The future of the coal seam gas industry is looking increasingly uncertain as community opposition broadens.
Last week the NSW Government hosted a $900-a-head mining industry conference that was the target of three separate protests.
The conference focused on mineral exploration and investment in NSW and was opened by the NSW Minister for Resources and Energy Chris Hartcher.
Hartcher told the conference that he acknowledged there are "many legitimate concerns" about the industry’s impact on water, the environment, and farmland. "We need to work them through, accepting a fundamental premise that mining is at the very heart of the economy of this state," he said.
Soon after the conference was opened, around 30 protesters disrupted proceedings, taking to the stage to talk about how CSG and mining impacts on their communities.
As they left the building they were heckled by mining industry delegates with cries of "piss off" and "get a job" — to which one protester responded "I do have a job, and I’m trying to protect the jobs of our kids".
Meanwhile, hundreds of people protested outside the venue at a rally organised by Lock the Gate, an alliance of over 100 community groups concerned about the impact of mining.
Two protesters were arrested but released without charge after abseiling from a balcony of the conference venue to drop a large banner that read: "Enough is enough, stop coal and gas expansion".
These protests come in response to ongoing bipartisan support for the CSG industry across NSW and QLD. Wendy Bacon reported last week on the efforts of local residents in Putty to halt drilling on the edge of the Wollemi wilderness area in NSW. A community meeting in St Peters in Sydney also revealed entrenched community opposition to drilling — whether for exploration or production.
Over the past 15 years Labor-led state governments have offered a number of incentives to complanies exploring for unconventional gas in NSW, such as a five-year royalty holiday that was put on oil and gas production more than a decade ago.
At present there remain more than 30 current CSG exploration licences granted by previous Labor state governments. These licences cover about a quarter of the state.
However, community opposition has brought the approvals process in NSW to a standstill, with many CSG exploration and production licences facing uncertainty as the government considers how best to address widespread public concern.
But this state of limbo has not dampened foreign interest in mineral exploration — Hartcher told industry delegates that his office hosts a "parade of visitors from overseas" who are interested in exploiting the state’s mineral resources. The admission confirms the concerns of many Lock the Gate campaigners about foreign investment in mining being favoured over the protection of prime agricultural land and environmentally sensitive areas.
"We are up against powerful interests who are quite happy to pillage rural communities and agricultural land," Drew Hutton, President of Lock the Gate, told campaigners at a breakfast hosted by Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore on Friday.
"We are not opposing the mining industry, but we need a balanced economy," he said, reasoning that CSG expansion must not risk future food security.
Lock the Gate is calling for an immediate freeze on any exploration and production under existing licences, and a moratorium on the granting of new licences pending a full inquiry into the impacts of CSG.
The Greens agree a moratorium is necessary and NSW mining spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham has introduced a bill that seeks to place a moratorium on all CSG exploration and new CSG production as well as place a prohibition on CSG development within the Sydney metropolitan area.
This week will also see the introduction of two bills at federal level.
Federal independent MP Tony Windsor is moving to broaden existing environmental laws to include consideration in planning by the Environment Minister of the protection of underground water, a key concern for many farmers and rural communities.
Windsor has said that the federal government should play a role in CSG development process, and Greens Senator Larissa Waters agrees that greater involvement is needed at federal level.
Waters will introduce a bill that seeks to bring parity to land access negotiations between landholders and mining companies. The bill would require mining companies to obtain written permission before entering a land-holder’s property.
Tony Abbott recently triggered a debate about the coexistence of mining and agricultural industries when he inadvertently aligned himself with the Greens’ position — they have endorsed the rights of farmers to say no to mining exploration or production on their land.
However, the Opposition leader was quick to distance himself from that position after criticism from key mining industry advocates, and has now said that mining approvals and regulation are a matter for the states. In New Matilda last week, Ben Eltham looked at just how powerful the backers of CSG are — and how unlikely Abbott was to resist their influence.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has responded to the controversy around CSG by announcing a ban on exploration within two kilometres of residential areas of 1000 people or more. NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has so far refused to follow Bligh’s lead, instead referring to his strategic land use policy which he says will identify areas that are appropriate to mine, and those that should be protected.
Larissa Waters believes that all levels of government need to be involved in the debate around CSG and mining expansion. "Coal seam gas is regulated predominantly under state laws," she said at last week’s Lock the Gate campaign breakfast, noting too that current state processes around CSG were enacted "poorly".
"Another problem is that local governments and communities are left out of the process. State and federal governments are blinded by short-term profits and are risking long-term agricultural sector and health of communities," she said. "We need a moratorium until we have information about whether the industry is safe. We need to ask: what is the impact on aquifers and food security, in Australia, with this precise technology. We need to be guided by evidence."
There is an ongoing Senate Inquiry that is looking at the economic, social and environmental impacts of mining coal seam gas, and a similar NSW Upper House inquiry is calling for submissions.
Buckingham said that Barry O’Farrell must act to support a moratorium while the inquiry takes place, saying: "If there is something to inquire into, how can the government continue to let this industry roll out?"
Lock the Gate campaigners vow to continue their fight against the industry.
"We will continue this campaign until the right to say no is enshrined in law," said Hutton.
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