The New South Wales Government has just released its Strategic Regional Land Use Plans for the Upper Hunter and New England North West regions (SRULPs) and its state-wide Aquifer Interference Policy. The SRULPs and Aquifer Interference Policy deliver on its Strategic Regional Land Use Policy (“Policy”) to protect strategic or valuable agricultural land and its water sources from inappropriate mining and CSG projects.
Background: The draft SRULPs
The draft SRLUPs proposed a gateway process whereby mining and CSG projects within 2km of land identified as strategic agricultural land would be assessed by an independent panel (comprised of experts in fields such as agricultural science, water, economics and mining) to determine the effect of the project on important agricultural land and resources. A development application in respect of a proposed project would not be able to be lodged and considered until the project had been assessed by the panel against various criteria and given a Gateway Certificate. A Gateway Certificate could be issued unconditionally or conditioned to address the panel’s concerns in respect of the potential impacts of the project on agricultural land and water.
The main criticism directed at the plans by farmers and environmentalists was that they didn’t go far enough to protect important agricultural land and industry; miners on the other hand complained that the reforms only worked to add cost and uncertainty to what is considered an already cumbersome and overly regulated scheme in NSW.
Key Changes to draft SRULPs
Following relatively extensive consultation by the NSW Government on the draft plans, the following key changes have been made in the plans released yesterday:
- The Aquifer Interference Policy now applies state-wide in NSW and is no longer restricted to the land identified as Strategic Agricultural Land in the SRULPs;
- The 2km buffer zones have been scrapped and State Significant mining and CSG projects that are not located on land identified as Strategic Agricultural Land must now verify whether or not the land they are on meets the criteria for biophysical Strategic Agricultural Land
- The gateway process will apply to State Significant mining and CSG proposals on Strategic Agricultural Land that extend beyond an existing mining or petroleum production lease area or where a new lease is required;
- There are no longer any ‘exceptional circumstances’ which will allow certain CSG or mining projects to bypass the gateway process;
- All state significant mining and CSG projects with a potential impact on agricultural land or resources (not just those located on mapped Strategic Agricultural Land) will be required to lodge an Agricultural Impact Statement with the development application;
- The amount of land classified as Strategic Agricultural Land has increased across the Upper Hunter and New England North West regions from 670,000 hectares to over two million hectares;
- The amount of Biophysical Strategic Agricultural Land in the New England North West region has been increased by 60 percent; and
- The areas of the equine and viticulture Critical Industry Cluster has been increased to include additional areas associated with these industries.
Projects for which Director General’s requirements have been issued will not be required to obtain a Gateway Certificate. However, these projects will still be subject to an assessment of potential agricultural impacts at the DA stage through:
- referral to the independent Gateway Panel for advice;
- the requirement for an Agricultural Impact Statement;
- assessment against the Aquifer Interference Policy; and
- referral to the Commonwealth Independent Expert Scientific Committee for advice, where the project will impact on highly productive groundwater as defined in the Aquifer Interference Policy
Work on SRLUPs for the Central West and Southern Highlands has commenced with SRULPs for Murrumbidgee, Alpine and Western regions to follow.