The little room was overflowing so we moved. Packed up chairs and shuffled them into the basketball auditorium.
It was a pretty good turnout for a tiny town like Seaspray, Victoria – population 300.
As we sat there – the basketball court festooned with Australian flags – I wondered how many of these kinds of meetings have happened across the country. Small country townspeople with little involvement previously in politics having to meet. Dealing with the idea of being arrested for defending their farms.
The group seemed intrigued and partly in shock as I started talking about direct action. I told them what it involved and about how quickly we would need to be ready to move if Lakes Oil moved in. It was way out of their comfort zone, but they were ready to step up.
It was January 2014. We discussed what logistics and planning would need to be put in place to prepare the community for nonviolent direct action in defence of their homes and farmland.
Lakes Oil had plans to conduct horizontal drilling for tight gas – avoiding the moratorium on fracking whilst still enabling them to set up infrastructure for further fracking in the event of the moratorium being lifted.
There had been a small amount of unconventional gas activity in the area over ten or so years previously. Then in May 2013, to the outrage of the residents: “Under the cover of darkness Lakes Oil delivered letters to local residents stating they would be de-watering and flaring off one of their wells the following morning. This is what they call open, transparent community consultation. The well, Wombat one, is situated just 100 metres from Merrimans creek, that supplies drinking water to Seaspray and is used for irrigation by local farmers.” (Seaspray story – Friends of the Earth)
As the gas wells flared off, so did community opposition, with more communities across Gippsland surveying, holding well attended public meetings, and training in preparation for direct action.
A large rally was held in July 2013 with the community being joined by hundreds of people across the region. Seaspray was declared a gasfield free community and a colourful human sign, which featured prominently in local media, was created.
Lock the Gate president Drew Hutton said that day: “I’m overjoyed by the work that has been done in this community to warn people about the dangers of unconventional mining.”
“We can’t succeed against these powerful multinational corporations without the support of the community.”
It was a testament to the persistent work on the ground by communities across the region when, in November 2013, the moratorium on fracking was extended until July 2015. It seemed unlikely that Lakes Oil would proceed further until then.
Then they came up with the idea of horizontal drilling to access the tight gas.
Shadow Water Minister Martin Foley came and met with Seaspray locals in February 2014.
When the community hadn’t heard anything by March 2014, they thought they might have been in the clear. It seemed unlikely that the state government would want to pick a fight with a community in the lead up to a state election where rural seats were in play.
However, as industry messaging continued around ‘projected shortages’ and rising prices, Lakes Oil turned the screws and applied pressure once again. With Gina Rinehart as a major shareholder, they certainly got cut-through in the mainstream media.
In the lead up to winter, as rains and wind lashed the coastal town of Seaspray, it didn’t seem particularly plausible that the work they were doing to upgrade their roads was, as they tweeted:
Fearing that approval for the operating license was imminent, the community swung into gear. They started to set up ‘Camp Seaspray’, more training for action was organised, the local media was engaged, and pressure on the government continued.
Photos of staunch locals (who defy efforts to pigeonhole them as ‘radical’ protester types) were widely distributed on social media, and plans were made public for a media event that would bring community concerns to the city in dramatic style – literally on horseback.
Then came the news that the government had backed down, declaring that ‘in the spirit of the moratorium’ they would not approve any unconventional licenses until community consultation had finished. The story leaked to the Weekly Times just a day before farmers were to personally bring their concerns – and a very photogenic contingent of unusual suspects – to parliament.
“The government has played an astute hand. They couldn’t face the risk of farmers having to blockade drilling operations in an election year. They have pushed the problem to the far side of the November election.” said Cam Walker, Friends of the Earth
Whilst there has been speculation that the win came on the back of the Bentley blockade victory, that does not tell the full story. Although the Victorian government was surely looking nervously to the excellent campaign run by the #Bentleyblockade, the long term, deep community organising of Lock the Gate and Friends of the Earth and their Quit Coal collective in the Gippsland area had a substantial impact.
Towns across regional Victoria are using the Gasfield free communities strategy and getting overwhelmingly strong results when surveying local communities about whether they want to have new coal and gas developments in their area. A recent survey in the town of Digby recorded 98.8 per cent opposed.
25 towns have now declared themselves ‘Gasfield free’ with many more currently surveying.
These results extraordinary considering that the campaign is being held together by volunteers and one part time campaigner.
Lock the Gate Victoria spokesperson Ursula Alquier had this to say on the win at Seaspray: “This win is about people power. It’s about communities standing up against giant industries. About people coming together from all walks of life to stand united to defend our food, our water and the places we love — the things none of us can live without.
“Although this step is welcomed, it does not mean that community opposition to gasfields will go away, this movement will continue to build in strength and numbers until we see a total state-wide ban on unconventional gas.
“Any party approving onshore gas drilling after the state election will have an almighty fight on their hands, that we can guarantee.”