The Bentley effect
Yesterday brought the best news. New South Wales Energy Minister, Anthony Roberts, suspended Metgasco's Petroleum Exploration Licence to drill for gas on farmland near Bentley in the Northern Rivers area on advice from the Office of Coal Seam Gas (OCSG) that the company had failed to adequately consult the community. He also referred the company to ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) 'following receipt of information concerning shareholdings and interests in Metgasco Limited'. Namely, a link between the company's largest shareholder and a relative of Eddie Obeid, the subject of current ICAC investigations.
There had been rumours for a week or more that up to 800 police (including riot police) were about to break up the protest by, at times, several thousand environmental protectors, some of whom have been encamped since January. I had, along with thousands of others, rung the offices of NSW Premier Mike Baird and the Minister for Police Stuart Ayres to seek reassurance that such a heavy-handed response would not happen. They couldn't give me that but they did report a large volume of calls. There was a buzz that thousands more supporters were travelling to New South Wales to swell Camp Liberty's numbers.
Metgasco has already drilled about 50 exploration wells in the area, but most of them are in coal seam deposits about 800 metres below the surface. At Bentley, however, the gas is in sandstone at least two kilometres down and would require fracking, with all its attendant woes.
The community's opposition to Megasco's plans for Bentley is based on a number of issues. Not wishing a beautiful valley with its mixed farming to be industrialised. Unease at the approval of the Rosella 'tight gas' well at Bentley prior to the final report of the New South Wales Safety Investigation Unit on an explosion last year at Metgasco's other unconventional gas well, Kingfisher. Having made plain their opposition to gas operations in the Northern Rivers since 2010 and then voted almost unanimously (87%) against CSG development in a Lismore Council commissioned poll in 2012, the people of Bentley felt their democratic rights were being trumped by the New South Wales government's commitment to mining.
Throughout the blockade and since the decision yesterday, the Bentley protectors received messages of support from all over Australia but also far beyond. Their peaceful, highly organised campaign has set an extraordinary example to all those engaged in similar struggles. The movement grew from face-to-face chats on doorsteps and over fences into an extensive collaborative network of people from many walks of life and different political persuasions who shared a common goal to protect their land, their health and their kids' future.
The Bentley community is now much more likely to unite with others to oppose CSG plans elsewhere in the Northern Rivers, for example at the aptly named Doubtful Creek near Kyogle, and in the state as a whole. And environmental protectors everywhere, as well as wearing grins as wide as Cheshire cats', got up this morning with a lot more hope and belief, and even perhaps a sneaky feeling that 15 May 2014 may well have been a turning point in the slow and steady march towards a more sustainable future for Australia.
Post script On Friday the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) issued the following media release, under the headline Damaging precedent for NSW resource development. It made me cross, although not enough to dispel the warm glow established by the news from Bentley.
Today's decision by the NSW Government to suspend the right of a petroleum exploration and production company, Metgasco, to drill an exploration well in northern NSW just days before commencement of drilling activity is of significant concern to the industry and sets a damaging precedent for resource development in that state. Investors should be concerned about what constitutes 'genuine effective consultation' in NSW. The industry is concerned that the presence of protestors at an operations site should not mean that genuine consultation with the community has been ineffective...
Protest action at his site is part of a well-organised and well-resourced strategy to stop energy development across Australia and it has included both illegal and threatening behaviour, including the placement of booby traps. Companies willing to invest tens of millions of dollars in projects to bolster the state's gas supply now face an uncertain future courtesy of a campaign by The Greens and extreme environmental groups to stop the productions of traditional energy sources.
This post was last edited on 27 May 2014