The Sydney basin faced the prospect of more coal mining after the Berejiklian government sought submissions of interest in what would be the first new exploration licence in the region in more than two decades. It also applied for the extension of several other licences.
South32's Endeavour Coal is indicated an interest in exploring for coal in a 4087-hectare region just north of Picton on Sydney's south-western edge, according to the Government Gazette.
The last licence to be issued in the Sydney basin was in 1993. The government, though, has also applied to have three much larger exploration licences in the basin renewed after they expired, and has sought to have a fourth renewed before it expires next May.
Kate Smolski, chief executive of the NSW Nature Conservation Council, said “it beggars belief that the government has done this just one week after it declared the whole of NSW drought-affected”.
“We need to be shutting coal mines, not opening new ones," she said. "Protecting our climate should be the governments top priority.”
A spokesman for the Planning Department said South32's interest was approval under the Operational Allocation Framework, which only allows miners to make an application to explore on land adjacent to an existing mine.
South32 has applied for the exploration licence but it is yet to be issued.
"An exploration licence does not allow any mining to take place," the spokesman said.
South 32 operates four collieries in adjacent areas to the Picton exploration area.
"If the application is approved, exploration activities would only be conducted within an approved area and according to strict government guidelines," said a spokesman for the miner, formerly part of BHP. "We have been engaging with the local community over several weeks to explain the exploration process and listen to feedback."
The NSW Greens, though, questioned the interest of South32 in further expansion, noting its mines in the area had clocked up hundreds of non-compliance reports since 1999. The four mines – West Cliff, North Cliff, Appin and Appin West Collieries – had yet to receive a penalty notice.
Jeremy Buckingham, the Greens mining spokesman, said it was hard to understand why the government would consider granting a new coal exploration licence in the Sydney basin "to this repeat offender".
“BHPs south-west Sydney coal mines have breached their environmental protection licences 447 times in the past 18 years without any consequences, making a mockery of the law," he said.
"We take our environmental responsibilities seriously and our decisions reflect this," the South32 spokesman said. "The potential exploration activities would not have an impact on water supply."
A spokeswoman for the NSW Environment Protection Authority said that "in all cases of non-compliance, action was taken that was appropriate to the nature of the breach".
"Minor licence breaches such as sampling errors, instrument failures or minimal exceedances of licence limits do not warrant penalties," said, adding that all non-compliances were recorded on the EPA Public Register.
The other four licences that the government is seeking to have extended include 516 square kilometres of land to the east and west of Campbelltown, 265.5 square kilometres near Moss Vale, a 52 square-kilometre region south-west of Camden, and 172 square kilometres north-east of Camden.
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the government had issued the exploration license – that step has not yet been taken.