Gas company Metgasco is so determined to drill for unconventional gas in northern NSW it is prepared to make enemies of old friends — the NSW Coalition government.
On September 1, Metgasco declared it was halting talks with Mike Baird's government and suing it for damages.
Its annual financial statement, issued on August 27, said it was sick of waiting to secure the future of its three Northern Rivers licences and that the government was demanding requirements for renewals that “are simply not possible for any company to satisfy”.
The company, which has the backing of the industry body Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, also announced it intended to resume drilling at Bentley near Lismore and expected government help — namely the NSW Police.
Metgasco CEO Peter Henderson said on September 1 that he “expected” the NSW government “will provide all necessary police protection” to allow drilling to begin at Bentley. He said he had been given such assurances by the government.
Bentley was the site of a four-month mass community blockade early last year. It ended when newly-installed NSW energy minister Anthony Roberts intervened to suspend Metgasco's licence, fearing a lethal clash between protesters and police. That suspension was later found to be unlawful by the Supreme Court in April this year.
The Bentley blockade received support from all over northern NSW and well beyond. It became such a reflection of the farming region's opposition to the unconventional gas industry that, eventually, even the NSW police made it clear it objected to being made to be the shock troops.
Metgasco has been exploring for unconventional gas — coal seam gas and tight sands gas — in the Northern
Rivers since 2008. In 2012, it was found to be illegally dumping water from into the Casino sewerage treatment plant and was fined for breaches of exploration licences.
Fierce community resistance to its drilling program in late 2012 in the Grafton and Kyogle areas caused it to abandon plans for a third core hole. In March 2013, it suspended its work in the Clarence Moreton Basin.
Early last year, Metgasco announced its intention to drill an unconventional gas well on farmland at Bentley, about 14km from both Casino and Lismore. The Northern Rivers community's response was decisive.
Since then, they have not changed their minds: they have said they will re-establish the blockade if necessary.
NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham has said he would join them.
Gasfield Free Northern Rivers co-coordinator Elly Bird said on September 1 that Metgasco should make a “graceful exit” from the region and the NSW government should call the company's bluff.
“Cancel the licences ... and protect the Northern Rivers forever," she said. “The NSW government could protect the Northern Rivers — every other political party in the state wants it to do so.”
This was a reference to a bill initiated by the Greens and supported by Labor to rule out unconventional gas mining in NSW.
Dean Draper, another local spokesperson, said Metgasco's efforts to hold the region to ransom would not work.
“Metgasco is the only one deluding itself that it’s possible for unconventional gas to be mined anywhere in the region," he said. "No one is in any doubt that the Northern Rivers should be gasfield free forever.”
Photos of Bentley blockade courtesy of Gasfield Free Northern Rivers.