OPINION: People power and political pragmatism
UPDATE 4pm: THEY are calling the $25 million buyback of Metgasco's CSG licences a victory for people power.
While it may be true, it only tells part of the story.
It's also a victory for political pragmaticism.
Remember one North Coast seat fell to the Greens at the last election and another one had a huge swing against the incumbent.
Lismore MP Thomas George had little choice but to champion his government's buyback plan and he deserves some credit for finally seeing it through on this issue.
Metgasco's win against the government in the Supreme Court over its licence suspension effectively backed the Baird Government into a legal corner.
The only choices were to find some other legal avenue to appeal, move the goalposts by re-writing the legislation, or simply settling out of court.
It's also a victory for the pristine environment and way of life we enjoy on the Northern Rivers.
Whether CSG mining is safe or not, the environment had to be given the benefit of the doubt.
Now we can get on with building on the clean, green, sustainable rural industries we have here as well as enhance tourism, service sector jobs and any relocation of business the NBN brings.
And $25 million sounds like a lot of money to pay a company to go away, but on this the government has got it right.
Metgasco never gained the social licence it needed to start mining in an area that's not naturally a good fit for this industry.
It failed to win hearts and minds and the shareholders would do well to pocket the money and run.
Editor, The Northern Star
UPDATE 3pm: THE FINAL power to make the Northern Rivers Gasfield free now lies in the hands of Metgasco shareholders who will meet in December to decide.
A vocal band of Metgasco shareholder have taken to online investor forum Hot Copper to express their rejection of the $25 million settlement.
Some have already threatened class action against the majority shareholders should they approve the $25m settlement figure, which would represent 6.7 cents per share should the company pull up stumps from Casino and liquidate. This represents about a third of the share price it was before the government's suspension.
The settlement offer comes after protracted discussions that have been ongoing since July this year.
Accept and move on
Bentley landholder and Metgasco shareholder Charles Wilkinson said he wanted the shareholders to accept the offer so he could 'get back to a normal life'.
The architect and gas opponent said he believes shareholders will accept despite the tough talk on the online forum.
"(Metgasco CEO) Peter Henderson has a lot of influence. I think most shareholders want it all resolved.
The ex-National Party member shares two boundaries with Peter Graham's property, the site of the historic Bentley blockade.
"We've kept the shares because we wanted to have a say at Annual General meetings." Mr Wilkinson said.
"We initially bought shares when we heard about the great plans - the power station and the employment opportunity. But quickly opposed it after seeing what was happening in the Surat basin."
Surprised and disappointing
Northern Rivers developer and shareholder John Vaughan said he was 'very surprised' the board accepted the $25 million settlement figure.
It's very disappointing when the state government had actively encouraged exploration and when this valuable resource had been discovered, decided to unlawfully suspended the licence.
The offer represents about 7 cents per share. I will have to think about it before making my decision.
Metgasco Chairman Mr Len Gill said it was a hard decision but recommended its shareholders also accept the offer.
"The board has to consider the risks associated with ongoing project approval delays, higher costs and difficulties funding activities over the next few years.
The date of the shareholders' meeting to consider the proposal is likely to be towards the end of December and will be announced shortly.
Kick em out
One shareholder, who posts under 'johnthesepo' said Metgasco had three options:
Option A: Vote Yes, take the money and trust the board to spend $32 million wisely.
Option B: Vote Yes, take the money and immediately liquidate the company and return all of the remaining capital to shareholders (circa 6.75 cents per share)
Option C: Spill the board and fire the CEO. Find a new CEO and Board that are willing to be the personification of evil in our Facebook-driven society and fight the government in court, while keeping MEL as a viable entity fulfilling all of its regulatory and commercial obligations.
UPDATE 1.pm: NORTHERN Rivers Gasfield Free spokesperson Ian Gaillard in a video reacting to the CSG licence buy-back announcement.
UPDATE 12.20 PM: The Gasfield Free movement is urging Metgasco shareholders to accept the State Government's $25 million licence buyback offer.
The Metgasco board members have accepted the figure for PEL 13, 16 (Bentley) and 445 (Clarence) which effectively make the Northern Rivers Gasfield free, pending a shareholder meeting before the end of the year.
Gasfield Free Northern Rivers have called the offer a (conditional) win for people power.
"If shareholders agree, we can celebrate this as one of the greatest victories of people power," said Ian Gaillard of Northern Rivers Gasfield Free.
"It's a great day. It's $22 million more than the company deserved. But we're happy. It's a small price in the scheme of things to pay for a sustainable future for future generations," he said.
"The Northern Rivers has been on tenterhooks. There has been a lot of anxiety about the intrusion of this speculative mining company into the Northern Rivers without proper consultation. The question of consultation has never been addressed."
With no more active PELs in The Northern Rivers, the largest social movement in the region's history may have run its course - locally at least.
"Watch this space," Mr Gaillard said.
Gasfield free supporters are expected to join in a spontaneous celebration at Riverside Park, Lismore at 1pm.
"This is a great win for the community but certainly a recognition of The North Coast Nationals in continuing to encourage the government to make the Northern Rivers Gasfield free.
"The Metgasco board has accepted the offer of $25 million but this has to be accepted by the Metgasco shareholders and that meeting will take place by the end of this year
"I'm just pleased that both parties have come to an agreement. We've been criticised of spending tax payers' money. We have lost a court case to Metgasco and they had every right to continue their negotiation with the government to come to an arrangement.
He said a change of legislation to make The Northern Rivers gasfield free was never on the cards for The National party.
"If we changed legislation just to cancel PELs and cancel licences, who would want to come and do business here in this state when a government could just turn around and introduce legislation and cancel all licence which have already been granted.
Mr George said he could not comment on whether the controversial mining company, with a Casino office, which employs his son Stuart George, would take its $25 million and move out of town.
Gasfield Free Northern Rivers co-coordinator, Elly Bird said, "This is a day that people around our region have worked for and wanted for over three years. We're over the moon that the Government and the company have finally seen the light and decided that the community's rejection of unconventional gas could not be overcome.
Ross Joseph, a landholder who lives within one of the licences said, "We're grateful to the Government for finally acting to cancel these licences, and for stopping the drilling at Bentley last year. More than that, we're just so proud of our community for coming together to turn away unsafe and unwelcome industrialisation of our beautiful region."
UPDATE 12.10pm: There is a definite feeling of jubilation in the air coming from the communities affected by the three gas exploration licences owned by Metgasco in the Northern Rivers.
"This is a day that people around our region have worked for and wanted for over three years.," Gasfield Free Northern Rivers co-coordinator, Elly Bird said.
"We're over the moon that the government and the company have finally seen the light and decided that the community's rejection of unconventional gas could not be overcome."
"We're grateful to the government for finally acting to cancel these licences, and for stopping the drilling at Bentley last year." landholder Ross Joseph, who lives within one of the licences, said.
"More than that, we're just so proud of our community for coming together to turn away unsafe and unwelcome industrialisation of our beautiful region."
Elly Bird said, "Of course it's not over for our communities yet. There's nothing to stop the government granting new licences to explore for gas in our region, and until there is protection in law for a gasfield free Northern Rivers, we will continue to work together to achieve that."
UPDATE 11.30am: FANTASTIC and historic news was how the Greens NSW mining spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham described this morning's announcement that the Metgasco Board has recommended shareholders accept a $25m buyback of CSG licences in the Northern Rivers.
"This is historic victory for people power, which through unity and determination has ejected this toxic industry from their community," he said.
"The Greens urge shareholders to accept the generous offer from the government as the only route out of a quagmire after Metgasco's management failed to gain a social licence to drill for coal seam gas in the Northern Rivers.
"Both the company and the NSW Government wanted gas extraction to occur in the Northern Rivers, and have been dragged kicking and screaming to this position.
Power of the people
"This demonstrates the importance of a social licence, and the power of the people to stop operations that the community believes are highly detrimental.
"$25 million is a large sum, and I join many in the community in questioning whether Metgasco's failures should be compensated by taxpayers.
"But in the end, $25 million is not a lot compared to protecting the land, water, communities and other industries of the Northern Rivers and to give people long-term certainty," he said.
Greens member for Ballina, Tamara Smith said: "Many people voted Greens in Ballina and Lismore at the last election to send a message on coal seam gas.
"Today's events demonstrate that voting Greens is powerful," she said.
UPDATE 10.31am: NSW North Coast Nationals parliamentary team has commended an agreement by the Metgasco board with the NSW Government for the purchase of Petroleum Exploration Licences (PELs) 16, 13 and 426.
Parliamentary Secretary for the North Coast and Member for Clarence Chris Gulaptis said the NSW Nationals are achieving for the North Coast through the successful PEL buy back process.
"Once again the NSW Nationals team as part of this Government is showing they are serious about achieving for the Northern Rivers," he said.
"I urge the PEL shareholders to accept this offer from the NSW Government, which recognises both the investment that Metgasco has made while also the community's concerns about the industry.
"Our track record is clear - we have not issued any new licences since 2011 and instead, cancelled, reduced and bought back existing licences," Mr Gulaptis said.
Member for Lismore Thomas George said the Government's offer to the PEL owner followed the successful buyback and cancellation of PEL 445 covering 565,693 hectares around Kyogle, Lismore, Nimbin and Evans Head last month and of PEL 457, covering 75,000 hectares west of Yamba, in September.
"The NSW Nationals parliamentary team is committed to rectifying the CSG mess left behind by Labor and protecting our precious resources," Mr George said.
"To date, the NSW Government through buybacks has reduced the State's CSG footprint to under eight per cent - a massive difference from the 60 per cent Labor left behind."
The NSW Government has bought back 17 PELs across the State, covering more than five million hectares.
INITIAL: THE three Northern Rivers petroleum exploration licences (PEL) 13, 16 and 426 are on the table to be bought back from Metgasco by the NSW government.
A recent release from Metgasco has advised if the buy-back goes through it will settle all legal disputes.
The offer proposes a settlement / buy-back sum of $25 million and comes after discussions that have been ongoing since July this year.
The decision is still to be voted on by Metgasco shareholders for it to be accepted.
According to the release Metgasco's Board of Directors unanimously believes acceptance is in the company's best interest and they will recommend shareholders vote in favour of the proposal.
A meeting of members will be called to allow shareholders to vote on the proposal.
Before then,an explanatory memorandum will be issued to shareholders that explains key elements of the proposal, the reasons for accepting or rejecting the proposal and the company's plans for the future.
Key features of the proposal
- the NSW Government will pay $25 million in return for cancellation of the three licences, Metgasco withdrawing its development application, and Metgasco withdrawing its legal action in relation to the suspension of its Rosella drilling approval;
- in addition, the NSW Government will return approximately $400,000 currently held as securities and other fees at the time the $25 million settlement fee is paid;
- Metgasco will be responsible for the decommissioning of its remaining two coal seam gas wells, with NSW Government refunding the remainder of the securities it holds (approximately $240,000) on completion of the two well program and final PEL 16 site inspections;
- prior to the shareholder meeting to consider the settlement / buy-out proposal, Metgasco will put a hold on its court action and suspend all field activities other than simple maintenance of sites.
Metgasco's Chairman, Mr Len Gill, said, "This has been a difficult decision for the Board.
The company has invested heavily in the Clarence Moreton Basin for over ten years and has had significant success in demonstrating large gas resources. It has many loyal shareholders, many of whom live in the licence areas and invested in the company because of the benefits a gas industry would bring to the region".
Minister for Industry, Resources and Energy, Anthony Roberts, said the footprint of possible CSG activity will go from more than 60 per cent of the state to less than 8 per cent.
"Going forward our new Strategic Release Framework, outlined in the NSW Gas Plan, will ensure that areas will only be released for exploration following an assessment of economic, social and environmental factors, with community consultation conducted upfront," he said.