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