Despite a Victorian state moratorium since last year barring the use of “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing) to extract gas, communities across the state continue to protest against gas drilling and exploration.
Sixty locals protested at a test drilling site in Yarragon in Gippsland, east of Melbourne, on October 19, where Greenpower Natural Gas holds a licence to explore for coal seam gas (CSG). The moratorium on fracking does not prevent exploration works such as drilling and flaring off.
The Victorian coordinator of Lock the Gate Alliance, Ursula Alquier, said: “Gippslanders do not feel that their very valid concerns around water usage, water and land contamination, human health and the protection of the thriving agricultural industry is being taken seriously.
“We have seen once again that our government representatives are ignoring farming communities and instead siding with gas mining interests.
“We are asking for the premier Mr [Denis] Napthine to intervene, to put a total ban on all exploration works for unconventional gas and experimental coal until the government supports an independent full state inquiry and addresses the findings of that inquiry.”
Three towns across Gippsland have been declared “CSG free” under community initiatives to survey residents in recent months. The most recent was the small community of Harmers Haven, on the coast near Wonthaggi, on October 27.
More surveys are being held in 14 localities across Victoria.
“The deep community opposition to onshore gas operations is causing headaches for the Coalition government,” Friends of the Earth campaigns coordinator Cam Walker told Green Left Weekly.
“There's basically one community meeting happening per week, with 50 held this year, and this is now jumping from Gippsland to Western Victoria.”
Victorian company Lakes Oil holds a petroleum exploration permit for the region south of Geelong and along the coast west of Melbourne.
Local activist Tony Gleeson from Frack-Free Geelong told Green Left Weekly that the company, in which mining billionaire Gina Rinehart recently acquired an 18% share, is exploring for shale gas.
“This gas is deeper than CSG, up to a couple of kilometres ... way below the aquifers,” Gleeson said. “They seem to think that because it's deeper it's safer. Our thinking is that it's certainly going to impact on the aquifers, it's just going to happen more slowly.”
There will be a community meeting on CSG and shale gas exploration at Moriac, west of Geelong, on November 13. A community survey is planned on whether to declare Moriac “frack-free”.
Other upcoming community meetings in Victoria include the Gippsland towns of Gormandale on November 6 and Maffra on November 7.
The state government was expected to lift the fracking moratorium in June, but said it would wait for a report on the state’s gas supply by former federal Liberal MP Peter Reith, which was delivered to state parliament on November 1.
Reith's report recommends the moratorium be lifted. Premier Denis Napthine has not yet committed to any action, promising caution. Deputy premier and National Party leader Peter Ryan told the Age that there was ''no way the Coalition government will put at risk the water aquifers, the agricultural production and the liveability” of Gippsland, where his seat is.
Walker criticised Reith's report, saying: “Mr Reith is using the spectre of an imminent gas crisis, job loss, rising prices and the potential collapse of our manufacturing sector to scare the Victorian people into accepting his argument that we must start drilling for unconventional gas as soon as possible.”
Walker has called for further government action to investigate the industry. “We need data from an independent source to be able to decide if such an industry will be safe for people, land and water. The way to get this is through a state government inquiry: a proposal that the Coalition has twice voted against.”
Walker said the moratorium should be turned “into a permanent ban on new coal and gas operations on our farmland”.