CSG activity has been banned in water catchment areas in Sydney and the Illawarra, effective immediately, with NSW Resources Minister Chris Hartcher saying community concerns around the practice had intensified.
The ban will stay in place until the completion of an in-depth review of the environmental impacts of CSG is handed down by the NSW chief scientist.
"The NSW government recognises community concern that accessing and performing drilling in these pristine areas may have an effect on the drinking water supplies to Sydney and the Illawarra," Hartcher said.
‘‘The NSW government has imposed an immediate hold which will stop any activities under the Petroleum Onshore Act related to the commercial exploration or extraction of natural gas from coal seams within the Special Areas.”
These areas are identified as extra-sensitive bushland regions that filter rainfall.
The move comes after the Sydney Catchment Authority last month called for better protections of the water catchment after the O’Farrell government passed changes to mining legislation which will see the economic benefits of any project trump other considerations.
The Sydney Catchment Authority has been lobbying the government to exclude proposed CSG developments in the catchment area from these laws, claiming CSG mining in the region ''may significantly compromise'' water supplies.
Heathcote MP Lee Evans, who joined with Kiama MP Gareth Ward and other Coalition members who have been in support of the ban, welcomed the move.
‘‘We’re talking about pristine areas where four million people get their water from, and it’s important that we keep those areas as clean as we can,’’ Evans said.
He said the ban meant the government had ‘‘finally seen the light’’ by valuing drinking water above other interests, The Illawarra Mercury reported.
‘‘Within the party and within Parliament we have been fighting the good fight, and obviously we have lots of mining interests putting pressure on the government,’’ he said.
‘‘This is early days, but it’s looking like we’ve got a positive outcome.’’
The eastern Australian head of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, Paul Fennelly, accused the NSW government of ''policy on the run''.
''The NSW government's continued disregard for science-based regulation sends a terrible message to potential investors and risks higher-than-necessary energy costs and lost jobs,'' Fennelly said.
The Illawarra region has seen a storm of protests against proposals to explore CSG in the area.
Earlier this year Wollongong councillors stepped up a campaign to send a strong message to the NSW Department of Planning an Infrastructure that they do not want CSG exploration to go ahead in the region.
The NSW Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) rejected the proposed drilling program, stating that more conclusive studies on the impact of CSG activities to drinking water were needed.
“It appears that the potential risks of coal seam gas activities are still being established and that there is some uncertainty regarding the potential impacts of the suite of coal seam gas extraction techniques which could be applied within various geological formations,” PAC said at the time.
“..a finding that Coal Seam Gas Operations may have fewer groundwater and subsidence impacts is not accepted as a reason to support the proposal.”
Last month a 13,000 strong petition calling for a state-wide ban on all CSG drilling in water catchment areas was handed to the NSW parliament.
"We want the 2 per cent of land in NSW that supplies the drinking water of 60 per cent of people protected," Stop CSG Illawarra spokeswoman Jess Moore said
Yesterday Moore called the halt “a win” for her group’s campaign and called on the government to implement permanent policies.
‘‘The legislation must change, and our communities will fight until it does,’’ she said.
‘‘We want the land in NSW that supplies our drinking water protected ... [and] a permanent ban on CSG in drinking water catchment areas is simply common sense.’’
An initial independent report on NSW coal seam gas activities released in July by Professor Mary O'Kane stated that unanswered questions around health, environmental impacts and industry regulation and compliance were some of the reasons the CSG debate had become so emotive.
"The challenges faced by government and industry are considerable and a commitment from all parties will be required to improve the existing situation and build trust with the community," she said.
The review is set to continue into 2014.