People power beats gas giant at Bentley

People celebrate at Bentley on May 15.

The NSW government has suspended Metgasco’s licence to drill for gas at Bentley, near Lismore.

Energy minister Anthony Roberts said on May 15: “The Office of Coal Seam Gas made the suspension on the grounds that Metgasco did not fulfil a condition of its exploration licence, namely to undertake genuine and effective consultation with the community as required.”

The minister also said he had referred the project to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), to make sure the decision to grant the licence had been made “entirely properly and without any undue interest or influence.”

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on May 15 there were links between the largest shareholder in the Metgasco project at Bentley and the family of former Labor minister Eddie Obeid, who last year was found by ICAC to have engaged in corrupt conduct.

The project had attracted huge opposition from the local community, which was concerned the project could contaminate groundwater and open the area to large gas development. Hundreds of people had been permanently camping next to the site for the past four months, blocking the entrance to trucks carrying drill equipment.

Police had been preparing to break up the protest blockade on May 19. Codenamed “Operation Stapler”, up to 800 police from around the state were being dispatched to the area.

But protesters warned that up to 10,000 people would defend the camp from eviction.

Faced with such broad and determined opposition, it appears the government has backed down. Supporters of the blockade say the suspension of the licence is a huge win for people power.

Gasfield Free Northern Rivers spokesperson Aidan Ricketts said: “The Bentley blockade has been an historic outbreak of democracy in which an entire region has stood up against the combined forces of the state government and the mining industry.

“This victory at Bentley puts the issue of community democracy front and centre. It represents a significant victory of people power over vested interests.”

However, protesters are aware this suspension does not signal the end of the project. In an announcement to the Australian stock exchange, Metgasco said its exploration at Bentley has been suspended “until the company can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Office of Coal Seam Gas that Metgasco has complied with [the] condition … regarding community consultation”.

Metgasco said it “is confident that it is in compliance … and is seeking to demonstrate this to government”.

Gasfield Free Northern Rivers spokesperson Adam Guise said: “At the Bentley blockade we have seen an entire region stand together to protect the environment and community of the Northern Rivers from the threat of invasive gas drilling.

“We sincerely hope that today’s announcement will be followed up by real action that recognises that the communities of the Northern Rivers are overwhelmingly opposed to gasfield industrialisation of our region.

“We will continue to work together to keep our region gasfield free and will be continuing our call for all exploration licences across the region to be revoked.”