Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell

Media student at University of New South Wales
Thom Mitchell is a Sydney-based investigative journalist. He writes mostly on environmental issues.
Thom Mitchell

Joe Hill (left) and Councillor David Quince. Source: Thom Mitchell

Fighting the courtship of CSG mining – Joe Hill (left) and Councillor David Quince. Source: Thom Mitchell

“IF the people of Narrabri think they’re going on a date with the handsome new stranger in town, they’re going to go home and find they’ve been raped,” president of People for the Plains, Hugh Barrett, said as we strained to hear.

Hugh was giving an interview to ABC radio Tamworth. He was referring to the courtship of Narrabri and surrounds by Coal Seam Gas company (CSG), Santos.

People for the Plains is a group fighting to block the development of CSG on the Liverpool Plains. Hugh was speaking on behalf of twenty-five people who’d spent three days touring South East Queensland, talking to people living in and around CSG fields near Tara, Chinchilla, Roma and Injune. They’d gone to see for themselves what CSG looked like on the ground.

Two weeks ago I had virtually no knowledge of CSG, but after responding to a callout from my university newspaper, I’ve had a crash course. I don’t claim to be a scientific or legal expert, but it is clear that a lot of rural Queenslanders feel they’ve been used and abused by the rapidly expanding industry.

The Narrabri farmers are determined not to let it happen to them. Although they are worried about the environment and rural communities, what motivates them most is concern for water and property rights.

“We are not radical greenies,” Mullaley landowner Robyn King told me on the first day over morning tea. “We are conservative people who’ve voted National most of our lives; but the more we learn about CSG the more we find it unacceptable. Governments are not protecting food-growing regions and we feel deserted,” she said.

Agriculture can’t co-exist with the Narrabri Gas Project: farmers

Narrabri Project area. Source: Santos Narrabri Gas Project fact sheet.

Narrabri Project area. Source: Santos Narrabri Gas Project fact sheet.

The Narrabri farmers are mobilising to block Santos’ Narrabri Project, a CSG development proposed for the Pilliga State Forest. The 850-well project has been fast-tracked by the state government, with a decision to be made on January 23, 2015.

The farmers are alarmed because the Pilliga is an important ‘recharge zone’ for the Great Artesian Basin, which they fear could become contaminated.

They told me they believe agriculture and CSG cannot co-exist.

While the proposal is mostly contained within the State Forest, the Narrabri farmers don’t believe it will stop there. “The gas drillers start in a state forest, then consume surrounding country and communities with wells, compressor stations, pipelines, roads, huge dams, treatment plants and workers’ camps,” Hugh Barrett says.

A three drill CSG wellpad at Santos' Fairview field with flare (front). Source: Thom Mitchell.

A three-drill CSG well pad at Santos’ Fairview field with flare (front). Source: Thom Mitchell.

They’re concerned about the way that adverse impacts on aquifers and the Great Artesian Basin would spread from the forest to neighbouring properties.

Cherie Robinson, who lives 50 kilometres from the Pilliga West Forest, said Santos will not provide independent studies which farmers need before landowners can have any confidence in them.

Chemical spills have already occurred in the exploration phase of the project, and she fears there’ll be more to come.

The Narrabri farmers say agriculture and CSG cannot coexist. Source: Thom Mitchell

The Narrabri farmers say agriculture and CSG cannot co-exist. Source: Thom Mitchell.

“We survive on bore water. We drink bore water, we garden with bore water, all the pets and animals drink bore water,” she said.

“They say they’re going to use this ‘reverse osmosis’ process, but what if it breaks down? How are we going to know when it’s contaminated and when it’s not?” she asked.

In Chinchilla, water which has undergone reverse osmosis is being pumped into the Condamine River, which is relied upon by farmers. On day two the group viewed the Condamine River, where methane continues to bubble to the surface at numerous points along a 200-metre stretch.

“Liars, cheats and thieves”

Joe Hill tells the Narrabri farmers how to "keep the bastards out". Source: Thom Mitchell

Joe Hill tells the Narrabri farmers how to “keep the bastards out”. Source: Thom Mitchell.

“They lie to get on your land, cheat you out of your money and thieve the water,” Chinchilla farmer Joe Hill told the Narrabri contingent at his property on the second day of the tour.

“If telling my story can help you people up there, then that brings me great pleasure” Hill told the group, his voice shaky as he fought back tears. His distress, amplified by the makeshift microphone that’d been rigged up in the mini-bus, stood in stark contrast to the larrikinism of moments before when he’d been telling the group about the tricks he’d pulled to frustrate the CSG industry.

“Good on ya Joe,” someone called out, and the group broke out in cheers. Hill is a bit of a legend in these circles, famous for ‘Joe’s bend’, where a dead-straight gas pipeline makes a 90-degree turn at his boundary.

In a ‘how to’ (“keep the bastards out”), Hill covered some of the main methods that various CSG companies have deployed attempting to gain access to his land.

“You don’t have to let them on. It’s your land,” Hill said. “Once you let them step foot on your land, you lose your rights,” he added. He discussed the High Court case of Plenty v Dillon, telling the group to erect ‘no trespass’ signs, thereby removing the implied consent to enter a property for lawful purposes via the driveway.

Companies will make seemingly insignificant incursions like test wells to pave the way for full-scale development, Hill said. He told the group that even allowing representatives to come and discuss possible agreements weakens your ability to refuse access.

Hill, like all of the other anti-CSG farmers the group spoke to, saw the confidentiality clauses which are almost always included in access agreements as an insidious way to gag landowners from speaking out against CSG. The group was repeatedly told that landowners couldn’t even talk to their neighbours about compensation to see if what was offered was fair.

Compensation for wells and access roads can vary from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands. I spoke with one landowner who avoided a confidentiality clause by repeatedly removing it from the contract. He said he was paid $265 per well and also compensated for land used for access roads and other infrastructure. Cumulatively, he receives around $2000 compensation per well. He has seven wells on his property and twenty-six within two kilometres of his house.

At a gathering of around 60 people at Cameby Hall near Chinchilla, Joanne Vine said that she and her partner Greg negotiated for 18 months attempting to secure a written charter of rules of conduct, but eventually settled for a verbal one and allowed Santos access to their land.

“That was the worst decision we’ve made in our lives,” she said. “They blatantly disregarded our rules of conduct. They blatantly disregarded state legislation and they continually ignored any complaints or concerns we brought up with them,” she said.

Santos cut the padlock she had put on her gate while she went to phone her solicitor after saying they would wait for her to do that, and at one point had “security guards sitting on [their] boundary fences at the end of each easement, 24 hours a day”. The family plans to move away.

You can listen here to what she told the gathering at Cambey Hall in full.

“It’s time for the gloves to come off”

Two farmers take note. Source: Thom Mitchell.

Two farmers take notes. Source: Thom Mitchell.

Stories like Joanne’s have strengthened the group’s determination to block the proposed Narrabri project.

Most of the people I spoke to said Queensland is lost, and urged the group to do everything possible to prevent further development in NSW.

“It’s time for the gloves to come off,” said Chinchilla activist Dayne Pratzky, who has sold-up and is leaving the Darling Downs this week.

Gunnedah Councillor David Quince went on the trip and said it confirmed his view that the Nationals have abandoned farmers. He said royalties collected from CSG are a short-sighted, short-term gain compared to agriculture in ‘food-bowl’ regions like the Liverpool Plains.

The farmers have become activists. They are engaged in regulatory pushbacks and advocacy, and Cherie Robinson has even been arrested in a non-violent direct action.

If the gloves weren’t off already, they will be after this tour.

Open for Business

Check this video by Mark Doyle on the 25 NSW farmers who travelled from the Narrabri area to hear accounts from central Queensland farmers on the effects of rapid coal and gas expansion in their area.

“In Australia many of the coal projects, such as the recently approved ADANI Carmichael mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, were proposed when the market price for coal was at its peak in 2011,” Mark said. Since that time, the price of coal has plummeted by 50 per cent from $140/tonne to less than $70/tonne in 2014. Economists such as Tim Buckley and Ben Caldecott argue that these projects are no longer viable and are at risk of becoming ‘stranded assets’.  Stranded assets can significantly devalue the companies investing in these projects and this in turn is projected to have considerable impact on banks and superannuation investments”.

“But there is also a very personal cost. People who are in the process of negotiating contracts to sell, or grant access to their land, can be reluctant to talk because a condition of the contracts often involves a non-disclosure, confidentiality agreement. However, people who have experienced broken promises, land incursions, compromised water access, health issues and toxic waste have started talking about their experiences in these negotiations. Many are astonished by the piecemeal planning processes, the lack of regulation and adherence to state and federal laws, as well as the absence of any effective response from the National Party and organisations whose mandate it is to represent rural communities. Some communities have the added burden of dealing simultaneously with both coal and gas developments.

“I have set out to talk to and make a documentary record with those people who are at the front line of resource development in rural Queensland. I want to know about the costs to them, their families, and to their local communities.”