Hearing casts doubt on mass of licences

TWO former ministers at the centre of the state’s biggest corruption investigation oversaw the granting of hundreds of mining and exploration licences, including dozens of coal licences and leases in the Hunter Valley.

The Greens have called for a royal commission on the operation and administration of the state’s Mining Act, amid revelations from the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s  hearings.

Its investigations centre on allegations that former mineral resources minister Ian Macdonald provided Labor MP and powerbroker Eddie Obeid and his sons with inside information about the tender process for 11 exploration licences.

It allowed them to quadruple the value of the family’s farm at Mount Penny, in the Bylong Valley, and take a significant interest in the leading tenderer, Monaro Mining, conferring benefits of $100million.

Mr Obeid was also mineral resources minister, between 1999 and 2003.

According to the current register, more than 60 coal titles were granted during that time.

About 100 were granted while Mr Macdonald was mineral resources minister, the majority near Muswellbrook, Singleton, Gloucester and Gunnedah.  About  400  titles for other minerals were also awarded across the state.

The ICAC has heard evidence the industry’s bigger companies were furious when Mr Macdonald  decided in 2008 to restrict a batch of new mining licences to small-to-medium companies.

Bylong Valley residents have called for the licences in that area to be suspended.

But it could be  months before any action, with Premier Barry O’Farrell saying yesterday the government’s hands were tied for now.

 ‘‘... legally we do not have the power to act until ICAC has made a finding and until action is followed as a result of that finding,’’ he said.

 Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham said a broader inquiry  needed to consider how licences generally had been issued, who had benefited,  and  the  fees charged for some exploration licences.

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