Residents of Bentley, near Lismore in the NSW Northern Rivers district, have vowed to continue their fight against coal seam gas (CSG) mining following the Supreme Court’s “technical” decision to overturn the government’s suspension of Metgasco’s gas drilling licence.
Gasfield Free Northern Rivers regional coordinator Elly Bird said the overwhelming majority of the local community was against CSG. She said the group now expected politicians to meet their election promises to get the industry out of the region. The group is not planning any immediate blockade action, "but we will if we have to," she said.
In January 2012 former Lismore city councillor Peter Graham agreed with Metgasco that they could drill for CSG on his land at Bentley. But before any drilling could take place, thousands of protestors, concerned at the impact of CSG mining on their pristine valley, set up camp on land adjacent to Graham’s property and vowed to stop any drill rigs from entering.
In May last year, amid rumours that up to 900 police would be sent to “break” the Bentley blockade, protesters called for environmentalists and anti-CSG activists to help them stop the drilling.
Up to 10,000 activists were expected to converge on the Bentley protest camp, but the confrontation was avoided when resources minister Anthony Roberts suspended the exploration licence on the grounds that the company had not undertaken “genuine and effective consultation with the community”.
On April 24, however, the NSW Supreme Court overturned that decision. Justice Richard Button said the government’s decision to suspend the licence was “not made according to law” and ordered that the government pay all of Metgasco’s costs.
In a statement released to the ASX, Metgasco managing director Peter Henderson said the ruling was “a landmark decision for the resources industry in New South Wales. We believe that our decision to pursue legal action has been vindicated. We will be seeking compensation for the damage that has been inflicted on Metgasco and its 5000 shareholders by the NSW Government’s unlawful decision.”
Gasfield Free Northern Rivers spokesperson Dean Draper described the decision as “a disappointing outcome” and a “technical victory” for Metgasco.
“If Metgasco are successful in their demand for compensation, more public money is going to be thrown at a dangerous and unpopular industry,” he said.
“The people of the Northern Rivers have overwhelmingly demanded full cancellation of all gas licences in our region. We have declared ourselves gasfield free by direct community democracy.
“We should not have to blockade to deliver protection for the region: the government just needs to do their job and represent the people.
“The Northern Rivers community demands legislative reform to enable the cancellation of gas licences across the region. The least the state government can do is act in good faith with the will of the people, and make the Northern Rivers permanently gasfield free,” he said.
Bentley locals Meg and Peter Nielsen told the Northern Star that if Metgasco returns to the region "it will be on for young and old". Meg Nielson said the Supreme Court decision should not be seen as a green light for the company to resume drilling in the region.
"It was only a legal technicality that was upheld by the court. They decided the government didn't have the right at the last minute to suspend the licence," she said.
"But the government has realised this [industry] can't go ahead, that the people won't allow it to go ahead.
"So we're expecting Anthony Roberts will step in and make this good for the community."
Peter Nielsen said: "The Chief Scientist pointed out that it was not appropriate in certain areas, and we believe the Northern Rivers is one of those. It's short-sighted to take the money and stuff the land up for future generations."
The Greens were quick to support the anti-gas groups. Newly elected Greens MP for Ballina Tamara Smith said despite the court victory, Metgasco should heed the “clear message from the community that they want a gasfield free Northern Rivers”.
“The judgment in no way endorses Metgasco’s community consultation and the judge goes to some effort to emphasise ‘it is no part of my function to assess the desirability of any of the activities of Metgasco, or the desirability of the suspension of any of those activities’.
"If Metgasco try to drill again, the community will resist and I will be standing with them," she said.
Greens mining spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham agreed that the court’s decision was a “technical win” for Metgasco.
“The Greens will be introducing legislation to reinstate a broad public interest test so the government has the power to protect communities from irresponsible mining and gas drilling.
“The government may have stuffed up the cancellation process, but the substantive issue that the community has rejected unconventional gas extraction in the Northern Rivers remains,” he said.