Under new NSW Government protocols mining companies will be able to challenge whether their proposed coal seam gas projects must adhere to new rules designed to protect some of the state's most sensitive land.
Published on Friday, the protocol outlines how companies can request a ''site verification'' of sensitive land on which they are proposing to mine or drill, SMH reports.
If the land fails to meet any of 10 criteria laid out in the verification process, it will be reclassified and subject to less rigorous environmental testing.
According to the Planning Department the protocol will assist landholders and companies ''understand what is required'' for land to be subject to the tighter environmental tests.
The opposition has accused the government of weakening protections afforded to farmers and other landholders who are opposed to mining on their properties.
In order for mining companies to gain access to land that has been classified as “strategic” due to is environmental or agricultural value, the rules introduced last year stipulate miners must follow a ''gateway'' process.
The process requires coal and coal seam gas mining proposals to be scrutinised by an expert panel before a development application can be lodged.
But Friday’s protocol details how companies can appeal strategic land classifications which are subject to this gateway process.
According to the document companies can either choose to accept that the land to which they want access is strategic land, or lodge a ''site verification application''.
The application process will then decide if the land meets the criteria for being classified as strategic. If any of the criteria are not met, the gateway process need not be followed.
Opposition planning spokesman Luke Foley said the verification process makes all strategic land in NSW vulnerable to coal and coal seam gas activity.
''The government has now further weakened what was a very weak policy to begin with,'' he said.
''The result is a Swiss cheese effect, where coal seam gas infrastructure can be built on land throughout an agricultural region without the company even being required to go through a gateway process.''
As a result coal seam gas activity ''will proceed on some of the state's most productive and iconic agricultural land,'' Foley said.
''Not a single hectare of NSW is reserved for food production,'' he said.
A Department of Planning spokesman argued that the protocol could benefit landowners whose land is currently not classified as strategic on existing government maps.
He said it allows landholders to request to have their land verified if a mining company sought access.
He explained that if the land meets the criteria the mining or coal seam gas application would be subject to the gateway process.
NSW Farmers' Association president Fiona Simson said the protocol was ''disappointing''.
She said that what is of heightened concern was the inadequacy of the gateway process, which the association has criticised for not preventing coal seam gas exploration activity.
''The problem with the gateway process is that there is no gate. Most, if not all, mining projects will get through this process eventually and those that don't now have an additional mechanism to challenge land classification.''