environment Minister Tony Burke said on Tuesday.
The government would amend national environment laws to force coal seam gas and large coal mining developments to now receive national government approval and assessment of their impact on water, Burke said.
Australia has a booming coal seam gas industry with around $50 billion worth of projects underway in the country’s northeastern Queensland state.
Under Australian laws, state governments approve coal seam gas and coal mine projects. New projects will now also need national government approval, with companies providing environmental impact data to a new independent expert scientific committee.
“Up until now, we have only been able to take account of water to the extent there has been an impact on issues such as threatened species or a RAMSAR (protected) wetland,” Burke said.
Mounting public concern about environmental impacts has threatened to hurt the minority Labor government at national elections on September 14, with several election-swinging seats near coal seam gas developments in New South Wales state.
An alliance of community groups last week launched a political campaign against coal seam gas mining, arguing that existing extraction licences or applications in Australia now covered an area 18 times the size of Great Britain.
The NSW government last month banned coal seam gas exploration near residential areas, wineries and horse breeders, in a move aimed at cracking down on an industry that environmentalists and farmers fear could pollute water supplies.
The southeast Victoria state last year barred hydraulic fracturing, a technique used to produce hard-to-reach gas deposits, and stopped issuing new coal seam gas exploration licenses until a national regulatory framework was put in place.
Burke said projects already underway would not have to begin the time-consuming approval process again.
“It will not be a broad trigger that affects everything relating to water,” he said. “My department is writing to every company affected advising them as to what the additional information is, so that they can get to work on that.”
The coal seam industry in New South Wales is still in the early states of development. Energy firms such as Dart Energy Ltd. say coal seam gas resources can be developed without causing environmental damage and that limiting the industry will push up gas and electricity prices.
AGL Energy, which has invested in coal seam gas developments in New South Wales, said the fuel was one of the multiple new sources of domestic gas supply needed as the country ramps up its gas exports in a few years just as domestic gas supply contracts expire.
Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Michael Perry