Carbon price cheer squads or anti-CSG campaigning?

“If we don’t make this the biggest social movement this county has ever seen, it will be the biggest social disaster this country has ever seen”, exclaimed former tunnel driller Dayne Pratsky on July 5, speaking in Byron Bay to a packed public meeting against coal seam gas.

The same night, fellow activists from the Western Downs Alliance fighting the coal seam gas industry in Tara (Queensland) addressed a second town hall rally in the NSW town of Kyogle, describing the daily confrontations taking place since a blockade and protest camp began in March.

“We’ve had special police in overalls crawling around on their bellies through the bush, mounted police coming through the estates … I’ve even had a project manager trying to chase me down a gas line trying to arrest me”, said Pratsky. “I’ve travelled 6000 kilometres and spoken at 20 meetings in the past two weeks … I don’t have a life. My life is this campaign.”

Across-the-board disaster

At the Byron meeting, National Toxics Network spokesperson Marion Lloyd-Smith presented an unanswerable case against the CSG industry. She noted that only two of the 23 chemicals commonly used in the drilling have been assessed by the national regulator, and that in all of the CSG risk assessment papers that she studied, none had referred to the full suite of chemicals in use. She explained the impacts of  radionuclides and BTEX (hydrocarbon compounds), which are linked to leukaemia, and also the impact of extreme weather events (such as flooding) that overwhelm the capacity of holding ponds containing mining waste water.

The meeting heard that the Queensland Labor government had last year given the CSG industry special exemption for the dispersal of mining waste, allowing Origin Energy to release up to 20 megalitres of waste water a day into the Condamine River near Tara-Chinchilla. An “application for environmental authority” posted by a Tara resident on the website <www.anti-mining.com> listed 84 contaminants in coal seam gas waste water, including BTEX, lead, mercury, uranium and phenol.

On any front, the coal seam gas industry is indefensible. It has greenhouse gas emissions higher than coal; it is a non-renewable fossil fuel; the extractive process and produced waste water are highly polluting; and it is in direct conflict with agriculture or in some cases remnant forests such as the Pilliga Scrub (near Narrabri) and the Border Ranges National Park (near Kyogle) in NSW.

For a decisive campaign

Until now, environmental activists in climate action networks have grappled with abstract debates about emission reduction targets, dabbled in the odd made-for-media stunt run by GetUp or 350.org, and focussed on “positive messages” about renewables instead of taking on the coal or nuclear industries. But the path is now clear for a mass campaign against the newest polluter on the block - coal seam gas.

A campaign to ban CSG mining is just the focus needed to confront capitalism’s pollution-as-usual policies and expose the Labor Party apologists in organisations such as the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, GetUp and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

After three years of indecisive “national community climate action summits” in Australia, and massive demoralisation about the failure of global leaders at the Copenhagen and Cancun UN climate talks to address catastrophic greenhouse gas emissions, “community climate networks” have become remnant outposts for bureaucrats and conservatives.

Typifying the many climate action websites that declared a carbon tax “the best that could be achieved”, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s July 10 media release read as if it were written for a government ad campaign: “Australian action on climate change starts here”.

Illusions that taxing the people rather than the polluters would result in more money for renewables must be punctured by the plans of the federal minister for climate change, Greg Combet, to direct a lion’s share of the carbon tax billions to subsidise “clean coal” and coal seam gas. Coal seam gas is increasingly being pushed by Labor governments as a “cost effective”, transitional form of electricity generation. Even as details of Labor’s “carbon pricing mechanism” are still being worked out, the emerging $30 billion gas export industry in Queensland is calling for compensation and price protection (i.e. protection of its super-profits).

Effective tactics

At a national meeting of anti-CSG activists held in Murwillumbah on June 12, a number of tactics were put forward, including mounting a legal and constitutional challenge (with international appeals to World Heritage); calling for a royal commission into the CSG industry; shareholder activism; and “non-cooperation” by landowners.

But the Lock the Gate coalition, which convened the meeting, failed to schedule an open and democratic discussion about how to mobilise public opinion and what demands to adopt - precisely when publicity and public discussion on the issue have sparked waves of protests, public meetings and a rash of new action groups.

A national day of action to support the Tara blockade was supported at the last community climate action summit in Melbourne, but instead of the Lock the Gate leadership taking up an unambiguous position such as“ban CSG mining”, the demand for the NDA on October 16 has been weakened to “defend our water”.

Given the anger erupting around CSG mining and the indefensible arguments put forward by government and industry, it is self-defeating to call for the campaign to be “moderate” and “directed through appropriate channels”, based on preparing submissions or “looking for creative ways to use legislation”. The campaign needs to look beyond acts of parliament, tribunals and delaying tactics such as the NSW Greens bill for a moratorium “until all social and environmental issues are properly evaluated”.

None of these tactics will be effective without a mass campaign of resistance involving city-wide coalitions organising marches, pickets and protest camps. The overwhelming applause at public meetings against CSG has been reserved for committed activists like the Tara blockaders who inspire basic solidarity and have learned very quickly that polite meetings, closed door consultations and letters to government departments lead nowhere.

Details of the Tara blockade and the October 16 national day of action can be found on the Lock the gate website.