Bentley blockade: a win for people power

May 23, 2014
Bentley protectors celebrate after hearing the government had suspended the exploration licence for the area.

“A huge win for people power” is how campaigners describe the victory against gas company Metgasco, which had its exploration licence at Bentley suspended by the New South Wales government on May 15.

But it took several years of systematic campaigning to get to this decision.

I spent time at the Bentley blockade over May 17 to 19 and spoke to protectors, organisers and participants who were still shocked at the NSW government’s decision.

They had been preparing to non-violently resist up to 700 police, including members of the riot squad, which had been planning to break the blockade to allow Metgasco to drill. The police called it Operation Stapler.

Up to 10,000 people were expected to resist — not just at the site but all over the Northern Rivers.

Then, suddenly, the licence was suspended just four days before the operation was to be unleashed.

It became clear to at least some people in authority that the community resolve to protect their land and water was only getting stronger.

Months of sustained pressure which, in its latest phase, included a highly-organised protest camp, has forced the government’s hand.

Energy minister Anthony Roberts decided that Metgasco hadn’t undertaken “genuine and effective” consultation with the community, and had therefore breached its licence. Separately, the licence was sent to the Independent Commission Against Corruption for investigation.

Metgasco is challenging this ruling and the gas industry’s peak body, the  Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, is  urging it not to give up.

No one at Camp Liberty, as the Bentley blockade is also known, believes this is the end of the fight for a gas field-free Northern Rivers. But it is an important turning point. It has set back plans to establish the unconventional gas industry in northern NSW.

Predictably and foolishly, the energy minister is on record saying that the long-running community protest had not been a factor in his decision.

“Rubbish” was the unanimous response from Camp Liberty.

Amanda King, a Lismore local and Lock the Gate campaigner, told  Green Left Weekly  the critical reason for the campaign’s success was that it was non-partisan, massive and sustained.

“The campaign started years ago with meetings being called in the smaller villages surrounding Lismore and Casino.

“It was important to reach out to farmers about the threat of unconventional gas. As they learned more, they became more active.

“Others then started to get involved: psychologists, scientists, activists and long-term hippies who were active in the Terania Creek battle [to protect a forest], and the amazing Knitting Nannas.  

“That’s why the campaign was so successful. Everyone was welcome and encouraged to give what they could.

“By the end of the blockade, school teachers were bringing their classes down to see the camp and discuss the issues.”

King said the mobilisations grew from the first protest meeting of 700 people in Lismore in 2010 to 7000 people taking to the streets in 2012.

A non-binding council poll in 2012 showed 87% of residents opposed gas exploration and production in the Northern Rivers. That figure has reached 95-97% according to surveys done over the past couple of years.

Protectors at Bentley told GLW  that protests were not to be confined to the blockade, but would have erupted all over Lismore and surrounding townships.

Three TV stations had their helicopters ready to provide on-the-spot reports; it was not going to be a pretty sight.

“It would have been a massive, really massive and disastrous day,” said King. “They would have been arresting knitting nanas, doctors, nurses, mechanics. The visuals would have stayed with people for a long time.”

Jenny Dowell, Lismore mayor and activist in Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, told GLW of her relief after the suspension was announced.

“The NSW Police had told the NSW government that it should expect two or three casualties as part of Operation Stapler. That was keeping many people, including me, awake at night.”

The other big factor— something that underlines just how opposed the community was to Metgasco’s plans — was the deep community opposition to gas mining. Local police didn’t want to arrest and lock up their family, friends and associates. 

“The government has finally listened,” Dowell said. “I hope the message goes not just to Metgasco to not try it again, but to every other company that has a licence or might consider buying a licence in this region.

“I hope this suspension sends a message to communities elsewhere fighting the unconventional gas industry that communities can win.

“I hope it gives them the strength and confidence to keep fighting.”

The Bentley protectors are staying vigilant while  Metgasco demands an independent review of the suspension  and pursues compensation.

Campaigners are now calling for all licences to be cancelled completely. The suspension has given everyone a shot in the arm to keep the fight going against the unconventional gas industry.

Sue Stock, deputy editor of the  Nimbin Good Times  said Metgasco’s licence suspension was a “historic moment”. She ranked it alongside the five-year Franklin Dam victory in 1983 and the 10-year community campaign that contributed to finally ending Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Aiden Ricketts, a spokesperson for Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, said on his blog: “We know there is a crisis in democracy when 87% can vote to remain gas field-free and yet the state government can commit a huge force of police to move against us.

“The issue of industrial gas field expansion has  ignited a burgeoning and intelligent social movement across rural Australia in the form of the Lock The Gate movement, and the Gasfield Free Northern Rivers alliance has been a particularly powerful and innovative aspect of that national alliance.

“The meeting of farmers and environmentalists has gone well beyond being a novelty, it’s is now an established cultural force to be reckoned with.”

Metgasco licence suspension “should serve as a serious warning to investors in the coal and gas industry across Australia”, Ricketts said.

[For more information, visit Gasfield Free Northern Rivers or Like of Facebook. Pip Hinman is also an activist with Stop CSG Sydney.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.