Coal seam gas extraction in some of Australia's prime agricultural land is set to become an election issue, with reports an Australian miner has set out a three-year program to explore for gas in the Liverpool plains.
Fossil fuel giant Santos have lodged an application with the NSW government to explore gas in "PEL 1", a petroleum exploration license that covers an area south of Gunnedah, Fairfax reports, placing it in prime agricultural land and amid the bastion of fierce community resistance to CSG.
The news comes as Nationals Leader and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce -- who last year opposed a massive Chinese owned mine in the same region -- prepares to appear on The ABC's Q&A in Tamworth.
Anti-coal mine and anti-CSG extraction campaigners told The Huffington Post Australia they welcome the opportunity for Joyce to face questions from the electorate on Monday night.
"If he's saying he can't do anything about it, then he shouldn't be coming out scoring political points by coming out and saying he's opposed to it," said Lock the Gate Alliance spokeswoman George Woods.
"If he can't do anything about it, that means the agriculture minister, the water minister, has no control over whether or not mining goes ahead on our best farmland and in our best water resources, and that's just not acceptable to our communities around the countryside."
She said she expects a number of audience members to ask both Joyce and his rival for the New England seat, Tony Windsor, about coal seam gas and coal mining in the region.
"There needs to be legislation at the commonwealth level to protect water resources and farmland from both coal and gas, and we'd love to hear a commitment from the minister tonight on Q&A that this is something his government is going to do," Woods said.
"It's been a big issue for a while and we're yet to see the government take any action."
"All of these politicians continue to say they don't want any mining on our prime agricultural land, but none of them have done anything to actually prevent it from happening."
Friends of the Liverpool Plains spokesman Tim Duddy told HuffPost Australia the underlying environmental issues -- particularly the potential effects on water catchments -- put it at the forefront of the election.
He said he also expects community concern to be voiced on tonight's program.
"What it clearly shows is every cause as to why you would never invest in these companies. They don't have any concept of how controversial they are," he said.
"Farmers will fight in this space for our water resources."
Mullaley farmer David Quince told Fairfax the National Party had hoodwinked voters into thinking that CSG is a state issue, or that they don't have any powers to stop it.
"But the reality is they have all the power they need at a federal level to protect land, water and communities – they just don't want to," he said.
"We're tired of the double-speak and the blame-shifting – either Barnaby Joyce steps up now and delivers real protections for the Liverpool Plains, or he is revealed as a hollow man who supports multinational mining giants at the expense of local farmers."
Greens NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon said CSG would remain a political headache for Joyce.
"And rightly so," she said.
"As Deputy Leader he will not be able to walk both sides of the street on this.
"The Nationals could intervene but their loyalty lies with their donors and with the fossil fuels industry."
Santos reportedly owns exploration acreage covering 200,000 kilometres of Australia.
In a statement Santos said it has no plans to carry out any exploration activity on the Liverpool Plains in the PEL 1 area.
"Santos has applied to renew PEL 1 in compliance with NSW legislation to maintain its licences in good order," the company said.
"Santos is only focussed on activity around the Narrabri Gas Project which is some 100km from the Liverpool Plains."
A spokesman for Mr Joyce told Fairfax the granting and renewal of mining exploration licences were "entirely the responsibility of the NSW Government".