Metgasco raises the stakes in NSW

Issue 
The Northern Rivers community is united against fracking.

Metgasco is upping the ante in its bid to drill for unconventional gas in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales. Activists are even more determined to protect the region's land and water.

After Metgasco announced it would be carrying out pre-fracking seismic tests, Lismore council voted 5 to 2 on October 13 to refuse access to the gas company's equipment.

Deputy mayor Simon Clough told ABC News on October 14 that council needed to remind Metgasco of the community's firm opposition to fracking in the Northern Rivers.

“It's a strong practical measure,” he said. “It's saying that council is prepared to take this matter further if necessary.”

Mayor Jenny Dowell told Green Left Weekly on October 15 that the two councillors who opposed the motion did so on the basis that council had already decided in 2011 to place a moratorium on all coal seam gas activity, including seismic testing, drilling and associated activity, on council-owned and operated land. At the 2012 council elections, 87% of residents said they opposed CSG mining in the Northern Rivers. Since then, that opposition has grown to closer to 97%.

Gasfield Free Northern Rivers spokesperson Dean Draper told GLW that Metgasco has a history of ignoring the overwhelming opposition to fracking.

“From day one Metgasco has tried to run over the top of our community, repeatedly telling their shareholders that the opposition was small and, at the same time, begging [the state government] for large numbers of police to get its mining projects in, effectively by martial law.”

Draper was referring to Metgasco's recent demand that the NSW government provide it with police protection to allow it to get its seismic testing equipment in.

Metgasco's bullying tactics are infamous — and they tend to backfire. The last time it tried to get a drill rig in to Rosella, near Bentley, in 2014, a peaceful blockade of several thousand people thwarted its plans.

This opposition has split the Nationals' rural base in the Northern Rivers. Nevertheless, Nationals MP Thomas George has demanded the council help buy back Metgasco's licence — something the Mike Baird state government has been trying, unsuccessfully, to do.

"My challenge to Lismore City Council and Mayor Jenny Dowell is to join with the government and put whatever funds they have into purchasing back the PEL”, George told the Northern Star on October 14.

Dowell told GLW that George's suggestion was “ridiculous”. She said the question of the licence was between Metgasco and the NSW government. “We're not prepared to give any money to Metgasco,” she said. Council has asked staff to investigate legal action, and will await a report before deciding on its next steps.

Asked about the campaign plans now, Draper said: “We will continue to engage and support the community in any way we can. We work with affected farmers, landholders and people from all walks of life to make sure they feel supported with someone on their side.”

Anti-fracking campaigns across NSW have to be stepped up. The NSW government declared on October 1 that its moratorium on unconventional gas had ended, and was poised to allocate new gas licences.

This is despite the fact that the new regulations remain vague, and areas that should not be considered for fracking under any circumstance have not been ruled out.

The NSW government boasts that its 10-month buy-back scheme has been a huge success. Licence applications, which covered more than 60% of NSW, have now been reduced to just 8.5%.

However, the threat is understated if it is simply seen in percentage terms.

The problem is with the industry itself, particularly that it is still largely unregulated. This is clear from the government's strategic release framework document, released in early October.

Lock the Gate Alliance spokesperson George Woods said on October 9 that the government had “squibbed on setting hard constraints against coal seam gas anywhere but the Hunter Valley horse breeding and winegrowing lands”.

She added that critical farmland and precious water resources, including the Liverpool Plains, Sydney's drinking water catchment and the Northern Rivers will once again be under threat.

“The government has just spent over $3 million buying back coal seam gas exploration licences. And now they're about to start releasing them again.”

But a change in attitude from the NSW Labor could help protect NSW.

Draper said: “The NSW ALP has listened to the very large noise coming from our region.

“With one previously safe Nationals seat changing to the Greens, another one almost gone and both of the other electorates in the Northern Rivers experiencing huge swings away from the Nationals, the writing's on the wall for any political party that refuses to listen to our community.

“We will remain peaceful. However, our position is non-negotiable: we demand a gasfield free Northern Rivers.”

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