[clear]Northern Rivers communities unite against government-endorsed gas mining frenzy
In protest against the mining frenzy that is gripping the country, the community-led non-violent blockade at Bentley in the Northern Rivers of NSW is emerging as one of the largest social uprisings the country has witnessed.
The blockade of the drill site, which began almost four months ago in response to the planned tight sands gas mining of prime agricultural land, has grown steadily in size with thousands of people, from all walks of life, regularly attending.
From landholders to professionals and doctors to academics, writers, teachers, Mayors and Indigenous elders, grandparents and even members of the Clergy – the community is united by the same coherent message, to preserve the land, water, environment and communities.
These three elements are exactly what Bentley is about. It’s a closely settled area, only 16kms from Lismore and an hour from Byron Bay, with a community that truly appreciates and values the beautiful and productive valley in which they live. It is home to a mix of farms and small landholdings with some families having farmed in the area for three or four generations.
Bentley is also a very committed community – one that has resolutely rejected being turned into an industrial wasteland. Grass roots community surveys of Bentley residents found that 85% of landholders wanted their lands and roads to be ‘Gasfield Free’. In nearby Lismore, 87% of residents also voted ‘NO’ to CSG in a 2012 Council commissioned Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).
More broadly, in communities across the Northern Rivers region more than 28,000 people were surveyed, throughout 125 communities, and an average of 95% have similarly stated their opposition to the region being turned into gasfields.
The community voice has fallen on deaf ears
Regardless of community sentiment and without a social licence, Sydney-based company, Metgasco has decided to march ahead with plans to drill in Bentley.
Metgasco has rather a chequered history though. It has been exploring primarily for coal seam gas since around 2006 and drilled approximately fifty exploration wells to date. During this time numerous instances of operational mishaps have eventuated, most of which have only come to light as a result of community scrutiny. Shoddy practices now on the public record include torn liners in drilling waste ponds; operating holding ponds without a current development consent; failure to comply with government requests to provide details of wastewater management practices; and the dumping of CSG wastewater into the local sewage treatment works without proper approvals.
Currently Metgasco’s operations are under investigation by the Mines Safety Unit following a particularly dangerous incident where 200 metres of steel drill pipe was forcibly ejected into the air during decommissioning of the Kingfisher EO1 well. Notably, this well targeted the same gas bearing sandstone formations that will be targeted at Bentley and was fracked in 2010. Raising questions about the environmental risks from leaking Metgasco wells, the Mines Safety Unit report into the incident noted: “Loss of integrity in the well meant that gas under pressure could migrate between the inside and outside of the casing. This had been known during the operating life of the well.”
Although the proposed drilling operation at Bentley is often referred to as ‘conventional’ by Metgasco, gas deposits in sandstone reservoirs in the Northern Rivers region are thought to be largely comprised of ‘tight’ sands gas. Tight sands, or tight gas is a form of unconventional gas, similar to coal seam gas, where large numbers of wells and associated infrastructure are needed. In addition, fracking and other risky ‘stimulation’ processes are always required to produce commercial quantities of tight gas. Given this reality, characterising the well as ‘conventional’ could be considered deliberately misleading to a public that has clearly stated its opposition to invasive gasfield proposals.
But Bentley is not the only community at threat
From Maules Creek to the Pilliga and from the Illawarra to Gloucester, NSW communities are standing up and fighting back against the ruthlessness of the mining companies.
Communities that have exhausted every conservative avenue for being heard, that have voted, marched, written to politicians and participated in protests or appealed to the courts have all hit the same brick wall. Every time, the NSW State Government responds by backing the industry. Even when the tiny town of Bulga beat the mining companies twice in court, the state government simply changed the legislation in favour of the mining companies.
Defiant in their stand Metgasco had originally planned to commence drill site preparation at Bentley in early April, with drilling operations to follow, but have since announced that there would be delays to drilling due to rain in Queensland.
The State Government
The NSW State Government is facing its own demons as the findings of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) continue to reveal trails of lies, corruption and deceit.
The NSW State Government is riddled with corruption as the Independent Commission Against Corruption has revealed. Both the Labor, Liberal and National parties have been shown to be captured by vested interests in the form of the mining industry and other developers and finally we are seeing exactly who has been running the State – and why gas and coal licenses have been granted and renewed with no regard to community consultation or environmental safety.
Metgasco’s links to NSW politicians have not been explored yet but it is well known that the son of the Lismore Nationals MP Thomas George is employed by Metgasco in a senior role and that Metgasco employed Mr Richard Shields a former senior office holder with the NSW Liberal party as a public relations advisor during 2012/13. Mr Chris Hartcher renewed Metgasco’s current petroleum exploration license when he was Energy Minister but links to corruption, revealed by ICAC, have since seen him forced to stand down. So, beyond the quest for tight sands gas, questions abound as to the legitimacy of the licence.
Government Ministers have been refusing to visit the blockade to chat to the community instead repeatedly branding the broad and educated group as ‘extremists’.
The future of the blockade and quashing of the protest
The blockade, which regularly has one to two thousand people attending its early dawn vigils has remained a peaceful and positive community affair. Many of the people at Bentley and from the surrounding areas have never joined a protest before, let alone a blockade and so are being educated in protesting and non-violent direct action.
The emergence of the blockade is not just a response against the imposition of a mining company either – it embodies a far greater sentiment, that of citizens unifying against an unjust and corrupt Government that repeatedly supports the mining industry. The Bentley blockade is a stand against a democracy in crisis.
It has now been confirmed that approximately 700+ riot police are likely to descend on the Bentley area to break the blockade and enforce access to the drill site for Metgasco on or around Monday 19th May.
The community feels this to be both unnecessary and an absolute breach of their democratic right to express their opposition to this toxic industry.
Given the state of the NSW Government it is no wonder that formerly conservative communities all over the State have reached the same conclusion – there is nothing left than community-led non-violent direct action.”
Whether the Government backs down first or whether they choose to support Metgasco and send an invasion force for the blockade to peacefully absorb, Bentley has already earned its place as a great stand for democracy in Australia.