AN estimated 500 people took part in a protest paddle-out at Nobbys Beach on Saturday in the latest in a series of such events that aim to pressure the federal government to cancel the controversial PEP-11 licence that two West Australian companies are using to explore for gas off the Hunter coast.
Petroleum Exploration Area 11 officially expired on February 12 but its two holders, Advent Energy (85 per cent) and Bounty Oil and Gas (15 per cent) are hoping the federal Minister for Resources, Keith Pitt, will renew it for at least two years.
At the same time, Advent's major shareholder BPH Energy Ltd has told the stock exchange in a quarterly operations report that it has applied to the National Offshore Petroleum Titles Administrator (NOPTA) to drill at the Baleen area of PEP-11.
Baleen is about 24 kilometres off the coast and about 30 kilometres south-east of Newcastle.
"The application to NOPTA includes the extension of the permit title for up to two years to enable the drilling and includes an application for the removal of the requirement for a 500-square-kilometre three-dimensional seismic program," the BPH report states.
"NOPTA has confirmed that this application is now in the final decision phase."
The report says Advent and Bounty were proposing to use the Baleen drilling program to "investigate the potential for carbon capture and storage".
PEP-11 has become a controversial issue with an unusual coalition of environmental groups and politicians - including Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Deputy Premier and Trade Minister John Barilaro - arraigned against gas production from the area.
At the same time, high-profile federal Nationals including Matt Canavan are supporting the project, with Mr Canavan saying during a recent visit to the Hunter that oil and gas rigs had sat "just off the coast of Melbourne" for nearly 50 years.
Asked to comment after Saturday's paddle-out at Newcastle, Mr Pitt said he was still considering his decision.
"As I have stated regularly, I will give this proposal and the recommendations from Minister Barilaro and NOPTA the full and detailed consideration they deserve, making a decision in the national interest," Mr Pitt said on Sunday.
Mr Barilaro announced his opposition to the project soon after the licence lapsed in February. A spokesperson for Mr Pitt said the "recommendation' from the titles office was not "public".
Asked for a time frame on the decision, Mr Pitt said it would be made "in due course".
Natasha Deen, the Lake Macquarie dentist and public health advocate who began the Save Our Coast group in early 2018, said the campaign against proposed east coast gas extraction would continue.
The Nobby's protest followed similar gatherings at Mona Vale on Sydney's northern beaches a fortnight ago and at Terrigal a week ago. Another paddle-out is planned for Byron Bay next Saturday.
"We just want Mr Pitt to make a decision that listens to the wishes of the people," Dr Deen said on Sunday.
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