The Wilderness Society and Lock the Gate protest outside the Santos general meeting in Adelaide. The issue of fracking for coal seam gas is heating up in the lead up to the Victorian election. Photograph: Josh Coates/Supplied
The Victorian government is claiming an Australian first – a web tool called Mining Licences Near Me, which will make it easier for people to find out whether a licence has been issued under their home or farm.
Environment and farming groups have welcomed the initiative, but acknowledge that the sensitivity around exploration licences focuses on one issue: whether an onshore unconventional gas industry will be allowed in Victoria.
Unconventional gas, also known as coal seam gas (CSG), tight gas, or shale gas, often requires hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The industry says it is safe with proper safeguards, while critics say it risks contaminating water tables and damaging prime agricultural land.
The Liberal, National and Labor parties are avoiding stating a clear position before next month’s election, leaving the Greens, which are unequivocally opposed, to gather support among regional and rural communities worried about the risks.
Unlike Queensland and New South Wales, Victoria has no unconventional gas industry, although the previous Labor government granted more than 20 exploration licences in the east and west of the state, with more pending.
Environment group Lock the Gate has been campaigning in Victoria for two years. So far, 33 towns have declared themselves “gasfield free”. On Tuesday night, Geelong councillors unanimously supported a permanent ban on “fracking”, the controversial process involving pumping water and chemicals underground to allow the gas to flow more freely.
“Victoria doesn’t have an industry here as of yet,” said Lock the Gate Victoria co-convenor Chloe Aldenhoven. “Queensland and NSW didn’t have the opportunity before the industry got a foothold to make an informed decision about whether they wanted it. We have an opportunity to stop the industry from going ahead.”
CSG is contentious in other states, with the NSW government on Wednesday revoking the licences of a coal seam gas company for compliance breaches, a decision the environment movement called “landmark”.
Faced with rising community concern in Victoria, the Napthine government introduced Australia’s first moratorium on CSG exploration licences and fracking approvals in 2012. It is undertaking community consultations and water studies before finalising its position.
The moratorium is due to expire in July next year, and communities likely to be impacted are demanding the parties declare their stance before the state election.
The Greens hold three upper house seats in the Victorian parliament, and believe they have their best chance of winning their first seat outside Melbourne partly on this issue, which could give them the balance of power.
Water engineer Lloyd Davies is challenging the Nationals’ David O’Brien for the fifth seat in the western region that includes cities such as Geelong, Warrnambool and Colac.
Greens leader Greg Barber said the party had come “very close to winning the western Victoria upper house seat in the last two elections, and if we do it this time, it will likely mean no one party controls the upper house”.
“At the moment neither Labor nor Liberal will agree to a permanent ban. For all the talk, it’s clear both of them support onshore gas drilling in some form. “
The energy and resources minister, Russell Northe, told ABC radio on Wednesday that the government was “hastening very slowly” in deciding whether to allow an industry in Victoria.
“I take exception to some of the commentary particularly from the Greens who suggest that if the Coalition government is re-elected that we are going to proceed with the industry. It’s simply not the fact. We’re going through this process at the moment which takes time.”
Labor’s says it will hold a 12-month inquiry into CSG and fracking if elected.