An ongoing blockade of an unconventional gas drill site in Bentley, 12 kilometres from Lismore’s CBD in NSW, has so far stopped gas company Metgasco from starting exploration in the area.
This test drill will help determine whether there are commercial quantities of gas available, and if so, up to 1000 wells could potentially be drilled in the area.
Hundreds of people are permanently camping on land next to the drill site, and at times numbers have swelled to 2000, as the community acts to stop heavy machinery from entering.
At dawn on April 7, about 1000 people were at the site, actively blocking all gates. People at the camp were on high alert for police to arrive and use force to clear the road and allow machinery through, but police have been unable to act so far because of the large numbers of people.
The blockade will be successful as long as large numbers of people stay there. Anti-gas advocates, or “protectors”, have urged more people to make the trip to visit the site and help with the ongoing vigil.
Grassroots anti-gas campaign group Gasfield Free Northern Rivers said: “The camp is open to people … who are committed to keeping our beautiful farmland gasfield free through peaceful direct action and non-violent protest. It’s a ‘working camp’ for those with big hearts and cool heads who want to contribute through volunteering, donations and logistical support.
“Metgasco are on notice that they have no social licence to force their drilling rig onto farmland at Bentley. The community is outraged that their elected government representatives are not listening to them, and we demand that the state government steps in to stop this toxic industry."
The blockade was initiated after many other tactics were tried.
A video released by protectors says: “We’ve tried everything. We’ve got letter writers and people putting pressure on policy makers and, of course, the knitting nannas putting pressure on [state MP] Thomas George every week.”
Anti-gas campaigner Aiden Ricketts said: “We’re in a situation where 87% of people can oppose a gasfield invasion in their region and yet be ignored by the politicians. In those situations there’s no choice but to go back to the fundamental pillars of democracy, which is ongoing direct action and civil disobedience to reclaim that part of our democracy that has been lost in the corporate corruption of the political process.”
In response to enormous community pressure, and as a way to alleviate concerns, gas companies Santos and AGL signed an agreement with NSW Farmers on March 28, promising they would not enter properties without the consent of landholders. Gas companies formally have the right to drill for gas on private land without the owner's permission.
But anti-gas advocates say the agreement does not go far enough and should be legislated.
Gasfield Free Northern Rivers spokesperson Adam Guise said: “Santos and AGL have been dragged kicking and screaming to this point, which is a vindication of those communities who have been calling for the right to say no for the last three years.
“The overwhelming majority of Northern Rivers people are opposed to invasive gas fields. We call on Metgasco to follow AGL and Santos’s lead and commit to not going where they’re not wanted. Metgasco’s CEO has said on previous occasions that they would not go ahead if there is no social licence. Well clearly there is no social licence, so Metgasco should pack its bags and leave the Northern Rivers.
“The government must act and legislate the right for landholders to reject gas drilling on their land across the state.
“We already know that gas companies are desperate to feed the insatiable LNG export facilities in Gladstone. Without this protection, communities will always be vulnerable to invasive gas fields.”
Besides the issue of access, there are many reasons local residents oppose a gas field in the area.
The area where Metgasco wants to drill is agricultural land, used for beef and dairy farming, and producing food like macadamias and avocados. Experience from areas in Queensland, where gas production has been happening for years, shows that it is difficult for agriculture and gas to coexist.
People involved in this campaign, and similar anti-gas campaigns across the country, are learning firsthand that politicians don’t represent the interests of ordinary people, but instead make decisions that benefit big business.
Instead of accepting this, they have discovered how powerful a community can be when it acts together. In standing up to Metgasco near their homes, they are also acting for communities battling gas companies further afield.
As Ricketts said: “Bentley is the frontline for the entire Northern Rivers and, to a large extent, to the state of NSW, if Metgasco can get their foot in the door here it will be the beginning of a production process in which they will attempt to establish gas fields on a scale that we’ve seen in Queensland over time. We need to stop them here.”