The competing pressures on good quality agricultural land are coming under increasing attention from State governments, with the progression in Queensland and New South Wales of legislative and policy measures to restrict resources, infrastructure and urban development in certain high quality rural areas.

Until the legislation comes into force, there will be considerable uncertainty as to what the resources industry can expect once the measures are fully implemented.

Following implementation, the new restrictions on development in high quality rural areas (which often coincide with resources-rich areas) will pose an additional challenge for new resources and development projects.

Developments in Queensland

Strategic cropping land (SCL) protection measures have been on the Queensland government’s agenda since 1992, but details of a legislative framework proposed in 2010 did not emerge until recently. On 31 May 2011, the State government released further details of its SCL policy including updated State-wide mapping. Regional trigger mapping is still being updated, with the legislation intended to be introduced later in 2011.

Of major importance to the resources sector are the extensive areas of the Bowen Basin and the Surat Basin within the now-defined SCL protection and management areas. Proponents of resources and other development projects involving SCL will be required to follow criteria for on-ground assessment of their project land, and will have additional approval conditions imposed where the project will impact on SCL.

The May 2011 announcements will include transitional arrangements for certain resources production projects, summarised in the table below. These projects will not be subject to the full SCL framework, but will still be required to avoid, minimise and mitigate their impact on SCL.

Click here to see table

Other new resource development projects will be subject to the full SCL framework, once it is introduced.

In both cases, analysis of the mapping by ground-truthing and soil investigations will be a key step towards understanding the legislation’s impact for those projects. Part of the framework includes criteria for identification of land for categorisation as SCL. Early indications are that, as for the government vegetation mapping released in the early 2000s, the mapping does not always accurately reflect the position on the ground.

While the government’s guidance material also refers to forestry and urban development, the focus of the SCL protection measures is clearly on the mining and coal seam gas sectors. Government is currently calling for submissions on the Regulatory Assessment Statement, due on 29 June 2011, and a draft new State Planning Policy is expected shortly. The full suite of information is available here.

Developments in New South Wales

On 21 May 2011, the new NSW Government released details of transitional arrangements which will allow for the staged implementation of its Strategic Regional Land Use Policy.

Regional Strategic Plans will identify where a range of land uses - agriculture (including cropping, viticulture, and thoroughbred breeding), mining, coal seam gas extraction, conservation, urban development, and other types of land use - are best situated. Work will begin within 12 months on Regional Strategic Plans for the following areas: the Upper Hunter (including Gloucester); New England North West (including Gunnedah and Liverpool Plains); Central West; and the Southern Highlands.

Transitional measures already commenced include:

  • an immediate 60 day moratorium on the granting of new coal, coal seam gas, and petroleum exploration licences in NSW;
  • a requirement that all applications for coal, coal seam gas, and petroleum exploration licences be exhibited for public comment to improve transparency;
  • the public notification of Guidelines which will inform the assessment of impacts on strategic agricultural land from proposed development activities;
  • a requirement that all new coal, coal seam gas, and petroleum extraction applications must be accompanied by an Agricultural Impact Statement. Guidelines regarding the information to be submitted in the Agricultural Impact Assessment are being developed;
  • the exhibition of an Aquifer Interference Regulation for public comment – which when implemented will introduce new measures to better regulate activities that impact on aquifers; and
  • the establishment of a stakeholder reference group consisting of the key agricultural, industrial and conservation groups to advise on the development and implementation of the policy.