Protesters have celebrated their victory against coal seam gas drilling in northern NSW as mining company Metgasco suffered a double blow.
Mining company Metgasco is in the sights of the corruption watchdog after the NSW government suspended its approval for a controversial coal seam gas well in the state’s north.
The suspension for exploration at a farm near Bentley came only days before a potentially explosive showdown between hundreds of police and thousands of activists over the drilling site.
While protesters celebrated their win at the Bentley blockade, Resources Minister Anthony Roberts explained that he had expressed a sense of urgency upon the Office of Coal Seam Gas to “progress” its audit into Metgasco’s Bentley licence.
Metgasco was expected to move drilling equipment – under a heavy police presence – onto the Bentley site early next week.
Mr Roberts said he opted to suspend Metgasco’s petroleum exploration licence because of the company’s lack of community consultation.
In a further blow, the minister said he referred information about shareholdings and interests in Metgasco to the Independent Commission against Corruption.
It is understood the referral is connected to the Obeid-linked Australian Water Holdings and ERM Power Limited, which owns about 12 per cent of Metgasco.
Tony Bellas is a non-executive chairman of ERM Power.
He has also been on the board of the now-defunct Australian Water Queensland, an Australian Water Holdings offshoot which employed former NSW MP Eddie Obeid’s son, Eddie Junior.
The NSW corruption watchdog has heard evidence that the Obeid family had a secret shareholding in Australian Water Holdings which paid $183,000 to an alleged NSW Liberal slush fund.
Mr Roberts would not detail the matters before ICAC and said it would not be up to him to say whether mining would go ahead at Bentley.
“There are processes that are open and transparent,” he told reporters on Thursday.
“My department at arm’s length has made the decision and my department at arm’s length would make the decision as to whether they are compliant or not into the future.”
Farmer Peter Graham, who agreed to let Metgasco put an exploratory CSG well on his 700-acre property at Bentley, was dismayed at news of the licence suspension.
He described the news as like someone ripping his heart out.
“What it means, who knows?” he told AAP.
“Is it just a short-term suspension, is it indefinitely, I have no idea… we need to find out some more detail.”
Mr Graham said his gates had been welded shut by protesters and spikes put over his driveway in recent months.
Across the road from his property, the mood was more jubilant as protesters celebrated the mining plans coming to a halt.
“It’s a big victory for the people,” Ian Galliard, of Lock the Gate Alliance, said.
“While we are happy with the suspension, we really look at it with a wary eye of what comes next.”
NSW police had planned an operation in Bentley next week with rumours as many as 800 officers would surround the area.
However, police said on Thursday the operation had been cancelled.
Shares in Metgasco have been put in a trading halt.
Metgasco and Mr Bellas were contacted for comment.