Frontline of a coal seam gas war

A march during the Rock the Gate festival against coal seam gas mining that was held in Tara over April 30 to May 4. Photo: Kate

After 12 hours on the road, travelling 800 kilometres from Newcastle through Gunnedah, Narrabri, Moree and Goondiwindi, just after sundown, our big blue bus pulled into Tara showground for four days of workshops and direct action as part of the Rock the Gate festival against coal seam gas mining.

We discovered a few things during the trip, as we made our way through regional NSW and Queensland. Like that Moonee is home to the world's largest feral pig collection. And that George is not only an excellent bus-driver but also most entertaining, playing the harmonica and leading games of 'Hey cow!' (whereby one shouts at a cow, and recognition earns you a point).

However, perhaps most importantly, the long journey interstate let us rediscover the natural beauty that exists in our own backyard. We were able to appreciate the land that the people in Tara, and beyond, are fighting to protect.

The tiny town of Tara, about 300 kilometres west of Brisbane, is on the frontline of a resource war. The community is putting up a big fight to save its land and water from ruin at the hands of Queensland Gas Company (QGC), part of the British Gas group.

Rural landowners have been staging a people's blockade on the Tara residential estate to protect their homes and health from coal seam gas mining.

It is not just the community in Tara that is going head-to-head with the gas companies. Gas drilling is already happening across NSW and Queensland, with little or no environmental assessments or community consultation. State governments regularly approve further coal seam gas projects.

That's why Lock the Gate, an alliance of concerned individuals and communities from all over Australia, decided to host the Rock the Gate festival, campaigning by day and music by night, encouraging people to keep their gates locked against the gas companies.

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Rock the Gate festival a success

Before the festival’s opening session, local landowner Dayne Pratzky led a bus tour to the Tara residential estate, giving visitors an opportunity to see first-hand the situation facing his community.

We saw gas wells hidden among scrub, wide stretches of bushland cleared to lay pipelines, noisy compressor stations, and heavy trucks and bulldozers using local roads to access sites.

“That's the destruction for [just] five wells,” said Pratzky.

In a recent video documenting operations in Tara, Lock the Gate said that QGC wants to put 200 gas wells, spaced 400 metres apart, on the Tara estate, which is home to about 500 people.

We visited the property of one landowner who is legally contesting QGC's right to access his property.

QGC has a 24-hour security system at the property. The security worker on site when we visited said he was based in Brisbane and worked seven days on, and seven days off.

QGC had a second security worker filming our presence on site, despite our tour having permission from the landowner to access his property.

A third QGC security vehicle arrived at the property as we were boarding the bus to head back to the showground for the festival opening.

These are tactics that Tara locals have become used to since the gas company moved in.

Despite this sort of intimidation and the evidence of land destruction, the promise of supposed prosperity in the form of dollars and jobs has meant that there are some divisions among the Tara community.

Some residents have already been bought out and moved on, leaving their neighbours to battle against gas wells surrounding their property.

But other Tara landowners are staying put, with nowhere to go. Or in Pratzky's case, they are staying with the principled motivation to stop Tara becoming a gas field.

“Why am I fighting the gas company? Because what they're doing is wrong,” he said.

Back at Tara showground, the acting president of Lock the Gate Alliance, Drew Hutton, opened the festival by saying: “Welcome to all those who've come a long way. Let me assure you, there's gas coming to you soon.”

Unfortunately, Hutton was not joking.

“Our land, our water, our future, that's what we are fighting for,” he continued before introducing some of the local campaigners, people he said have stood up when leaders have failed us.

Amongst those whose efforts Hutton praised were wildlife campaigner (and father of the late Steve) Bob Irwin, 70-year-old recent Tara blockade arrestee June Norman, and member of Friends of the Earth Cassie McMahon, who recently locked on to a bulldozer at the Tara blockade.

Leigh McNeill, a 65-year-old rural landowner, told the hundreds gathered at the festival opening that he loved his land and wanted to be able to use it to feed future generations.

“My concern [with] the coal seam gas industry is if it is not controlled.”

McNeill said the industry should be adequately regulated to ensure the “biological integrity and capacity of land to produce food is not compromised”.

“That's why I'll be locking my gate,” he said.

“And I won't be unlocking it until the coal seam gas industry can convince me that it's environmentally safe.”

McNeill's support for stronger regulation, rather than calling for a ban on the industry, reflects the diversity of those involved in the campaign against coal seam gas mining.

This campaign has busted the stereotype of anti-mining protests as merely the realm of dreadlocked, chai-sipping hippies.

That's not to say there are none of those types of activists represented in the campaign. There certainly are — the Nimbin Environment Centre even brought their chai tent to the festival.

But in this campaign, seasoned environmentalists from Nimbin stand alongside rural-land owners (with a severe aversion to chai) like Pratzky.

NGOs including Friends of the Earth, Six Degrees, and The Wilderness Society are involved in the campaign too, as are The Greens, the Queensland Party and the Socialist Alliance. Even National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce made an appearance at the festival.

Also represented are independent concerned citizens and community groups who have never been involved in activism or lobbying, and probably never thought they would be.

The coal seam gas industry threatens to destroy not only bushland, but vital agricultural land. It threatens to poison and waste water supplies, pollute the air, and infringe on land rights.

“We shouldn't forget that the Queensland government is letting gas companies do this,” said Hutton.

Two popular workshops held during the festival were on legal rights for landowners, conducted by the Environmental Defender's Office, and the non-violent direct action session with Newcastle's Rising Tide.

Hutton explained during a discussion on effective campaigning that this strategy of resistance is central to the campaign against the gas companies. The most effective form of protest, he said, is that of peaceful civil disobedience and respectful non-cooperation.

Another Tara landowner, Scott Collins from the Western Downs Alliance, spoke to festival-goers of his experience on the frontline of the Tara people's blockade. Those protesting the gas company had experienced intimidation from the police, he said, with the Tactical Response Unit even hiding out in bush close to the picket line.

The heavy police presence on the Tara estates is difficult to miss.

On the final day of the Rock the Gate festival an action took place at the Kenya QGC work site near Tara.

Those taking part in the action were briefed before leaving the festival by the local campaigners who had led the work against the gas companies in Tara so far. They emphasised the importance of treating QGC workers and the police with respect at all times during the action.

A convoy of cars and buses left the showground and arrived at the work site for a brief blockade of the gates. The blockaders sung anti-coal seam gas songs, appropriating popular tunes such as “Hit the Road Jack”.

The singing was accompanied by people playing guitar and beating on plastic drums. Even a piano accordion was on hand.

Bemused QGC workers looked on and police attempted to break up the musical blockade. With plans to take part in the nearby Chinchilla May Day march, our convoy of cars and buses left the site after the brief action.

While receiving a warm welcome from many locals along the march route, Rotary officials that organised the May Day celebrations denied the anti-CSG Lock the Gate group access to the Chinchilla May Day event.

Rotary eventually said we could attend if we ditched the placards and material that warned against coal seam gas mining. The decision was made to head back to Tara.

It was later revealed that QGC were major financial sponsors of the Chinchilla May Day. The irony of the corporatisation of May Day was noted in a media release penned by Lock the Gate.

As the sun set that evening over the Tara showground, people gathered around a fire in a drum. It was the last night of festival for most.

The Nimbin crew brewed chai and projected photos of the day’s action onto a white marquee.

The musicians in our midst wrote songs together.

Optimism was buoyed as a news article about the day’s action was read aloud.

People laughed at an angry letter that had been letterboxed locally. All in capital letters, it alleged those protesting the gas companies were a greater threat than the gas drilling itself. It urged the community to protest the protesters and included the phone numbers and home addresses of local campaigners like Pratzky, Collins and Hutton.

This behaviour came as no surprise to Collins who had earlier in the festival noted that the “town is dividing, and that is exactly what the gas companies want”.

Not disheartened, we discussed where to next, and those remaining made plans for the next day’s action. The festival was over for us, but Tara's blockade continues.

The next morning we boarded the big blue bus and readied ourselves to bid farewell to Tara and the campaigners who are now our allies and friends.

Our final stop was a QGC worksite that was home to a piece of machinery known as a spider trencher (used to clear land and lay pipes), one of only two in Australia, locals said.

It was to be moved from a QGC site on one side of the road to the other side. The aim of the day was to stop this from happening. However, the law is on the side of the gas companies. Anyone obstructing gas company work risks a $50,000 fine.

As we pulled our bus across the QGC worksite gate to say our goodbyes, gas company security and police rushed to warn us off. We waved goodbye and shouted “Lock the gate” as our bus pulled out of Tara and begun the 12-hour drive back to Newcastle.

Taking a break from driving, George picked up his banjo — for some of us the parallel with Gasland’s Josh Fox was obvious. For George, it was likely unintended.

The big US gas corporations have exerted an enormous effort to discredit Gasland, the movie that shed light on problems of gas mining in the US.

As the gas industry takes off here in Australia, the science has begun to back-up the concerns of the banjo playing anti-gas campaigners. said on May 9: “[A] scientific study has linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire.”

And so the battle that has put rural and city communities alike up against giant multinational gas mining corporations continues.

Video from the Rock the Gate festival.

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