By Iris Ray Nunn
It was a restless night for Wilderness Society campaign manager Naomi Hogan last night, after she discovered that Santos Mining had quietly entered the Pilliga State Forest to start exploratory drilling for coal seam gas.
Santos has approval from the NSW State Government to drill nine wells in the Pilliga, as a part of the Narrabri Gas Project – there are at least another 36 sites to come.
“I’m disappointed, because I feel locals were relying on me to keep them informed about the movement of the rig,” said Naomi.
“Now it appears the rig is in, we have to make a decision about whether to try and delay it from moving to a further site.
“This is a big wake-up call.”
Over the past two years, Naomi has worked in the north-west region of NSW in conjunction with 30 affiliated organisations, including Lock the Gate.
She has been working at the grassroots level, educating local farmers, landholders and indigenous Elders about the known risks associated with the extraction process of unconventional gas (also known as coal seam gas) to the balance of soil, air and water in the surrounding fragile ecosystems, and the possible unknown risks to human and animal health from the fugitive gas emissions released into the air unintentionally around wells, and from the accidental leaking of contaminated water into the underground aquifers.
The campaign to raise awareness as to why it is important to speak out and stand up to a government that has big plans to industralise their backyard has had positive results for local communities.
“Even the most conservative locals are preparing for non-violent direct action to delay the drill rigs from entering the Pilliga,” said Naomi.
As the day progressed, good news came to light about the rig at the site operated by Santos – it was a maintenance rig and not a drilling rig.
“I’m relieved that we have more time to plan how we are going to block the drilling rig,” said Naomi.
“This may even be a publicity stunt by Santos, to see if there is any resistance on the ground to stop them from entering the forest.”
If it was indeed a publicity stunt, it may have backfired on Santos.
Thousands of people are buzzing on social media networks activated by the news of the drill rig in the Pilliga.
Many people, those who are nearby as well as those from interstate, are organising their lives to defend the Pilliga, and co-ordinating movements with one another to support their collective vision to save the Pilliga Forest by declaring it CSG free, thus maintaining its original intention to be a people’s forest, that is a forest for the people – regardless of government decisions.
Described by local indigenous man David Nicholls (aka Monty) as a 'massive bowl' that feeds water into the surrounding rivers and creeks, the Pilliga is sacred to the Gomaroi (Kamilaroi) people and enjoyed by campers, bushwalkers and nature enthusiasts from all over the world.
It is vital for its ecological bio-diversity and cultural significance.
An ecological study of the Pilliga Forest conducted by David Milledge found it to be a ‘Noahs Ark’, a refuge for many bird and mammal species that are declining across Australia.
Milledge goes on to state that the Pilliga has national conservation significance and is vital to the survival of the Pilliga mouse and south eastern long eared bat, and that coal seam gas exploration had already caused substantial damage to the forest. He found that progression to full scale gas productions could lead to local extinctions.
So why is a people’s forest that is sacred to the Gomaroi and home to threatened and endangered species being opened up for mining?
The short and simple answer is: money.
The story being told by mining companies and the government, however, is that NSW is running out of gas and that is why new areas, such as the Pilliga Forest, need to be mined – to meet our increasing energy demands.
In his recent article is the Sydney Morning Herald, economic editor Ross Gittins slams this agenda as a 'con'.
“The gas industry is working a scam on the people of NSW, in collusion with other business lobby groups and federal state politicians,” he says.
“It's trying to frighten us into agreeing to remove restrictions on the exploitation of coal seam gas deposits. Failing that, the various parties want to be able to lay blame for an inevitable jump in the price of natural gas on the greenies and farmers.”
The locals who live in and around the Pilliga will not be 'conned'.
They have seen the detrimental effects of the coal mining industry on the landscape in which they live, on their communities and on their lives.
They live with massive open cut coal mines, two of which are in a state forest, the Leard State Forest, and they are aware of the controversy surrounding the coal seam gas industry in Queensland and the United States.
According to Naomi Hogan, there is a quiet determination amongst locals to exercise their rights to protest.
Granted, it is a daunting prospect for some who have never civilly disobeyed in their lives, but with a growing contingency of support from seasoned blockaders arriving to help them in their quest to protect the forest, their confidence will be boosted.
First action for the Pilliga protectors?
Setting up camp on a farm near the drill-pad and holding ponds, and taking the time to engage respectfully with the Gomaroi Elders this week.
The Elders will be consulted in the establishment of a base camp, ensuring actions in the Pilliga have their blessings and are in respect for law, the earth and each other.
This in itself is one giant leap ahead of Santos.
Global Mail story on the Pilliga
Stop Pilliga Coal Seam Gas campaign
Santos's explanation of its rehabilitation plans for the Pilliga
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