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Battle on the gasfields: an eco protest for the landed middle class

The NSW government has dispatched police to the bush to help the unconventional gas mining industry and prevent prices spiralling. But it may be underestimating political and social damage, writes Andrew Colley from Bentley.

It’s 4am in Bentley, about 15 minutes’ drive west of Lismore in northern New South Wales. Hundreds of protesters, rammed into a small camp site, start dragging themselves out of tents ready to face off with about 200 NSW Police officers, including riot squad members.

They’re responding to a “red alert” text message sent the evening before, asking them to assemble by 5am at a gate about a hundred metres up the road to blockade Metgasco trucks carrying a coal seam gas drilling equipment onto a cattle property. They were joined by more protesters from around region who, due to other commitments, were only able to be present for the confrontation.

By 6.30am today there were still no trucks and no police, and the stand-off now appeared to be entering an attrition phase, with police waiting for the protest to lose momentum.

A week ago Gasfield Free Northern Rivers claimed victory when Metgasco cancelled an attempt to enter the property. At the time they claimed that police — believed to be staying in hotels throughout Lismore — had underestimated the size of the demonstration, which local ABC radio reported to be in the order of 2000 people. NSW Police did not respond to requests for comment.

The property’s owner, Robert Graham, says that the trucks didn’t arrive due to delays in Queensland rather than the blockade and that the GFNR group exaggerated its attendance figure.

Perhaps just as important as the question of “how many?” is that of “who?”. The vehicles in camp were not dominated by the 4WDs of eco-warring regulars. They were present but easily matched in number by the luxury sedans and hatchbacks that kept the camp’s recovery vehicles busy as their owners slid them around and bogged them scrambling to get back home in time for work or to drop kids off at school.

There are lots of middle-class lounge chair activists who have been galvanised to attend because they realise the importance of stopping this industry,” GFNR spokesperson Adam Guise said. “So many are first-timers who are quite inspired and empowered by the experience.”

Local residents fear that Metgasco will turn the Richmond Valley area into a coal seam gasfield overnight. Recent contamination events at other GSG sites — such as the Santos spill in the Pilliga Forest, during which uranium levels in a nearby aquifer climbed to 20 times recommended levels — are high in their minds.

Opposition to Metgasco’s activities in the region is in the high 90% range. Properties edging the drill site bear signs carrying anti-CSG slogans, and one of Graham’s neighbours has given GFNR permission to base their camp and operations on his land. While the official permanent encampment number is 200, a veteran of the site says its support network is deeply embedded in the local community, with businesses quietly donating food and services.

Last week, the number of demonstrators in favour of risking mass arrest surprised even the protest organisers. They’re angry, Guise says, because they see Metgasco’s operations as a form of invasion from which they’re being denied any protection.

Under current petroleum mining laws farmers can only negotiate terms on which gas operators enter their properties but have no grounds on which to refuse them altogether.

Guise says that Metgasco has been operating “under the radar” in the region for about decade, sinking 60 to 70 wells using exploratory licenses. According to Guise, there’s little difference between commercial and exploratory wells. The gas they produce can be piped and stored but can’t be sold.

He believes that Metgasco is burning through cash fast and needs to prove its wells can add up to something commercially viable soon in order to secure extra capital. Metgasco did not respond to Crikey’s requests for comment.

Graham insists that Metgasco didn’t coerce him into providing access to his property, and he says he’s never given his decision a second thought. “If we’d have said no they wouldn’t have come on. Simple. They’re one very easy company to get along with,” he said.

Guise believes Graham has been charmed and misled by the gas industry’s propaganda. Graham takes the mirror opposite view — he believes new technology has pushed the risk involved in CSG mining so low as to be insignificant and the anti-CSG groups are falling for green propaganda.

The protestors are going by 40- to 50-year-old data and technology that was used in Canada and the US and other countries over the years. Maybe some of it did go wrong, but technology has changed, same as medical science has changed,” Graham said.

Phillip Pells, a private groundwater engineering consultant and adjunct professor with the University of NSW civil engineering faculty, says the concerns of other farmers in the area are valid. While he couldn’t specifically talk about the Bentley operation as he’s not familiar with the local geology, he says gas well drilling always has potential interference with aquifers.

In order to get the gas to flow, he explains, the miners need to fracture the coal seam and then pump water out of it. Pells says that will eventually interfere with the aquifer but how quickly it happens depends on the geological conditions at each site.

One of the potential effects is that water flows to creeks and rivers during low rainfall periods could slow or disappear making them more sensitive to drought, he says. However, he believes that fears CSG drilling will contaminate water supplies are excessive, as chemical-based fracking techniques are banned in Australia.

The number one issue is about affecting the water system. This concern about contamination is really not even a number one or number two issue,” Pells told Crikey.

For now, it appears that the structural integrity of NSW’s political and social contract with regional Australia that is under the greatest strain. “The dilemma is that government is forcing this conflict onto communities,” Guise said. “It’s obviously a conflict situation and the government’s role is to resolve conflict.

It’s horrible. It’s pitting farmers against one another, it’s causing division in communities, and nobody wants to see it. But at the end of the day people are being backed into a corner and government at every level has failed them.”

*Photos posted online by David Lowe on Flickr

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  • 1
    MJPC
    Posted Monday, 7 April 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    All power to the people; revolutions always come from the grassroots; where can I sign up!

  • 2
    amy robinsons
    Posted Monday, 7 April 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    While there is little justification or science to support fracking history is repeating itself through a second invasion of these lands from a hostile and mostly foreign culture and interest. These lands were grabbed to industrialise the landscape for farming , now mining is reindustrialising them. Karma is karma baby. The LNP only sees dollar signs and recycled rapacious free* markets while Labor licenced most of NSW to CSG miners and expected us to believe we were reining in emissions. The conspiracy of the self deluded perhaps…

  • 3
    Stephen Wright
    Posted Monday, 7 April 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    The headline seriously misrepresents both the article, and the protest taking place at Bentley. Lismore and the surrounding region is hardly the habitat of ‘landed gentry’.
    The increased number of people at Bentley as opposed to other recent Metgasco sites, is most likely due to the fact that Bentley is just a few minutes from Lismore and is easy to get to. Adam Guise might want to reconsider his use of the phrase ‘lounge chair activists’. CSG is a live issue for everyone on the northern rivers and has united virtually the entire population from Tweed to Grafton.

  • 4
    Lubo Gregor
    Posted Monday, 7 April 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Ehm…so what else is new in the mining colony called Australia? Qui bono?

  • 5
    Andrew Sooby
    Posted Monday, 7 April 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I was independently photographing this morning’s (April 7) anti-Metgasco rally, covered by Andrew Colley (Crikey, April 7 2014). Unsurprisingly, this pole-protestor looks a touch uncomfortable. I’m waiting to hear whether the organisers know who was operating the drone.

    Andrew Sooby

    /Users/admin/Desktop/ANTI ‘TIGHT GAS MINING’ RALLY. BENTLY. N.S.W. 07 APRIL 2014-19.jpeg

  • 6
    PDGFD1
    Posted Monday, 7 April 2014 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Frankly I have no interest whatsoever as to the ‘type’ of activists involved BTW… how is a protest of lesser value if carried out by the ‘middle class’, ‘landed gentry’ or folks in armchairs.
    Seems to me that it’s a case of ‘damned if you do’… I’m sure the cry of ‘greenie hippies’ would arise if it were pertinent.
    More power to the arms of any activists attempting to keep water, our ‘most precious resource’, uncontaminated I SAY!

    The history of mining ‘issues’ in this country comforts no-one with any sense. It’s just too late ‘after the fact’.
    Meanwhile - there is a great deal of evidence to suggest ‘fracking’ has had a deleterious effect on water supplies in other countries (see some links, below… and I didn’t have to try very hard to find some either).

    Other than the obvious ‘chemical residue’ issues (which ‘our’ (really?) companies claim to have overcome)… any leakage of water itself from any subterranean water table is absolutely not on.
    No hydrologist worth their salt is going to give anyone a 100% surety that an accident won’t happen, (especially when horizontal drilling is involved) and that’s an end to it if one has more than one neuron to work with.

    Apparently ‘we’ feel the need to line the pockets of various companies so that they can fulfill their international contracts.. I see no gain in that for us (the actual ‘us’, that is).

    Links for perusal…(not a ‘loony’ amongst them)
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/04/us/04natgas.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2534508/Water-three-U-S-states-Pennsylvania-Ohio-West-Virginia-polluted-FRACKING.html

    http://www.nrdc.org/energy/gasdrilling/

  • 7
    amy robinsons
    Posted Monday, 7 April 2014 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    ” Adam Guise might want to reconsider his use of the phrase ‘lounge chair activists’”. Agreed Stephen.

    Adam that’s lazy journalism — this issue has a broad support base from cow cockeys, firies, hippies, rednecks, townies, young folk etc etc. One of most diverse groups you will ever see.

    Prove me wrong but perhaps the ‘lounge chair activists’ are closer to Sydney especially when it comes to solar uptake and other related emission issues. (Like mega-billion dollar westconnex innovative car parking projects)

    Over to you Carbon Bigfoot…?

  • 8
    amy robinsons
    Posted Monday, 7 April 2014 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    And unlike those Melbourne methane-hugging hipsters we might even have an auto industry :) http://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2014/02/17/3946517.htm

  • 9
    Simon Mansfield
    Posted Monday, 7 April 2014 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Yes so much better to get our fuel from somewhere else.

    The real issue should be about where the gas is used. If used locally to provide fuel for gas fired power plants as back up for wind and solar then it would be a great energy solution. Even better would be to get rid of the cows and grow trees instead on these farms and combine that with a network of CSG plants, Wind farms and small scale gas fired power stations. But don’t expect the local cockies to be signing up for that integrated solution.

    And don’t forget many of these local farmers voted for the Nats and oppose the carbon tax. Obviously that does not apply to all of them. But given Alan Jones is one of the biggest loud mouths opposing CSG and the Carbon Tax - it’s pretty obvious there is some constipated thinking behind all this.

    Apart from being used as a gas for power stations and at home for cooking and hot water, CSG like any natural gas can easily be converted to a compressed natural gas as a low-cost low-emission liquid fuel - at a price far lower than what we are currently paying at the petrol pump. Anyone with reticulated gas could fuel their car overnight at less than 20% of what they are paying for petrol at present.

    Depending on the local geology there are at times good reasons to not allow a CSG operation to go ahead. The same applies to shale gas formations, which in some cases does occur at shallow depths near drinkable water tables.

    However, in many cases both CSG and Shale formations are at depths far below the drinkable water table. And in the case of Shale one to three thousand metres below the water table. Like all energy sources regulation and enforcement are key to a fuel source being made safe. Don’t forget, most of the cheap solar panels coming out of China at present are made in factories that are poorly regulated and spew chemicals into local waterways with limited to no controls. And these can be so poorly made homeowners will be lucky to get 10 years use out of them.

    Moreover, 90% of the people attending these CSG protests are themselves large scale users of multiple fossil fuels and think little about where the petrol comes from that they put in their tanks to drive out to Bentley etc. And plenty of them get on planes and fly all over the world whenever they want to. And so what if they tack on a carbon offset purchase with their airline ticket - as if that makes any real difference to their personal energy footprint. It’s a just a medieval indulgence dressed up for those feeling guilty in the 21st century.

    Most anti CSG protesters have no real interest in understanding the broader energy economy other than slapping a few solar panels on their roofs and voting Green this time.

    The whole energy issue needs to be radically reframed to being about taking responsibility for energy at a local, regional and national level and not outsourcing ones fuel supply to the middle east, the arctic - east africa and all the other places beyond your own backyard people will be getting their liquid fuels from.

    The irony is that James Hansen is trying to get people in the US to understand that if you really care about climate change then you better be prepared to accept nuclear - otherwise fracking is the only immediate alternative to coal for powering our civilization. Hansen has little faith in renewables - and while I don’t entirely agree with him on that point. The reality is we need enormous amounts of energy and a knee jerk opposition to any of these energy sources is not a viable solution.

  • 10
    Andrew Sooby
    Posted Monday, 7 April 2014 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Further to my earlier post, sorry, the essential photo doesn’t appear to show up. But the drone being used was, the organisers have assured me, friendly and being used to get footage of the rallies for their website.

  • 11
    Tyger Tyger
    Posted Monday, 7 April 2014 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    One way of knowing whether the protesters truly “…realise the importance of stopping this industry…” would be to ask them how they would feel about having wind farms in place of fracking on their or their neighbours’ properties. I’m presuming they’re not proposing to stop using all forms of energy.
    Personally I’m opposed to fracking and I don’t pretend to know the particulars of this protest, but I’m wary of NIMBY actions masquerading as environmental ones.

  • 12
    AR
    Posted Tuesday, 8 April 2014 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Amy & Lubo above seem to appreciate the irony of the new theft of the land from the earlier thieves.
    Cui bono indeed.
    Poor bugger, my country.

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