CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australian farmers demanded greater protection against coal seam gas miners eyeing their land for exploration as a political fight surrounding the $70 billion gas industry on Monday threatened to splinter the surging conservative opposition.
After months of tensions between farmers and miners over rapid expansion of the potentially lucrative industry across prime agricultural land, the influential Greens party called for new laws to give farmers stronger rights to keep coal seam exploration rigs off their land.
“(It) is not about stopping coal or coal seam gas exploration or mining,” National Farmers’ Federation President Jock Laurie said. “It is about empowering farmers and giving them a greater right to negotiate proper commercial terms for access to their properties.”
Australia’s coal-seam gas industry plans to build roughly $70 billion worth of LNG projects in Queensland state alone over the next seven years, while exploration is also gathering pace in neighboring New South Wales.
But opposition leader Tony Abbott, who heads a conservative coalition of pro-business and pro-farming parties, sparked a political firestorm last week when he said farmers should have the right to stop CSG miners such as Santos and Origin Energy accessing prime agricultural land.
Farmers in recent months have locked gates on properties and staged protests against coal seam gas and coal miners trying to tap below-ground deposits. Under Australian laws, landholders must allow resource companies access for exploration and mining.
The minority Labor government, which commands a one-seat lower house majority with the support of one Green and three independent MPs, said Abbott had injected fresh sovereign risk into mining investment after for months complaining about Labor plans to tax carbon and carve a bigger slice from resource firm profits.
“In the end the coal seam methane industry is very important to Australia, and especially Queensland where you’ve had A$45 billion in investment since December of last year,” Resources Minister Martin Ferguson told Australian radio.
Abbott, wary of reversing months of opinion poll gains for the conservative coalition in a damaging fight between its pro-farmer and pro-business factions, refused to back legislation drafted by the Greens that would give more rights to farmers.
“The Greens are just against mining, full stop. They are particularly against the coal industry, which they want to close down,” he told reporters.
But Abbott, in a concession to farmers who mainly support his center-right coalition, said mining should not be allowed to destroy prime agricultural land, leaving unclear the question of which lands he thought should be protected.
Production of coal seam gas in Australia has soared in the past five year, with its share of total gas production lifting from 3 percent in 2003-04 to 10 percent in 2009-10.
Around 97 percent comes from the mining and farming powerhouse Queensland, where state conservatives in opposition called for a moratorium on new coal mining, warning food and water security were more vital to the national interest.
Greens leader Bob Brown said his party, which holds the balance of power in the upper house Senate, would seek support in the finely-balanced parliament for laws requiring a farmer’s written permission before companies could explore for coal seam gas.
Conservative resources spokesman Ian Macfarlane said it would be a “cold day in hell” before the Greens backed farmers, accusing Brown of trying to wedge apart the resurgent center-right alliance.
The Farmers Federation said open and clear land access agreements were needed to ensure farmers were aware of their rights and had greater negotiation power when faced with companies seeking exploration and mining licenses.
“The NFF is calling for tighter controls around land access agreements so that mining and CSG companies must abide by the terms set, and farmers have a greater understanding of the negotiation process,” Laurie said.
A Nielsen poll in Fairfax newspapers on Monday showed Abbott’s party would wipe out Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Labor if an election were held soon, holding a 58 percent to 42 percent lead. New elections are not due until 2013.
Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Alex Richardson