US farmer warns of gas risk to Australia

People from the Pilliga gather to hear John Fenton speak about coal seam gas.

John Fenton is a farmer from Wyoming in the United States who has 24 gas wells on his property. He recently toured Australia to speak about the environmental and health impacts the gas industry has had on his land and community.

He spoke at 11 meetings in gas hotspots throughout Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, organised by the Greens and Lock the Gate Alliance. These meetings were well attended. In Narrabri, in northern New South Wales, 600 people came to hear him speak.

Fenton spoke to Green Left Weekly’s John Reynolds.


Can you describe how gas mining came about on your property and how it affects your home and farm?

In our part of Wyoming, the first well was drilled in 1964. However, they weren’t economically viable until the late 90s when the new hydraulic fracturing techniques were developed. At that time they came in and really started expanding the number of wells in our area. We went from 25 wells to over 200 wells in about four years.

First thing we really noticed was how drastically it affected the landscape. A lot of the geographical features were bulldozed and flattened to make way for pads and roads, and our privacy disappeared. In a very remote area, we had dozens of people, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making decisions on our land that we had no control over.

What are the worst environmental and health impacts you and your community have experienced?

We have water now that we can’t drink. We can’t cook with the water, and when we shower or do laundry or wash dishes we’re supposed to ventilate our home so the methane gas can disperse and it doesn’t explode.

The air quality has really been impacted. You go outside and it smells like being next to a refinery. People are getting sick. They are suffering from seizures, they get ringing in the ears, chronic fatigue, chronic headaches.

It really changes how you view living on the land and working there because you have to think “how long can I be out in this before I’m so sick I need to come back in the house and try to recover”, instead of the way it used to be when you didn’t have to think about going outside.

Has it divided the community or has it brought the community together in opposition?

It’s been a blessing and a curse. Parts of the community have come together really closely. The people who are directly impacted have now made friends with their neighbours. People were close and friendly with each other but now we have this common thing that we’re battling and it’s really strengthened our relationship.

But there are also a group of people who live outside the drilling area who think we’re doing this to try to get rich, to get a quick paycheck from industry.

It has started a movement that is very powerful; it’s a small movement but we’ve been able to accomplish bringing the feds in to do an investigation. We’ve brought national attention to our problems and that’s been done by a very dedicated small group of people.

Is the gas industry still growing?

The US is going full speed ahead with all sorts of unconventional gas. Not only coal seam, but shale oil, shale gas and tight seam gas, which is all types of unconventional gas.

The US has just opened the doors for industry and allowed them to go full speed ahead with this, and there are new communities everyday that are being negatively impacted by this.

What are the key lessons for Australia from your battle with gas mining in Wyoming?

I think you’ve already got a really good head start. People here are really active and for the past couple of years I’ve been watching how the Australian people are taking a stand against this, and you’re years ahead of where we were.

We were looking down the barrel of this gun 10 or 15 years ago, but there was a lot of complacency, there was a lot of “well, we’ve had oil and gas in the past, it hasn’t been that bad” type of attitudes. But this unconventional gas is completely different.

So the biggest thing Australia really has going for it, every place I’ve gone I see a very diverse group of people; people from all backgrounds, from all occupations, with different political views, from different social backgrounds with a common goal — to protect their environment and their future.

I think that’s the most powerful thing you’ve got going, and actually the rest of the world is watching and following the example the Australian people are setting.

Can a compromise be achieved? Can farming and gas mining coexist?

I don’t see them as being able to coexist together. It completely disrupted the farming and agriculture that we do. All they have to do is have one bad day and it can destroy your farming operation forever.

Once the ground is toxic, once the water is toxic, once your animals are contaminated, that’s not something you can easily wipe up with a cloth. It damages you for years to come and it has a profound effect on people’s attachment to the land.

When you see your land being destroyed, when you see it being turned into an industrial facility, contaminated parking lot, it destroys a part of your soul. It makes it very hard for you to continue to want to be in the place that you’ve always loved.

We’re able to farm because we use irrigation water that comes from snow melt, we’re not irrigating with the groundwater, but our health is horribly impacted and our land is not worth anything anymore.

So when people ask if we can make some compromises and work together on this, it doesn’t work. This industry doesn’t come in and compromise, they stack the rules in their favour. They buy the politicians off, and unless the people absolutely tell them no, there’s no way they can coexist with us.