#Pilliga farmers go to town: @naomiTWS on their #SantosAGM experience

Naomi Hogan
Naomi is campaign manager at The Wilderness Society, Newcastle. She’s worked and travelled across all states and territories in Australia and has developed a deep respect for Aboriginal People and culture. She studied Science at the Australian National University and is of the opinion that the days of investing in new fossil fuel projects are numbered.
Naomi Hogan
Naomi formed an appreciation the Australian landscape through spending much of her childhood on her grandparents’ farm, exploring the back paddocks, sorting wool in the shearing sheds and soaking up her grandfather’s rugged tales of bushwalking across Australia with a tarp and a tin of Spam.
Margo: Naomi works full-time as the Wilderness Society campaigner helping #Pilliga residents try to fight the Santos plan to turn much of the Pilliga State Forest into an industrial gas field. And that’s just stage one. The Society’s brief on the campaign is here, and Naomi’s post on how she uncovered the contamination of an aquifer by Santos is here. Pilliga farmers have since launched legal action against Santos to find why bores have been polluted in the area.

 

Thursday 15 May 2014
14196619065_3aa46795c6_bSarah Ciesiolka had not spoken on radio before in her life, let alone done a live interview. She spoke of her experience as a concerned farmer living just downstream from the planned Santos Narrabri Gas Project. She’d recently hosted a photograph with GetUp! and her neighbours, many of whom were showing their opposition to coal seam gas mining in the Narrabri region for the first time.

That photo became a full page ad in the newspaper that morning, and Sarah was put on the spot with ABC radio about why she’d participated in an ad telling Santos they were not welcome in North West NSW. The presenter tried to catch her up, and Sarah spoke openly and calmly, addressing the wide range of formal submissions ignored by government and Santos before she got to this point.

I listened to their chat on the line as I waited to be called upon for comment next, feeling clear-headed listening to Sarah’s raw honesty.

Friday 16 May 2014
Farmer and grandmother of 11 Anne Kennedy was taking yet another media call. It was the morning of the Santos AGM and Anne had been on the phone doing interviews almost back to back for two days. She was on fire, talking clearly about the issues regarding coal seam gas groundwater contamination and community surveys. She spread pages and pages of her notes across the kitchen table in the little motel room in Adelaide, where she’d driven for two days from North West NSW with husband Neil to address the AGM.

Farmer Anne Kennedy doing yet another media interview about their concern

Farmer Anne Kennedy doing yet another media interview about their concern. Photo: Matt Turner

Anne was on page 2 of The Australian that morning, with a lovely picture and a story about her battle against Santos. She wouldn’t have a free moment to see it until 8pm.

Anne zoomed of with her husband Neil to the ABC studios do a live cross to Sydney with ABC 24, and I walked to the Adelaide Convention Centre in my corporate attire, a big banner and poles under one arm, lugging koala suits in a trolley, and bundles of Australian Financial Reviews on the way as it featured the full page ad with the farmers. I saw the sideways smiles as the koala trolley tipped.

Farmers, Traditional Owners, koalas and Adelaide supporters at the Convention Centre.

Farmers, Traditional Owners, koalas and Adelaide supporters at the Convention Centre. Photo: Matt Turner

The Convention Centre became a mass of colour and movement – dozens of farmers and community members held banners while giant koalas and well dressed volunteers handed out investor briefings to Santos shareholders. Cameras moving through the crowd as farmers and Gomeroi traditional owners spoke boldly to the press, putting shyness aside to get their message out.

Deb Briggs and Judy Kaye Knox being interviewed

Deborah Briggs and Judy Kaye Knox being interviewed. Photo: Matt Turner

 

Inside the AGM
It was a packed hall of about 800 people, mostly very elderly. Santos’ CEO David Knox and Board Chairman Ken Borda did most of the talking, about all their projects across Australasia and how wonderful they are.

The shareholder motion calling on Santos to drop the Narrabri Gas Project from their portfolio was item number 5.

Santos stuck up the figures to show we’d already lost and that he motion would fail, as if trying to dampen our spirits. But we knew that the Santos board’s strong stand against our motion meant it would fail; for us this was an opportunity to put a spotlight on the controversial project.

Anne Kennedy had five minutes to speak to Motion 5. She spoke brilliantly about her position as a farmer and rep on numerous government boards and as a Country Women’s Association officer, and summarised the risks to groundwater, the gas field free survey results and the strong opposition to coal seam gas across the North West.

In response David Knox showed a presentation of their new ‘comprehensive’water model based on 17 new bores and 90 others in the vicinity of the Narrabri Gas Project. He said the shallow aquifers are well understood and showed a picture of a little Santos CSG raindrop compared with a big farming, domestic and other users raindrop.

He said Santos CSG wells would be ‘fail safe’and that wells were designed to last ‘in perpetuity’. Knox also restated that Santos would not go where the community did not want them.

Then it was open to question time from the floor.

Cherie Robinson from Coonamble had a killer question about whether or not Santos would give a guarantee that her farm’s groundwater would not be impacted if the full Narrabri Gas Project goes ahead. Knox gave his ‘assurance’that this would not happen. Cherie then asked whether she could have this agreement in writing, worked up between their lawyers. Knox gave no answer to that except to waffle a bit about access agreements. No legally binding ‘assurance’then.

Gomeroi woman Judy Kaye Knox gave an run down of the failures of Santos to comply with their own engagement principles 2, 3 and 4 when it came to the engagement with Gomeroi people, providing incidences of failure to come to meetings at the last minute, cultural insensitivities and failure to consult.

Deborah Briggs then summarised the cultural sites that would be impacted by the gas field project, gave her word to keep fighting the project and invited people from all walks of life to join her ion the frontline to protect the Pilliga and its  groundwater.

Knox and Borda said that they had been having ‘good faith’negotiations with the selected representatives of the Gomeroi Native Title Claimants and that next month they would move to ‘formal negotiations’.

Liverpool Plains farmer Rosemary Nankivell asked some well researched questions based on her experience talking to disgruntled farmers dealing with Santos coal seam gas in Queensland. She shared examples of farmers who had spend millions on water infrastructure under the guise that they would be receiving water from Santos, but that years later this yet to materialise. She told the audience about a misleading Santos ad that claimed 9 out of 10 QLD farmers were happy with CSG on their property. But the survey was based on 64 selected farmers, leaving several hundred more without a public voice. She also raised the issue of an independent audit of their CSG activities that Santos had promised to provide every three years. After decades there was still no audit.

Coonamble farmer Cherie Robinson and Liverpool Plains Rosemary Nankivell with a Ken the Koala.

Coonamble farmer Cherie Robinson and Liverpool Plains Rosemary Nankivell with a Ken the Koala. Photo: Matt Turner

Tambar Springs farmer David Quince asked one question in relation to the Credit Suisse report that showed part of Santos plan for Gladstone LNG was to push up domestic gas prices. He also raised points around Santos taking out environmental insurance, a fund to comprehensively maintain their decommissioned wells for eternity.

Geoff Evans asked whether Santos had plans to get into real clean energy –renewables. Santos said they had no such plans, and thought CSG was the perfect partner to renewable and was cleaner than coal. They failed to mention that through the rising cost of Australian gas due to their export LNG terminal, a gas fired power station has been closed down in QLD and an old coal fired power station has been rebooted – an outcome of Santos’ push for high export gas prices.

David Knox said that fugitive emissions were a complete furphy and that their CSG fields do not emit methane. (I couldn’t help but think that what is a complete furphy is that the gas coming out of the Narrabri Gas Project will have any impact on bringing the international price of gas down. Fugitive emissions on the other hand, are well documented by industry, governments and independent scientists in peer reviewed reports on unconventional gas fields from around the world.)

Paul Oosting from GetUp! said he represented 45,000 people who recently signed a petition against Santos CSG plans in North West NSW. He outlined GetUp! concerns with the dredging in the World Heritage area at Curtis Island from GLNG and their stand for farmers against the water risks of CSG.

I had the last question and pointed out what I thought were misleading elements of David Knox’s presentation, particularly around the Santos push for peer reviewed science, only to show us diagrams on water use that in tiny print said they were a ‘Santos model’. I pointed out that the newspaper letters to the editor in support of Santos were a tiny number when compared to those against CSG. When they pushed the line that Santos CSG was needed for cheaper gas, I asked if they could provide the figures on how the amount of gas they would pull out of the Narrabri Gas Project was going to impact on international gas prices, considering it was well documented by industry analysts that their Gladstone LNG export terminal was driving the domestic price. David Knox ignored the question.

By this time I had a message that the #Santosagm hashtag was trending on Twitter.

The motion to withdraw the Narrabri Gas Project from the Santos portfolio had 0.78% support, with more than 99% of shareholders voting against. We attracted only mum and dad investors to support the motion – about $60 million worth of Santos shares voted yes.

Lunchtime
I wanted more information about Santos’scientific credentials, so I approached Santos Hydrogeologist Glenn Toogood at the info stand after the AGM.

“So Glenn, you’ve said that Santos wells would never leak, but why do other wells leak as documented across QLD for example?”

Glenn: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Okay, well what about well failures, again they are well documented by the unconventional gas industry, so what happens there, what goes wrong in those instances where wells have failed?

Glenn: “I honestly don’t know.”

Me: “What about in early 2012 when I visited the Pilliga gasfield and there was methane leaking out of the unused CSG – you could see the fumes pouring out and hear the bubbling noise going through the black plastic pipe. What was that about and how did you stop that?

Glenn: “I don’t know.”

Glenn confirmed that the contaminated plume of groundwater from Santos CSG activities in the Pilliga (containing the high levels of uranium) was still there. It turns out that every time they tried to pump it out, the depressurisation caused a drawdown effect, sucking more polluted water from the leaking pond into the groundwater system. This depressurisation is part of the reason many independent hydrologists are concerned about the pumping out of water from coal seams, sucking water down from above into the polluted seams, dewatering somewhere else…

I walked away shocked and fascinated by this conversation, and more certain than ever that Santos could not handle the risks involved with coal seam gas mining.

Saturday 17 May
The media coverage revealed more of Santos’shocking spin. David Knox looked uncomfortable in a press conference directly after the AGM (see the ABC South Australian evening news coverage)

“I firmly believe that there is very little, minimal risk of us ever contaminating any aquifers through our operations,” he said.

Sorry, Mr Knox, but your operations have ALREADY contaminated an aquifer. You were fined for this by the NSW EPA a few months ago. It made headlines across Australia. Remember?

Then I read the Adelaide Advertiser, with David Knox proudly stating, “We don’t have a single landholder we haven’t been able to gain access too.”

I personally know of landholders who have turned Santos away and refused offers. It bamboozles me that they make statements like this to the public. I know I should be used to it, but gas industry lies still get me every time.

On reflection
So what next? Santos continues to make statements that defy reality. Surface and groundwater is still contaminated. Landholders are still ignored. Peer-reviewed science is on the sidelines in favour of Santos’own modeling. Shareholders and the media continue to be mislead. The NSW Government is still fast tracking the Narrabri Gas Project.

Santos drill rigs rolled out of the Pilliga this week, creating a call of ‘good riddance’ from local farmers. But in a month seven more exploration rigs are likely to be approved and drilling recommenced.

This AGM was a practice run. The vast majority of Santos shareholders went with the recommendation of the Santos board at this stage. I’m no analyst, but it’s likely investors will want to see how it plays out before the final investment decision for the Narrabri Gas Project is made, which Santos says could be in early 2015.

Narrabri district farmers including Sarah Ciesiolka with a clear message for their region.

Narrabri district farmers including Sarah Ciesiolka with a clear message for their region. Photo: GetUp!

There’s lots to do.  It’s going to be a time when landholders in the project area will be heavily targeted, Narrabri business called on to vocally support Santos,  and Gomeroi Traditional Owners told to negotiate or get nothing. We’re ready to keep fighting. If you can, please help by contributing to the fund to support the farmers who are facing legal costs from their actions to highlight community concerns.

Photos of the AGM day

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Comments

  1. Brilliant article. Thanks again!