The Bentley Blockade ……photo credit … Gas Free Northern Rivers.
By Des Pensable © 2014.
What didn’t rate much news this week owing to the Abbot government’s horror budget was that there was a build up to a major event that had all the hallmarks of getting into the future history books. An event likened to the Eureka stockade one and a half centuries ago when gold miners bullied by police, unfair government regulations and taxes, rebelled against the government.
At the Eureka stockade the rebels lost the fight and 22 were killed but they won the battle forcing the government to back down, change the unfair laws and listen to the people. It has been considered the birthplace of Australian democracy.
This week the NSW government stated that it was going to send an army of several hundred police to confront a group of several thousand non-violent protestors set up in a camp called “Liberty” on private property at Bentley, a rural area located about 19km west of Lismore in NSW.
The protestors are farmers, businessmen, parents with their kids and grandparents, most of whom have never protested before. They have been blockading a gas drilling rig owned by a gas mining company called Metgasco from entering the area for months and the government had decided this week to get tough.
The story started a couple of years ago when a property owner at Bentley decided to allow Metgasco to drill a test well using the process called Fracking for unconventional gas (coal seam gas) that is thought to be present a couple of kilometres below the ground there.
The problem is that the company planned not one but hundreds of gas wells all over the valley if the test well proved successful. The complication is that the law in NSW allows the company to drill as many wells as it wants on any farmer’s property WITHOUT the farmer’s permission.
In short, all the farmers in the valley and the people in whole region became worried that their health would be compromised and their backyard would end up like the devastation in Tara, Queensland caused by Fracking where the land has become an unhealthy agricultural industrial wasteland with hundreds of wells interconnected by a massive grid of roads and pipelines that looks from the air like the cover picture of a science fiction dystopian horror story.
Their fears were increased by a mountain of reports from overseas of reduced land values, industrial accidents, mismanagement, land and ground water contamination with toxic and cancer causing chemicals, radioactivity and even earth quakes. There were also hints of government corruption which has surrounded the unconventional gas mining industry both here and overseas.
The farmers complained to their local and then their state government representatives to no avail. They were just fobbed off. There is lots of money to be made by gas mining and companies like Metgasco are generous when it comes to political election fund donations. It appeared that they were to be sacrificed to the god Greed for the sake of what capitalism calls progress but others term profit before people or more simply rape and pillage of the land.
However, the farmers didn’t just lie down and take it stoically they decided to fight back. They formed a community based action group called Gasfield Free Northern Rivers with a range of environmental groups including the popular Lock the Gate Alliance, all fighting for the same thing. To stop unconventional gas mining such as coal seam gas mining in NSW and hopefully the rest of Australia as well. This would not be unusual as it has been banned in more than a dozen countries overseas.
Now the question comes to mind. If fracking is dangerous why are they doing it all over the USA. Well the clue might come from the fact that to allow it to happen in the USA they exempted the industry from having to comply with all the clean air and water environmental legislation as the corporations stated that it was harmless.
Any person attempting a little critical thinking would have to say if it was harmless then there would be no reason to exempt it from the regulations. In fact it has turned out to be quite dangerous especially to the people living in close proximity to gas wells. Aside from localised land pollution and more extensive underground water pollution, reports of adverse health effects have become quite common. This Study in the USA illustrates the problems quite well.
The Medical Journal of Australia recently published a report on the industry stating that there were health problems and suggested that much more research is needed but both the government and industry seem reluctant to invest in research that might counteract the corporate claims of safety.
A deeper question might be to ask why we need to frack for unconventional gas in NSW at all. There are several answers to this question.
Firstly, the world is either past or approaching peak oil depending on who you talk to. That means we are likely to run short if the world economy keeps growing, so the energy companies are turning to using more gas and coal rather than consider renewables which are less profitable.
Secondly, the gas companies have suggested that we need to mine the gas in NSW as our supplies are dependent upon sources from other states and we need local supplies to keep prices down.
The first part is true. NSW gets much of its gas from the Great Australian Bight but there are enough supplies there for the next hundred years so there is no shortage. The second statement is false.
The gas companies want to mine the NSW gas not for the local market but to supply the Chinese market through a pipeline being built to join the Queensland gas pipelines. The gas companies want Aussies to pay world parity prices for OUR gas. This will mean price hikes of up to 300% whether we frack for unconventional gas or not.
It should be noted that most other nations that export gas reserve a portion of their gas which is sold to their local markets at a cheaper rate. The local gas companies have called for a domestic gas reservation scheme but as yet the Australian government has ruled that out for our local market. Why? – I guess they will lose tax revenue.
So what happened at the Bentley blockade? Well the NSW government was going to send up hundreds of police to disrupt, fine and potentially gaol many of the protestors but at the last minute backed down, it suspended the company’s permit to drill and decided to refer Metgasco to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
It appears that the company is partly owned by the Obeid family currently under scrutiny by the ICAC for a web of corruption involving both Liberal and Labor politicians from Victoria to Queensland.
The problem for the Bentley blockade people is of course the company’s permit to drill is only suspended not cancelled. So depending on what happens at the ICAC inquiry we may still have the Eureka confrontation yet a few months from now.
Jubilant protestors at Bentley blockage …photo credit…. Gas Free Northern Rivers
A curious note – The whole Eureka saga was triggered by a publican by the name of James Bentley who was involved in a mob that beat a miner to death. A lot of the miner’s friends were unhappy and burnt Bentley’s pub down and (perhaps) the lack of beer triggered the whole rebellion.
If you’re interested in further articles about Coal Seam Gas mining and Bentley by Des Pensable see below.