When coal seam gas company Metgasco announced on March 13 it had suspended its operations in northern NSW after a long community campaign against it, it was just the latest in a series of setbacks for the CSG industry.
It followed the suspension of an AGL project in Campbelltown in western Sydney after community protests. Another company, Arrow Energy, has withdrawn from NSW and wants to transfer its licence to Dart Energy so it can focus on expanding in central Queensland.
Activists are aware these setbacks may be only temporary. The managing director of Metgasco, Peter Henderson, told the ABC: "You can expect us back here in the not-too-distant future I hope. The gas is still in the ground. It's a very valuable commodity.”
Community group CSG-Free Northern Rivers, which ran the month-long blockade at Metgasco’s drill site near Kyogle, has vowed to continue the campaign.
As the technology to mine CSG has become cheaper, and the potential profits much larger, the CSG industry has rapidly spread across the country in the past two years, encouraged and subsidised by state and federal governments.
It is still in the exploration stage, but communities are determined to stop the industry before it becomes established.
Communities have learned that CSG mining could have harmful impacts on water resources, human health and local environments. A network of anti-CSG campaign groups have sprung up to demand a moratorium on the industry.
Using tactics such as demonstrations, including a 10,000-strong rally outside NSW parliament on May 1 last year, mass petitions, lobbying and blockades of drill sites, these groups have built a powerful campaign that has brought together a broad section of society, uniting farmers and environmentalists.
The campaign has already had an impact.
Anti-CSG group Lock the Gate used freedom of information laws to obtain government documents that say Metgasco experienced “severe delays due to opposition, blockade and access problems which renders a bigger work program rather meaningless if they cannot fulfil them”.
It also revealed that on the Liverpool Plains around Gunnedah, CSG company Santos, whose policy is not to enforce land access, have had huge difficulty obtaining agreement with landholders. Of 15,000 stakeholders who had been contacted, only one access agreement had been signed.
Anger has been directed at the government for siding with the gas companies over local communities. The campaign has revealed to people involved that, far from being democratic and scientifically rigorous, the assessment process favours the interests of big business.
For example, as a result of delays caused by protests, the companies asked the government to waive the requirement under section 30 of the Petroleum (Onshore) Act, which would have reduced their licence area on renewal.
This was granted and the requirement was waived.
But it is too risky for the government to appear to ignore the legitimate concerns of such a wide sector of society.
To try to appease this opposition, the federal and NSW governments have introduced new laws, such as a ban on CSG in residential areas and near specific industries such as wine producers and horse breeders.
The new rules, announced by Premier Barry O’Farrell on February 19, would only apply to new CSG exploration projects. Any projects with development approval would be allowed to continue.
Stop CSG Illawarra spokesperson Jess Moore said: “This announcement acknowledges the risks posed by CSG, then states that existing approvals will go ahead, a contradictory position.
“It does not protect the land and water of NSW communities. It does not rule out CSG development in drinking water catchments.”
The federal government followed suit on March 15 and announced CSG and coal projects, which are assessed by state governments, could be assessed by the federal government under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act if they put water resources at risk.
However, Lock the Gate says these rules do not mean much. Spokesperson Drew Hutton said: “As it stands now, the bill provides so many exemptions that many of the most controversial coal and gas developments won't be covered by it.
"Two glaring examples are the Arrow coal seam gas project on the Darling Downs and the Camden gas project in greater western Sydney — neither project will be covered by the bill because of the broad exemptions.
"The Arrow project will have a major impact on water resources in the Darling Downs, and it has been slammed for inadequate water assessment by the expert committee, but the exemptions mean that the federal minister won't be able to consider its impact on water.
"Another gaping loophole is the failure of the bill to address shale gas and tight gas mining — which means that plans for massive shale gas development in the Northern Territory and Western Australia will not require assessments of water impacts.”
Harming land and water resources is a real risk. Yet CSG also poses a serious threat to the climate. Gas has a more potent greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide and the federal government is positioning Australia to be a world-leading gas producer — or “the Saudi Arabia of gas,” according to former resources minister Martin Ferguson.
This course seems even more perverse when Australia’s renewable energy resources are taken into account. Research by Beyond Zero Emissions has shown it is possible for Australia to transition fully to renewable energy within a decade.
Clearly Australia has the potential to be a world-leader in exporting renewable energy technology.
Beating the economically and politically powerful CSG industry will not be easy. A united community campaign has shown it can win important concessions, and out of this movement is the potential for a political alternative to grow and permanently break the corporate power that dominates society.