Coal seam gas: People’s power can stop it!

Paul Benedek addresses the 'Stop coal seam gas' rally outside NSW parliament on March 15. Photo by Peter Boyle.

Farmers, environmentalists, irrigators, winemakers, horse breeders, the NSW opposition, and coal seam gas (CSG) campaigners have all been angered by the NSW Coalition government's new land use plans, which give the go-ahead to CSG and coalmining across the state.

Despite Premier Barry O’Farrell’s pre-election promise that key agricultural land would be protected from mining and CSG activity, the government's draft Aquifer Interference Policy and draft Strategic Regional Land Use Plans "have left the gate open", said the NSW Farmers Association.

The government has “chosen to literally sell the farm to coal and gas companies", said Lock The Gate Alliance president Drew Hutton on March 6.

The Hunter Wine Industry Association’s Andrew Margan told the March 7 Sydney Morning Herald he was “embarrassed to be a New South Welshman” and that winemakers believed “co-existence [with mining and CSG] is not possible”.

The policy “paves the way for decades of uncertainty”, Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association president Wayne Bedggood told the SMH

The NSW Irrigators Council said the policy “fails to protect water resources from mining and coal seam gas”.

Ryan Park, ALP MP for Keira, told the Illawarra Mercury the land use guidelines did not stop fracking in the northern Illawarra region after the current moratorium on the industry ends next month.

Worse, said Stop CSG Illawarra campaigner Jess Moore, is that drinking water catchments are not even mentioned in the government’s draft documents.

“We’ve got a project approved that risks the drinking water of 4.2 million people in NSW and under these new announcements, that can continue,’’ Moore told the Mercury.

The NSW Nature Conservation Council said the O’Farrell government had delivered “a result that strongly favours the interests of the mining and gas industry”.

No surprise that the mining and gas industry is the one group that has applauded the government’s new plans. Shares in CSG companies Santos and AGL rallied after the announcement.

Tom Fontaine, director of CSG company Ormil Energy, welcomed the plans, saying: “It’s important to have common-sense guidelines like these for the industry.” 

NSW resources minister Chris Hartcher said the controls “will be manageable for the [CSG] industry”. 

Removing the doublespeak, this is an industry green light.

The government has talked up the plans’ “gateway process”, under which areas identified as “strategic agricultural land” are subject to an “independent panel” before coal or CSG mining can go ahead. 

Hutton said the “gateway process” meant “miners can drive right through if a panel gives them the go-ahead”. The “gateway process” fails to give farmers the power to deny access to miners wanting to explore on their land.

The NSW cabinet will have the power to override the “gateway process” in exceptional circumstances. This mirrors the previous Labor government's infamous Part 3A planning laws, which allowed the government to override local opposition to anti-environment or unpopular development projects.

Hutton said this provision was “an invitation to circumvent the formal process for the government’s preferred mining companies”. The government has not provided any criteria for the exceptional circumstances that would allow it to override an independent panel decision.

The government also faces criticism for leaving key environmental areas without even the limited protection of the “gateway process”.

The Wollemi and Yengo National Parks, part of the World Heritage-listed Greater Blue Mountains National Park, have been mapped as “open-cut and/or underground coal resource potential” and “high and moderate coal seam gas potential”. High value biodiversity areas do not trigger the “gateway process”.

Another issue raised is that precious water resources are not static, but flow between areas the plans mark as “strategic” (which might get some minor protection) and areas without any such protection. 

Moore said: “So even if water is protected in one area, nothing can stop polluted water from CSG activity in another area from flowing into the ‘protected’ area. Ultimately, it’s no protection at all.”

The guidelines’ narrow definition of what qualifies as an aquifer means the policy relegates most of the Sydney Basin as being of limited value, and by inference, open to CSG and coal extraction.

On March 15, the same day that the Coalition, Shooters and Christian Democrats voted down a Greens/ALP bill for a CSG moratorium, northern NSW residents learnt that an application for CSG exploration had been made for the entire Northern Tablelands.

The NSW Farmers Association has pointed out that “more than 100% of the land area of NSW is covered cumulatively by applications and titles for minerals, coal and/or CSG exploration or production (given that many regions have multiple layers of applications and titles)”.

Activists say the failure of the government to protect that state from CSG only reinforces the importance of the people-power campaign. 

Within the past month, community events opposing CSG have included a 700-strong meeting in Lismore and a 200-strong meeting in Oakdale after residents learnt of CSG exploration close by. Two hundred rallied outside NSW’s parliament on March 15 and 1000 attended a food and CSG meeting in Brisbane on March 12. 

A stop CSG conference will be held in Wollongong on March 25 and the Farmers Association has begun discussing a big protest outside NSW’s parliament on May 1. 

Hutton said on March 6: “The Lock the Gate Alliance continues to call for a moratorium on coal seam gas because the industry has failed to demonstrate that it can operate safely.

“The only constraint on unfettered exploration across NSW is the community taking up the fight through legal action, non-cooperation and peaceful protest ... The miners may get through the NSW government’s pathetic ‘gateway process’ with ease but they will still find the gates locked when they come knocking on farmers doors across NSW.”

Pushing open slather CSG policy through a pro-corporate parliament is one thing. Getting the community to accept that the short-term profits for CSG companies are more important than our water, land, health and our future is very different indeed.

From Lismore to the Hunter to Pilliga to Oakdale to Illawarra to Sydney, the fight against coal seam gas is growing.

Read more coal seam gas coverage.


Sickening!! This is the most important issue in australia and we have been sold out by our governments.. let's take the law into our own hands and drive these companies off our land!! Screw the government, screw the police, this is too important!!
Photos of coal seam gas mining protest outside the office of state member for Lismore Thomas George Friday 16th March 2012.