TWENTY-TWO coal seam gas exploration licences across NSW, including two of the region's most controversial, are set to be renewed after the release of the state government's final strategic land use plan.
More than 2 million hectares of land in the Upper Hunter and New England regions have been deemed prime agricultural land or viticulture and equine industry clusters, but no areas will be off limits to mining under the final version of the policy, which was released yesterday.
The exploration licences, which had been on hold pending the plan's completion, include two of the region's most controversial - AGL's 267, originally granted over the Hunter's vineyards, and Dart Energy's 458 over Fullerton Cove and Newcastle suburbs.
The government said it would enforce a requirement for 25 per cent of licence areas to be relinquished on renewal, meaning less land would be covered.
The plan, as in the draft policy, sets out a gateway process, whereby independent experts would assess the impact a major coal mining or coal seam gas project would have on land and water ahead of a development assessment phase.
"The net result of this policy will be protection of agriculture and protection of strategic agricultural land for the first time in over 200 years in this state," Planning Minister Brad Hazzard said.
"But at the same time we'll be able to access taxpayers resources that sit below the ground."
Farmers and vignerons criticised the draft land policy for failing to "ring fence" prime lands.
Under the final version, projects that do not meet criteria for agricultural and water effects could still proceed to the development application stage, although shortcomings set out in a "conditional gateway certificate" from the panel would have to be addressed before approval was being given.
The gateway process would only apply to projects in new areas or expansions of projects beyond existing lease areas, not to expansions of mines within existing leases.
Muswellbrook mayor Martin Rush said it was a significant failing that meant only three projects proposed in his shire would be subject to the process, as most proposals were expansions in existing leases.
One widely criticised aspect of the draft that has been removed is a clause that would have allowed the cabinet to override the gateway process in "exceptional circumstances".