The Bentley Blockade, a New Eureka Stockade Postponed?

bentley camp

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 peopel at Bentley blockade

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.

  1. Police Line Dance Challenge at Bentley (satire)
  2. Dodgy Dick the Fracking Engineer (a message from Tara).
  3. What would YOU say? (questions that need an answer).

An Adventure in WANDO land

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This Easter my partner Jo and I decided to travel to Camp Wando, an environmental training and protest action camp set up on a farmer’s property mid-way between Boggabri and Narrabri in central western NSW. We were keen to show support to a consortium of local farmers and green groups including Green Peace that were trying to save the Leard State Forrest from destruction by a rapacious mining company called Whitehaven. The company is controlled by ex-politicians and their bankster partners who wish to destroy a rare type of forest to create a massive coal mine that will ruin local farmlands and only add to the world’s global warming problem in an adverse way.

We had intended to arrive at the camp before sundown on the Easter Friday but a massive traffic jam in Sydney caused by tens of thousands of people leaving the city for country destinations meant that the six hour trip actually ended up taking nearly ten hours with over three hours being spent in Sydney traffic. The delay meant that we would be trying to find the camp and set up in the dark. Consequently we decided to stay overnight in a motel at Gunnedah and travel to the camp the next morning. This turned out to be a wise decision.

The next day, we set off for the camp located about 24 km off the main road between Boggabri and Narrabri on Saturday morning travelling on mainly dirt roads through mixed cattle and cotton country. If you haven’t been there imagine a land scape that is extremely flat and very fertile. From the road you can see farmland stretching off kilometres in all directions with an occasional small hillock to add variety.

The paddocks containing cotton were often kilometres wide and much of the cotton appeared ready for harvesting. There was no army of cotton pickers. It’s all done by a giant harvesting machine that cuts the cotton plants off at their base, somehow separates the cotton balls from the rest of the plant and outputs a giant roll of raw cotton that appeared to be about 3 m tall and 5 metres wide covered in yellow plastic.

There was plenty of green grass and good fodder to be seen along the road and in the paddocks for the properties running cattle as they had had some good rain a few weeks earlier. It was on the dirt road beside a paddock littered with young bullocks getting fattened up for market a few kilometres from Camp Wando that we met the first of the police. They had been turned out in large numbers to stop any protests.

For no reason at all we were pulled over asked who we were and why we were there. We had our licenses and car registration checked. They didn’t search our car although we found out later that they did search other people’s cars. They were courteous and not aggressive. Just doing their job! they said. We told the sergeant that we were on our way to Camp Wando and could he direct us. He couldn’t he said. He was up from Sydney and they were trying to find it themselves. Fortunately we had a map and so we continued on and they followed us at a distance until we arrived at the camp.

I must admit I felt a little sorry for these city cops. They must have drawn the short straw to get sent out to the bush to sit around for hours at a road block in the hot sun and cold nights trying to stop a group of nonviolent protesters from exerting their democratic rights to protest the environmental destruction of our national heritage by an immoral gang of looters and polluters rather than going to the Easter Show in Sydney and having a great time.

We arrived a little before mid-day and were welcomed by a friendly group of people from the camp who had us fill in a registration sheet that included questions about what skills we might be able to contribute. We were then given a tour and advised about the camp rules which were pretty simple logical and designed for everyone’s mutual benefit and wellbeing. There was a voluntary roster of camp jobs and everyone had communal meals around a camp fire area adjacent to the kitchen. There was a strict no drugs policy although beer and wine in moderation at meal times was considered acceptable.

The camp was set on a roughly rectangular block of perhaps five hectares of private property owned by one of the farmers and located next to his dwelling. Most of the area was covered in lush green grass owing to the recent rain and there were a few native trees around his home and along the fence line. There were a couple of farm sheds for use by the visitors. One was used as a communal kitchen and another as a workshop and communal meeting area. There was a small toilet block and some cold bore-water showers. The rest of the area was open space that would accommodate tents for perhaps a couple of hundred people although there were only about fifty people there when we arrived.

After setting up our tent we were invited to our first communal lunch around a campfire with about 40 others. The volunteer cooks made vegan, vegetarian and meat oriented dishes so there was plenty for all tastes. There was also plenty of fruit and of course a variety of different teas and coffees and beautifully cool refreshing bore water. The community meals were funded by a daily donation of $10 per person.

The people present were all ages from young children six years old to grey haired grandparents in their sixties, from all walks of life and from the towns, the cities and the country side. Many said they had never participated in any protest actions but were now concerned enough about global warming and the irresponsible attitude of the federal and state governments in promoting destruction of our forests to build more coal and CSG mines. They were deeply concerned that our governments were preferring corporate profit over the wellbeing of ordinary Aussies.

After lunch we got stuck into workshops on a variety of subjects including the environmental and economic arguments for protesting about the destruction of the Leard State forest. There were role playing exercises in nonviolent protesting, using non aggressive body language, defusing aggressive confrontations, and the like as well as first aid, working as a part of a team, the various roles of people in a protest. These workshops were quite fun and everyone seemed to be enjoying them.

Dinner that evening was a very cordial social affair as everybody had had a chance to meet and interact with many of the others there. It was lovely to see young and old freely conversing and all of similar mind about the threat to environment of Global Warming and need to take action to convince the government that they were elected for the benefit of the people of this land NOT for the foreign companies keen to loot and pollute this land leaving us with a huge clean-up bill for minimal national gain.

After a cool night, the next day was loaded with more workshops interspersed with sessions of play acting and theatre sports to provide some entertainment. A lot of time was spent on discussing legal matters; what actions people could get arrested for; what happened when people were arrested by police; the responsibilities of the police; the bail process and how the courts worked. Here people were advised to think carefully before they decided to get arrested as there could be repercussions in the workplace; potential restrictions on travel and social stigma. Curiously, many said getting arrested was a badge of honor. A demonstration of their deep passion and committment to this country.

The meals were great and it was wonderful to see everyone keen to get on the work roster with no complaints about anything except of course our federal government breaking just about all of their election promises and treating the Australian population with utter contempt.

Sunday evening was special as about twenty members of the Leard family who have been farming in the district for five generations and are currently threatened by the Whitehaven coal mine came visiting the camp bringing Easter eggs and drinks for all the camp as a gesture of support and good will. They stayed for dinner, enthusiastically praised and thanked all the people in the camp for coming and gave first -hand accounts of the problems caused by the mine and the police sent to stop protests.

One of the main problems seemed to be that city police are posted to the area and they have been setting up road blocks and stopping people from attending to their normal businesses. They have no idea who is a local and who is not. As a result there have been accounts of police refusing to allow farmers to travel to their own farms even when they had identification on them. One woman was blocked from going to church. This harassment of innocent farmers is not what the locals want or expect from the police. They blame Whitehaven and the police for the problem not the protesters.

On Sunday night everyone went to bed early as a protest action was being arranged for the Monday morning. Jo and I organised the manufacture of a large number of rabbit ears for the protesters to wear. It would give everybody a chuckle and look good in any media release photos. Unfortunately the action was thwarted by the police at a road block on the way where they searched the cars and seized all of our banners arguing that they were hazardous to mining machinery and refusing to even give receipts for the banners as required by law.

While no one was arrested nor should they have been for attempting to hold a peaceful nonviolent protest action the police were heavy handed in confiscating the banners. They made no friends by showing that they were happy to be the unpaid servants of the looters and polluters of our land and the greasy politicians who seem to be continually found to be guilty of corruption charges within the ICAC court and more often than not for corruption involving mining leases and practises. While people at the camp were a little disappointed they were by no means dispirited and planned further actions later in the week and got busy producing more banners.

Jo and I were a little disappointed at not being able to participate in a good protest as we had to return to Sydney on Tuesday for business reasons but the experience was wonderful. We met lots of lovely people who were passionate about protecting this country from the barbarians we call a government and we made more new friends whom I’m sure we’ll see in the near future.

The only sad thing that Jo and I heard came from one of the local farmers. He said “I fought for this country in the Second World War. I never thought I would have to fight to save it from our own government.” Neither did we mate!

If you wish to learn more about camp Wando, meet wonderful people of all ages from all walks of life who are concerned about Global Warming and wish to participate in non-violent peaceful protest actions to persuade our government to take action then check out the following links.

Postscript . When we returned home we found out that a protest action had been carried out by one of our new friends John Ross, a businessman from the north coast who locked himself onto a gate stopping a few coal trucks before police came and removed him. See below. Great work John.

Links..

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-31/protesters-arrested-at-whitehaven-coal-maules-creek-mine/5356226http://www.northerndailyleader.com.au/story/2231793/pressure-to-lift-leard-forest-roadblocks/?cs=159
http://www.nvi.com.au/story/2233228/gallery-police-prepared-for-action/?cs=373
http://www.nvi.com.au/story/2233218/mine-road-blocks-disrupt-plans-for-easter-services/
http://nofibs.com.au/2014/04/22/civil-disobedience-and-the-leardblockade-adropex-comments/http://www.greenpeace.org.au/blog/historic-action-at-maules-creek-coal-mine/incl