The NSW Government has introduced legislation to ban offshore oil and gas exploration.

The Petroleum Exploration Permit 11 (PEP 11) licence for gas and oil exploration off the Northern Beaches coastline has been an ongoing political issue since it was raised by conservation groups in 2018.

The issue was initially raised in Federal Parliament by then Federal Member for Mackellar Jason Falinski, who moved a motion opposing the extension of the licence with the support of Member for Warringah Zali Steggall OAM.

The debate over the future of the licence, which had originally been issued by the Carr Government in 1999, became heated within the then Coalition Government, with Commonwealth Resources Minister Keith Pitt seemingly intransigent over cancellation of the licence.

PM Scott Morrision announces PEP 11 licence revoked

The Nationals’ Minister was at odds with Liberal Prime Minister (PM) Scott Morrison (image above), who in December 2021 announced the decision not to renew the licence in the only decision taken after he had secretly been sworn into multiple ministries during the COVID pandemic. That decision was challenged by the licence holder and reversed by the incoming Albanese Government.

The reversal left the future of the licence as a live issue, with the licence holder seeking an extension to conduct exploration in the permit zone.

The former NSW Coalition Government had already announced it would not support the extension of the permit, but under pressure from Teal candidates for the 2023 NSW Election, the Liberals said they would also legislate to prevent exploration going ahead.

Following the NSW Election win by Labor however, the matter had been in limbo until Member for Pittwater Rory Amon moved a Bill which would ban exploration in NSW waters. The NSW Government moved Mr Amon’s Bill off to a committee and parked it there.

In an apparent change of heart however, the NSW Government this week announced it would be introducing its own legislation ‘to prevent the severe environmental impacts that can result from offshore exploration and recovery of petroleum and minerals’.

The Bill will amend the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 to prohibit:

  1. Seabed petroleum and mineral exploration and recovery in NSW coastal waters; and
  2. Other development within the State for the purposes of seabed petroleum and mineral exploration and recovery anywhere.

The Bill will not prevent activities which may benefit the environment such as the recovery of sand for beach nourishment or beach scraping, which are undertaken to help protect coastal areas from erosion.

Penny Sharpe at the Barrenjoey Headland protest rally

Minister for Climate Change and the Environment Penny Sharpe (image above) said the legislation aimed to end uncertainty over offshore exploration.

“We know an overwhelming majority of people in NSW do not support offshore mining. The passage of this Bill will give certainty that our government is prioritising environmental protection and our own local interests.

“This Bill is a sensible amendment to our legislation to protect NSW against the risks of offshore mining,” said Minister Sharpe.

Joeline Hackman and Jacqui Scruby

The NSW Government proposal was welcomed by Federal Members Dr Sophie Scamps and Zali Steggall, along with former Teal candidate for Pittwater Jacqui Scruby (image above, right), who claimed credit for the introduction of legislation to stop PEP 11.

“Pittwater we did it! This is a great victory for the community and a stellar example of how politics should be done — where communities are listened to and a multi partisan approach is taken to making historic laws.

“This legislation started as a draft independent bill I announced during the Pittwater election campaign and has continued to gain momentum with the advocacy of all sides of the political spectrum. Independents, Liberal Nationals and Labor all working to get this done.

“It has truly been a community effort — from paddle outs to petitions, Surfrider Northern Beaches’ and Surfers for Climate’s ongoing campaigning and pressure at both state and federal levels — and everyone should be proud of what we’ve achieved,” said Ms Scruby.

The need for a legislative approach in NSW would not be required however if the Commonwealth Government had provided certainty around the cancellation of the licence.

Zali Steggall opposes PEP 11

Member for Warringah Zali Steggall welcomed the NSW decision but also called on the Albanese Government to act.

“The NSW legislation is great news, showing the political will to do what is right by our communities. It is now over to the Prime Minister, by supporting my Stop PEP 11 Bill or similar legislation we could rule out PEP 11 in Commonwealth waters for good as well.

“In opposition, Anthony Albanese said ‘I am dead against PEP 11’. Will the Prime Minister stand by his word and legislate to make PEP 11 dead in the water?

“We’ve had deafening silence from the Prime Minister on PEP 11 since the election. I re-tabled my Stop PEP 11 Bill in February last year and the government voted against it.

“I have written to the Prime Minister again asking him to urgently rule out PEP 11 and will reintroduce my Stop PEP 11 Bill in the coming weeks. State government have got behind NSW communities, it is time the Albanese Government did too,” declared Ms Steggall.

Member for Mackellar Dr Sophie Scamps

Mackellar MP Dr Scamps has been lobbying Commonwealth Resources Minister Madeleine King for the licence to be cancelled, but also claimed the NSW decision was a community victory.

“This is a great win for our Northern Beaches community, for our coast and for our climate. The NSW Government’s decision to legislate to block the PEP 11 offshore petroleum project is a vital step forward in stopping it altogether, with the final decision sitting with the Federal Government later this year.

“I have been working hard to bring an end to PEP 11 since before the last federal election. I’ve met both the NSW State and Federal environment ministers a number of times about the issue, telling them that the people of the Northern Beaches would never accept drilling for oil and gas off our beaches.

“I have also spoken in Parliament a number of times about the issue, including seconding Zali Steggall’s Bill to end PEP 11, reiterating each time that it would never be accepted by our community.

“So, it is great news that the State Environment Minister got the message, saying that her decision was based on the fact that the ‘overwhelming majority’ oppose offshore mining. PEP 11 would have allowed drilling for gas in an area just 50km off the coast from Manly through the Central Coast to Newcastle, and would have posed a great threat to our local coastline.

“This hopefully ends years of uncertainty about this destructive fossil fuel project, right on Sydney’s doorstep. It is the right decision, particularly because Australia has now committed in international forums to a swift and just transition away from fossil fuels.

“Stopping new fossil fuel projects, particularly highly risky ones that could damage not only our local environment, but also our industries like tourism and fishing, is the first step toward that goal.

“I also want to pay tribute to the Independent candidate for Pittwater, Jacqui Scruby, who developed the Save our Beaches Bill to block this risky development during the 2023 campaign, and which was ultimately introduced by the current Member for Pittwater,” said Dr Scamps.

A spokesperson for Dr Scamps said resolving the issue at the Commonwealth level was ‘complex’ and involved ‘significant due process’ in the wake of the former Prime Minister’s intervention.

Rory Amon

Having introduced a Bill to ban PEP 11 to the NSW Parliament last year, Member for Pittwater Rory Amon (image above) was somewhat relaxed about the rush to claim credit for the NSW Government decision. Pending a review of the detail, he said he would work to ensure support for the Labor Bill when it comes before the NSW Parliament.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

“I am pleased that Labor has agreed to support my Bill to ban offshore oil and gas mining, which was introduced to Parliament in June 2023. They are doing this by introducing their own Bill, but that is okay, that’s politics.

“It has been a long-held position of the NSW Liberal Party to stop offshore oil and gas in NSW waters. As Member for Pittwater, I have successfully pushed for that policy to go further. Any gas and oil mining approvals by the Federal Labor Government in Commonwealth waters would be frustrated by the NSW position.

“This is a big win for our community. I am currently going through the Government’s Bill to ensure there are no holes in it. I expect to work with the Government on any amendments needed to tighten up the Bill,” said Mr Amon.

Brief history of PEP 11

  • The area in which the Petroleum Exploration Permit 11 (PEP 11) licence sits was first surveyed in 1981. It covers 8,200km2 between Newcastle and Wollongong. The PEP 11 licence itself is for 4,574km2 within that, running from Newcastle to Manly.
  • The NSW Government under Labor Premier Bob Carr approved the licence for offshore oil and gas exploration in 1999
  • The area covered by the PEP 11 lies mainly in Commonwealth controlled waters. A joint authority between NSW and the Commonwealth is required to administer and approve exploration licences.
  • A report to the NSW Parliament in 2011 confirms the PEP 11 licence holder had not found any gas in exploratory drilling
  • The licence grants rights to explore for underwater oil and gas offshore between Newcastle and Sydney but remains in limbo until 2018
  • The licence holder announces plans in 2018 to conduct seismic testing for fossil fuel deposits. The plans alarm marine conservation groups who are concerned about the impacts on marine mammals, including whales and dolphins.
  • In 2018/19, Northern Beaches marine conservation groups, including Surfrider Foundation Australia and Living Ocean, take their concerns to state and federal politicians
  • In response to these concerns, Mackellar MP Jason Falinski called for the licence not to be extended at the next renewal
  • In October 2020, Mackellar MP Jason Falinski moved a parliamentary motion opposing the extension of the PEP 11 licence beyond its expiry in February 2021. The motion was supported by Warringah MP Zali Steggall OAM.
  • In December 2020, both Northern Beaches MPs join conservation groups outside Parliament House in Canberra to express opposition to renewal of PEP 11
  • The NSW Government announces it will no longer support offshore oil and gas exploration, specifically rejecting renewal of PEP 11 as a joint authority member. The decision effectively ends any prospect of the licence being renewed.
  • Although the licence can no longer be renewed without NSW Government support, National Party Federal Resources Minister Keith Pitt does not formally terminate the licence by the February 2021 expiry date, causing community concern over possible renewal
  • PM Scott Morrison publicly states his opposition to renewal of the PEP 11 licence while visiting Collaroy
  • Warringah MP Zali Steggall OAM introduces a private members’ bill to the Federal Parliament to terminate the PEP 11 licence. Liberals Dave Sharma, Jason Falinski and Andrew Bragg label the Bill a stunt and express concern it would result in compensation payments to the licensee.
  • Despite ongoing pressure, Resources Minister Keith Pitt does not formally terminate the PEP 11 licence
  • In December 2021, PM Scott Morrison announces the decision not to renew the PEP 11 licence, having sworn himself in as Resources Minister without Keith Pitt’s knowledge
  • In June 2022, the licence holder challenges the decision to terminate the PEP 11 licence in the Federal Court, following revelations of PM Morrison’s ‘secret ministries’
  •  February 2023, the Commonwealth Government agrees to settle the court action, setting aside former PM Morrison’s decision to terminate the licence. Warringah MP Zali Steggall re-introduced her Bill to stop PEP 11, which was not supported by the Commonwealth Government. Seeking re-election, the NSW Liberal Government commit to introducing legislation to prevent PEP 11, but subsequently lose the election.
  • June 2023, Liberal MP Rory Amon introduced a Bill to the NSW Parliament to stop offshore exploration and mining. The Bill was sent to a committee for review, where it had remained.
  • February 2024, the NSW Government introduce their own Bill to ban offshore exploration and mining, and to prevent facilitation of the same through state waters

Images: Envato, Northern Beaches Advocate, Zali Steggall OAM MP

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