VICTORIA’S hold on granting new exploration licences for all types of onshore natural gas will remain in place until at least July 2015, while the Victorian state election is scheduled for 29 November this year.

The state government announced in late May that it would put work plan approvals for onshore gas exploration on hold until evidence from the water study and information on community views and industry impacts was available.

Minister for Energy and Resources Russell Northe said it was important that the community and industry were clear about what activities were allowed or not allowed.

“It is clear to the Coalition Government that there is community concern around prospective onshore gas exploration under currently held licences,” he said.

To address this, the state government sponsored a series of public information sessions, called Open Days, held throughout western Victoria and Gippsland from June until August.

The sessions discussed a potential onshore natural gas industry in Victoria, with technical specialists, including geologists and hydrogeologists, attending.

More than 600 people turned out to sessions in Gippsland and more than 500 have participated at Torquay, Casterton, Terang and Colac, Mr Northe said.

Further engagement activities will include meetings with community groups, local government and farmers, and workshops to discuss specific issues in greater depth.

“This is not just a listening exercise, it’s an information exercise. We want to ensure that everyone has an understanding of the facts to help them participate in discussions about a potential onshore natural gas industry in Victoria,” Mr Northe said.

“We intend to gain a comprehensive understanding of the issues and the range of views across the community, particularly in the regional and rural communities, before making any decision on this important matter.”

But the forums have not won universal approval, with opposition Energy and Resources spokeswoman Lily D’Ambrosio saying the community consultations had been conducted without all the necessary evidence.

“(The government) is undertaking a separate process of investigations in terms of aquifers and mapping and the like, and yet that information is not available through the community consultation process,” she said.

Ms D’Ambrosio also criticised Mr Northe’s refusal to confirm whether he would make public a report on what had transpired at the sessions until 2015 – after the election.

“This should be a genuine community engagement process where you share information with the community and not go off and have your series of consultation, write down your little notes and then put it in a report that sits on a desk that no-one gets to see before you make a decision,” she said.

“That is not the hallmark of an honest and genuine effort to get to the bottom of whether or not we have a coal seam gas industry in Victoria.

As of April, there were 11 current petroleum exploration permits for tight and shale gas in Victoria and 15 current mineral exploration licences for coal seam gas, with none approved for production.

There were three current retention leases for tight and shale gas, though none of these had approved operations plans for tight and shale gas production.