The choice of a former mining industry consultant to head a government investigation into AGL’s discovery of toxic chemicals at its coal-seam gas operations raises doubts about the probe’s impartiality, a local opposition group says.
Lee Shearer, an ex-NSW policewoman from the Newcastle region, is overseeing the Department of Resources and Energy’s probe of the AGL’s coal-seam gas operations near Gloucester. The company was ordered to suspend its pilot project last month after revealing it had detected banned BTEX chemicals in its flowback water after fracking.
You have to question if someone who has worked as a consultant in the mining industry is best placed to lead an investigation into AGL’s CSG activities in Gloucester
Energy Minister Anthony Roberts praised Ms Shearer, now in charge of his department’s compliance and enforcement unit. “As former senior NSW police officer, Lee Shearer is just a remarkable individual, so we take compliance very seriously,” Mr Roberts told a delegation to Sydney last week from the anti-CSG group, Groundswell Gloucester.
The residents group, though, said Ms Shearer’s past role as a consultant to the mining industry, including “managing crisis situations” fanned worries about her independence.
On her own page on the LinkedIn website, Ms Shearer details her expertise in assisting companies “in dealing with community sensitive issues such as land acquisition” and “managing volatile community response”. “Lee is acutely aware of protecting the brand of the client whilst managing difficult situations,” the entry states.
“We call on [Energy Minister Roberts] to suspend the AGL Gloucester gas field licence until a thorough investigation of the entire wholly inadequate approval is undertaken by a totally independent investigator,” said Julie Lyford, a former Gloucester mayor and spokeswoman for Groundswell Gloucester.
“No one is questioning the integrity or the highly experienced qualifications of Ms Shearer,” Ms Lyford said. “We are questioning the ability of the minister to show full impartiality and employ, again from the public purse, a suitably qualified investigator with no links to the mining or coal-seam gas industry.”
Mr Roberts suspended AGL’s operations on January 28 pending the results of a probe into the source of chemicals in the BTEX group – benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes – found in flowback water. Benzene is a known carcinogen.
The chemicals can occur naturally in coal and gas deposits, and AGL said it did not use them in its fracking.
A spokesman for Mr Roberts said Ms Shearer had not worked as a consultant since joining the department in June last year.
“The DRE investigation will be thorough, robust and transparent,” the spokesman said, with the final report to be made public.
“Ms Shearer brings a wealth of investigative experience,” the spokesman said, including serving in the police force for 23 years. “To suggest otherwise is false and misleading.”
Opposition Leader Luke Foley, who has called for a moratorium on coal-seam gas in NSW, said the public may not have the “full confidence in the inquiry and the findings”.
“You have to question if someone who has worked as a consultant in the mining industry is best placed to lead an investigation into AGL’s CSG activities in Gloucester,” Mr Foley said. “This inquiry needs to get to the bottom of what has occurred in Gloucester and the public needs to have confidence in the process.”
Greens mining spokesman Jeremy Buckingham said it was vital for any investigator to be completely independent and have the expertise necessary.
“Despite the Chief Scientist’s [Mary O’Kane’s] report and commitments to ‘world’s best practice’, the government continues to make decisions that undermine trust and facilitate the coal-seam gas industry,” Mr Buckingham said, adding it was time for coal-seam gas to be banned in the state.
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