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Minerals waiting game

WHILE industry analysts decry the decline in exploration spending in Australia, many companies have been waiting for the green light to spend their exploration dollars in Western Australia.

Some have been left idling for as long as five years, while others have done an about turn to pursue prospective regions overseas.

The mining and petroleum industries are therefore keen to hear the outcome later this month of their submissions to the WA Govern-ment’s Technical Taskforce on Mineral Ten-ements and Land Title Applications.

The taskforce was set up by the Gallop Government in April in response to mounting concerns over inefficiencies in land title applications and a backlog of mineral tenements applications.

Eleven thousand applications are outstanding, the bulk of these for prospecting licences, exploration licences and mining leases.

Growing by 200 each month, the applications are mostly delayed in satisfying the requirements of both the Native Title Act and the WA Mining Act.

Some applications were first submitted to the Department of Minerals and Petroleum Resources in 1996 and, with companies required to pay upfront the first year’s rental fee, which is non-refundable until the application is either withdrawn or refused, the Government is facing significant payouts to those not willing to wait any longer.

If 80 per cent of the outstanding mining lease applications were withdrawn, the Government would be forced to refund $18 million.

The Government and industry groups appear united in their urgency to rectify the situation, with bodies such as the Australian Mining and Petroleum Law Association (AMPLA), the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies (AMEC), and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) responding with vigour to the technical taskforce’s August discussion paper.

The discussion paper outlined issues and options concerning mining, petroleum and land titles and Aboriginal heritage, but in addition to inviting comment, also made recommendations.

The recommendations have upset AMPLA, which has submitted that the paper cannot be viewed as merely a “discussion”, given the taskforce already has revealed its preferred option regarding mining lease applications.

Under this option, companies that withdraw a mining lease application and apply for a new exploration licence would be credited with the rent money paid when lodging their initial mining lease application.

AMEC appears less sensitive to the inclusion of recommendations in a discussion paper, strongly backing the recommended option.

However it takes to task the paper’s view that upfront rental money is state property, and suggests it should be held in trust, as “rightfully the property of the applicant”.

AMEC also is concerned mooted changes to the Mining Act could undo a system whereby exploration land must again be made available to others should a company not carry out stated work and expenditure within a given time.

And while AMPLA considers the backlog of applications entirely due to the Native Title Act, APPEA has submitted that the process of sorting out Native Title Act issues, rather than the Act itself, is a key factor delaying the issue of permits.

If administrative processes were changed, heritage issues could be resolved more promptly, APPEA contends.

AMEC has gone further, criticising what it views as a taskforce failure to sufficiently address pre-requisite heritage survey agreement issues, and delays in resolving these.

AMEC has submitted that a binding heritage protocol must replace the current practice of companies negotiating individual agreements with native title groups.

Failure to establish such a protocol would render virtually useless any changes to the Mining Act to allow waiting companies to swap applications, AMEC contends.

APPEA has cautioned that any change to native title processes for minerals tenements and land titles should be made with care, so as not to produce adverse implications for the petroleum title acreage release process.

An APPEA spokesperson said delays in sorting out onshore native title and heritage issues were precluding petroleum exploration in some areas of northern WA.

“Nothing has been done on some areas the government decided were prospective five years back,” the spokesperson said. “To change the situation is just as much in the State’s interests as in the companies’.

“The message from some of our members is that native title has become such a significant issue that in some cases they’ve decided to turn their exploration attention overseas.”

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