Across NSW, dozens of local groups have organised to campaign against coal seam gas (CSG) mining. After years of using official channels of protest, they have been frustrated by the lack of response from the government and feel that they have no choice but to change tactics.
In the Pilliga state forest south of Narrabri, 92 wells have been drilled to explore for CSG. In June last year, 10,000 litres of untreated saline CSG water were leaked into the environment.
The Wilderness Society says gas company Santos wants “to drill 1100 CSG wells in the Pilliga forest which will result in the clearing of thousands of hectares of forest and the fragmentation of at least 85,000 hectares. Pilliga Forest is a crucial habitat for national and internationally protected species”.
Jane Judd from group Friends of the Pilliga told Green Left Weekly they are concerned about the environmental impacts such as clearing of the forest and the impact on wildlife. “There are threatened species, such as koalas and the Pilliga mouse, that use the Pilliga as a refuge in an area surrounded by farmland. The additional pressure and habitat loss could push them over the edge into extinction.
“We wrote so many submissions, the state government have ignored us.”
In June last year, the group helped organise a protest that disrupted work on a CSG exploration rig in the Pilliga Forest. A protester climbed to the top of the 25-metre rig.
In the nearby Liverpool Plains, the Caroona Coal Action Group (CCAG) has been organising against coalmining in the Liverpool Plains around Gunnadah since 2006. In 2010, after a 615-day blockade, they stopped BHP Billiton from having access to their land to expand its coalmining operations. Four years ago, they expanded their campaigning to include CSG.
Although their main concern is the protection of agricultural land and water aquifers, farmers also recognise the importance of protecting the Pilliga. Rosemary Nankivell, a farmer and spoksperson of the CCAG CSG committee told GLW: “The Pilliga controls our climate and rainfall. There’s not much point saving the Liverpool Plains if climate and rainfall aren't protected.”
Nankivell said the Caroona Coal Action group has “done everything by the book. We wrote submission after submission and letter after letter. No one listened.
“If it’s not proven beyond doubt that CSG will not impact the water resources, there will be more blockades. It’s the only thing left for people who can’t match the power and resources that the Minerals Council has. They [the Minerals Council] recently spent $30 million on an advertising campaign, but CSG still has a lower public acceptance than nuclear.”
Judd and Nankivell believe that the alternative to coal and CSG mining is renewable energy. Judd said: “If we spent as much money on renewables as fossil fuel subsidies, we’d be charging ahead.”
Aidan Ricketts is part of the CSG Free Northern Rivers group and author of The Activists Handbook. He told GLW that the campaign to stop CSG is unlike any campaign he had ever been involved with. “It’s very much a mainstream campaign involving people who have never been a part of social movements before, because it’s happening in everyone’s backyard.”
Ricketts has organised activist skills workshops in NSW and Victoria and plans to extend these into Queensland very soon. “It started because of demand, people anticipated that they would need these skills and they didn’t know how to do it. I teach them about the nature of social movements and techniques for effective protest. Non-violent direct action needs to be combined with other strategies for it to be successful.”
In the Northern Rivers, local communities are encouraged to conduct door-to-door surveys to raise awareness about CSG and then declare themselves CSG Free.
“The CSG Free communities strategy is very proactive and very bold,” said Ricketts. “It is mobilising people to close these areas to the gas companies.”
Ricketts said there is a bigger aim for the campaign than just winning an end to CSG mining in NSW. “We are building a large mainstream social movement, activating huge numbers of people who have never been active before.
“When people respond to something that is happening in their own backyard they are taking a step, and it transforms them. They wake up from the sleep of parliamentary democracy and get involved in participatory democracy. What happens to all campaigners through the course of the campaign is they see the much deeper corruption of our political system and they get empowered to change it.
“The truth of modern politics is that it is people versus corporations, and the divide between the urban left and rural right is breaking down because they both recognise that.”