A PERTH company has announced it is set to become the first to do an underwater exploratory drill for gas in the Sydney basin off the NSW coast.

Advent Energy plans to start drilling into the seabed in federal government-controlled waters 55 kilometres east of Newcastle in mid-October, according to its executive director, David Breeze.

The announcement, made to the Australian Stock Exchange, comes just weeks after the Labor candidates in two marginal central coast federal seats, Craig Thomson and Deborah O'Neill, said during the election campaign that they had successfully forced the company to withdraw its application to start drilling.

This followed an outcry from local councils and residents about a site 25 kilometres off Forresters Beach near Terrigal that was initially slated as Advent's target and may have played a role in helping the candidates win their seats.

The office of the federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, confirmed that Advent's previous application for drilling approval was withdrawn.

However, Mr Breeze said that the site off Forresters Beach was one of four which it was considering in the area and it has now moved its focus over the horizon to the New Seaclem-1 site, which is not visible from the shore.

The company intends to tow the Ocean Patriot rig from Victoria so it can test the New Seaclem-1 site for the presence of gas 826 metres below the sea floor, Mr Breeze said.

This would take about 20 days, during which sensors on the drill would send information to a computer aboard the rig and then the hole would be plugged, he said.

''You put cement casing into it and you seal it off and have a three foot [0.9 metre] cement plug just under the sea floor,'' he said.

If the exploratory drill is successful, extracting the gas would entail putting a platform out of sight on the sea floor and burying a pipe which would convey it into the existing Newcastle-Sydney gas pipeline ashore, he said.

The offshore Sydney basin covering 8200 square kilometres could possibly contain almost as much gas as the massive Bass Strait fields, but it has not been explored more extensively because it was so close to a plentiful supply of coal, he said.

Now that concerns about carbon emissions have come to the fore, there is more interest in gas, a cleaner energy source which as a fuel replacement for coal in power stations could help Australia meet its Kyoto protocol objectives, he said.

The NSW Minister for Mineral Resources, Paul McLeay, confirmed that this would be the first exploration drilling well ever off the state's coast if it proceeds.

The Department of Industry and Investment is awaiting revised application documents from Advent Energy, including a modified environment plan and well design plans, he said.

Gosford City Council a month ago passed a motion strongly objecting to the company's plans, saying there had been no social, economic or environmental impact assessment. ''A large proportion of my community rely on the beaches for tourism,'' said the mayor, Chris Holstein.

''If anything was to impact on our beaches, it would have a major impact not only on the environment, but economically.''

Wyong Council has also raised issues about possible pollution, the effects on fish and migrating whales and how any subsea rupture would be handled.

''We are not against gas. We think it's a wonderful thing. But we want to be sure the seabed is not disturbed,'' said the mayor of Wyong, Bob Graham.

However, there is a further catch.The federal environment department has no new application for gas drilling off the NSW coast before it, according to Mr Garrett's spokesman.

Any proposal likely to have a significant impact on an area protected by environmental law needed approval to go ahead, he said.

Mr Breeze said his company would fulfil all the requirements of federal government departments.


Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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