Pressure mounts on coal, coal seam gas companies

February 25, 2016

Hundreds of environmental protestors made their voices heard against coal and coal seam gas (CSG) mining over the weekend of February 20 and 21.

In the Pilliga, more than 300 people defied a police roadblock to protest the construction of Santos' Leewood waste water treatment facility and in the Leard State Forest a group of about 30 people blockaded the gates to Whitehaven and Idemitsu's Tarrawonga coal mine.

Protest in the Pilliga

With AGL's announced phased withdrawal from CSG mining and the retreat of Metgasco from its Bentley project, Santos is now the only major CSG miner still in NSW.

But things are not going well for Santos. It is pitted against a fierce and growing protest movement which is calling for an end to unconventional gas mining in NSW, and it has conceded that its Narrabri Gas Project in the Pilliga Forest is virtually worthless.

On February 19, Santos announced a $2.7 billion full-year loss for 2015. In the same announcement it wrote down the value of its Narrabri Gas Project by a further $588 million, following an $808 million impairment in 2014.

In total, Santos has lost almost $1.4 billion over two years on a project it paid $924 million for in 2011.

Although Santos claimed the drop in global oil prices had “had an impact on Santos' financial performance and … as a result the rate of investment in the Narrabri Gas Project will be slowed”, its problems also stem from the movement against unconventional gas mining.

The Pilliga Forest is the largest and most intact eucalypt woodland in eastern Australia, home to many unique and endangered plants and animals. The Narrabri Gas Project would destroy the forest to build access roads, well pads, pipelines, and flares. The Pilliga Forest is also one of the main recharge areas for the Great Artesian Basin. Disturbance of the geology through fracking risks contamination to the water of the Great Artesian Basin putting its survival at risk.

For the past two months, Santos has faced almost daily protests and there have been 29 arrests. The protesters are supported by the Pilliga Push Camp, which swelled to more than 300 people over the weekend, ahead of a planned mass civil disobedience action.

On February 20, the Knitting Nanas and others blocked the access road into a key piece of Santos infrastructure, the Leewood wastewater plant. They held up Santos traffic for hours and were countered with a number of police. While police were occupied with the blockade, two men locked themselves onto Santos machinery.

Gamilaraay man Paul Spearim and Yuin man Lyle Davis said they locked on to protect Gamilaraay sacred lands.
Spearim said: “It's about the destruction of our Gali (water). We have an obligation to protect the waterways and aquifers of the Gamilaraay nation. We have ancient cultural knowledge of the groundwater aquifers, including the Great Artesian Basin and the seven rivers that lie beneath.”

Davis said: “I'm up here, black duck from Moruya, supporting the emu, Gamilaraay, because we've got the same issues and problems in my Yuin country. It's the same issues across the land — the pillaging and plundering of our natural resources.”

The next day protesters breached a fence to the wastewater site and about 80 protesters occupied the site before police pulled the fence closed preventing hundreds more protestors from gaining access. Those inside occupied the facility for about an hour before leaving.

The protesters' strategy is one that has worked before. At Bentley, near Lismore in northern NSW, a strong blockade for many months forced the state government to suspend CSG company Metgasco's licence to drill. Taking its cue from the many legal cases against the Adani Carmichael coalmine, a local community group, People for the Plains, is taking court action against the government's approval of the facility.

Leard State Forest

Protest action has again ramped up at Whitehaven's Maules Creek and Tarrawonga coalmines ahead of tree clearing expected to start next week. A group of about 30 protesters gathered at the gate to the Tarrawonga coalmine over February 20-21.

Front Line Action on Coal has called for rolling protests in a six-week “community creative action protest” against Idemitsu and Whitehaven Coal, both of which have approval to clear the critically endangered Leard State Forest until the end of March.

Maules Creek is in security lockdown as the mine owners prepare for protests against the expansion of the Maules Creek and Boggabri coalmines.

“Mine security monitors all traffic at checkpoints within a 25-kilometre radius of the mines”, said Libby Laird, of the Maules Creek Country Women's Association. “Vehicles and their passengers, including children, are routinely photographed by security personnel who also employ aggressive driving tactics to cause drivers to slow down to be identified.”

The Leard State Forest is the largest area of remnant vegetation remaining in the Liverpool Plains. The forest is home to 396 species of plants and animals and includes habitat for 34 threatened species and several endangered ecological communities. This particular area of White Box-Gum Woodland is significant as it contains an average of 100 hollows per hectare. These hollows take over 100 years to form and are vital for many species which rely on them for roosting.

Together the Boggabri Coal, Maules Creek and Tarrawonga coalmines will destroy more than 5000 hectares of Leard State Forest, including more than 1000 hectares of the Box-Gum Woodland.

Not only will the combined mines destroy more than half of the forest, what is left will be fragmented by the positioning of the mines in the middle of the forest.

Edge effects, created by habitat fragmentation, can change the micro-climate within the forest, resulting in a loss of species diversity, a loss of genetic diversity and a reduction in an ecosystem's ability to deal with climate change, disease, species invasions and other human impacts. Mining 24 hours a day means bright lights at night, excessive noise from machinery and blasting vibration and dust.

Under conditions imposed on the mines, forest clearing must halt in temperatures over 35°C.

Phil Spark, a local ecologist and Leard Forest Alliance spokesperson said on February 26: "Today we have evidence that Whitehaven have been clearing when temperatures have exceeded these conditions. It proves that they should not be allowed to be self-regulated according to their own weather station on site.

“The 35°C limit was set because when it is too hot the animals hide in their hollows to conserve energy. Clearing during this heat results in higher mortality as the animals are less able to flee and find cool refuge when their homes are destroyed.

“We are calling for independent monitoring of when clearing can occur. There is zero faith in Whitehaven being able to self regulate, and today's findings are an example of Whitehaven's disregard of regulations and their anxiousness to cut corners in a crashing coal market.”

Idemitsu has been fined two years running for failing to comply with its approval conditions. Last year it was fined for clearing land outside the disturbance limits. Whitehaven was fined just two months ago for illegal clearing, and are currently under investigation by the Environmental Protection Authority for noise pollution breaches.

Maules Creek local and spokesperson for Front Line Action on Coal Roselyn Druce said: “We have fought them in the courts, we have tried the political system, and despite the false and misleading offsets process, the allegations of corruption and the use of illegal spies to infiltrate the community, these companies continue to operate outside the law with government backing.”

Farmers bear brunt of mines

Meanwhile, local farmers bear the economic and health brunt of living next to the mines. Since mid-January, neighbouring residents have twice been exposed directly to blasting fumes, with one person needing medical attention. The prevailing wind is towards neighbouring farms and gusts from mine blasts can reach 35 kilometres per hour.

Maules Creek farmer Pat Murphy is one local who has borne the costs of living near a vast open cut coalmine. He is readying himself for an exodus of kangaroos and feral pigs from Leard State Forest attempting to find sanctuary on his land.

“The supposed animal escape corridors have been proven not to work,” he said. “I have been unable to sow one of my paddocks after suffering a major financial loss the previous year due to animals fleeing the Leard Forest.”

“Whitehaven has effectively co-opted nearby private properties into its own wildlife corridor. They want to be Australia's cheapest coal producer, at our expense. We, the victims of the Maules Creek mine, are actually subsidising it.”

The local farmers and workers in the mines deserve a certain future for their families. With coal on the way out, only sustainable agriculture and renewable energy projects, like the Moree Solar Farm, can provide the long-term economic prosperity that the area needs.

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.