Access battle a winner for couple

Claire TyrrellCountryman

Gingin farming couple Gavin and Sheila Drew have set themselves up for retirement after reaching a settlement to sell a large portion of their land to Empire Oil and Gas, effectively ending a bitter legal dispute.

Initially scheduled for a court hearing on May 31, the dispute is expected to be fully resolved next week when a property sale settlement should be signed.

Empire Oil and Gas (Empire) caved into the Drews' demands late last month by opting to buy 200 hectares of the property at a premium.

Gavin Drew welcomed the deal, which came after an eight-month fight.

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"It was a real struggle. In the end they came to the party and it was amicable," he said.

"We are very satisfied and I think it's a good thing for farmers because it shows you can get a good outcome.

"I would not want everyone to go through what we have been through to get it, though."

Sheep and cattle farmers, the Drews have been at war with Empire since September 2011 when the petroleum company's exploration licence on their land expired.

At the cessation of the two-year agreement, the Drews instructed Empire to vacate their property but the petroleum company wanted to continue accessing the land at a reduced compensation rate.

Empire then sought to exercise its rights under the Petroleum Act to determine a rate of compensation in the Magistrate's Court so it could maintain access.

Lawyer representing the Drews, Philip Brunner, said it would have been the first case in WA where compensation was determined for an onshore petroleum activity in court.

"In the end an offer was made which was too good for the Drews to refuse," he said.

"It was in line with the position the Drews adopted at the beginning of the exercise."

Mr Brunner said if anything could be learnt from this case, it is that oil and gas issues vary greatly from those associated with mining activities.

"There is a greater exposure to adverse outcomes where oil and gas is concerned," he said.

"Under the Mining Act, the landowner has a power of veto on exploration but in oil and gas you effectively cannot say no.

"The issue of how compensation can be reached is a different process (under oil and gas)."

Mr Brunner said a lack of trust between the Drews and Empire caused the dispute to reach boiling point.

"The original access agreement allowed access to 2ha but Empire fenced off 10ha, so within the first week they had already breached the agreement," he said.

"When trust has been destroyed it is so much more difficult to get a resolution that everyone is happy with."

Mr Brunner planned to raise trespass and contract breaches in the Magistrate's Court but all applications to the court would now be withdrawn.

He said he was happy the matter had been resolved out of court but he would have had no qualms about determining the matter in court.

Dollar figures on the purchase are expected to be revealed to the stock exchange next week.

Empire managing director Craig Marshall said the Drews got a more than fair deal because his company opted to purchase more land than was needed.

"We bought a large piece of land. We bought 200ha but we only need 23ha," he said. "We believe this is a good outcome for the Drews and a satisfactory outcome for us."

Mr Marshall, who has a background in agriculture, said the company would look to continue using the land for grazing and/or tree plantations.

The deal will allow Empire to forge ahead with construction of its Red Gully gas concentration and treatment plant, to be constructed on the 23ha tenement on the Drews' land.

Gas from the plant will be pumped through the Dampier to Bunbury natural gas pipeline, a section of which runs through the Drew farm.

Mr Marshall said a 2800m pipeline easement would be built on the remaining portion of the Drews' land.

Empire is expected to begin construction of the Red Gully gas plant in August this year.

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