Ban Coal Seam Gas Mining

By Tim Stewart

The campaign against coal seam gas (CSG) mining has taken to the streets over the past month with big turnouts at rallies in northern NSW and the spawning of “No CSG” groups all over social media sites, attracting thousands of supporters.  

On May 14, around 3500 people converged at Murwillumbah for a march that was so large that the head of the march had finished the CBD route before the tail had left. The following rally in the park heard speakers continue for three hours into the afternoon. Two weekends later, on May 29, an internet call-out brought 2000 people to the beach at Byron Bay for a human sign. On the same day, more than 3000 people gathered at Austinmere Beach near Wollongong for a duplicate action spelling out the letters “STOP COAL SEAM GAS” for an aerial photo shoot.  

Anti-CSG campaigners took their message to the country town of Casino, intervening in the annual Beef Week parade on May 28. Bringing the anti-CSG message to the festival provoked a firestorm in the letters pages of the local media, which remain committed to the mining companies. Barred from participating in the procession, the protesters gathered first to hear local speakers and then dispersed to engage in a mass distribution of campaign materials. Activists reported a warm reception from farmers who understood the issue, and were surprised at not encountering a serious backlash when they held an informal march down the main street after the main parade.

Three days later a contingent of mainly youth campaigners headed to Brisbane for a rowdy picket of the ninth annual CSG mining conference at the Sofitel Hotel. For more than two hours, 150 people maintained an open platform of chants, announcements and depositions against CSG activities before converging on the doors of the hotel as activists inside rushed hotel security and police to meet the protests outside. Dayne Pratzky, “the frack-man”, attempted to padlock the doors of the hotel with a cable to symbolically “lock the gate” on the mining companies gathered inside. After he was wrestled to the ground and bundled off into a police van to cheers and whistles, the chants grew louder and more enthusiastic, eventually ending with police offering to free Pratzky in return for an end to the picket. This was put to the crowd, who then dispersed, only to regather after lunch and at a later dinner event at another venue.

Earlier in May, hundreds of people made the four-hour journey west of Brisbane to the western Darling Downs town of Tara for a “Rock the Gate” protest camp attended mainly by older people from CSG-threatened regions. Speakers at workshops included Bob Irwin (the late Steve Irwin’s father) and Costa from the SBS program Costa’s Gardening Odyssey. Locals from Tara ran tours of affected mining estates, showing the scale and immediate destruction caused by CSG pipeline work alone.

One resident, a wildlife carer, set up a photo display documenting the destruction of local wildlife species, including tumours found on geckos and lizards, the invasion of cane toads and weed species via heavy trucks and mining equipment and unidentified “sludge” suddenly percolating into previously clear ponds and watercourses.

An anonymous letter from a CSG mine worker detailed the changed practices of mining companies since British Gas took over Queensland Gas Corporation operations in Tara. The letter exposed loopholes in self-regulation of the industry, including heavy reliance on contractors who could then be blamed in case of environmental or other regulatory violations (in the same way BP tried to blame contractors for the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico). 

More than moratoriums
To date, the call for a moratorium on coal seam gas exploration has been taken up by the Lismore, Byron and Murwillumbah councils. A 60-day moratorium on “new” CSG permits is currently in place in NSW, but the movement needs to adopt a stronger position. Calling for a total ban on CSG surpasses the greenwashing from the industry and the Queensland Labor government.

In an attempt to distance itself from the devastating claims made in the US documentary Gaslands about chemicals used in the “fracking” extraction process, the Queensland government implemented a ban on BETEX chemicals (including benzene and xylene) late last year. The industry is even distancing itself from the word “fracking” by calling its drilling “hydraulic stimulation”. Greg Combet, the federal minister for climate change, is now calling coal seam gas a “transitional fuel” to a low carbon future. Attempts to sooth public opinion by selling coal seam methane as a “natural gas” need to be exposed by the campaign.

Calling for a total ban on CSG mining avoids some of the dangers of the moratorium argument. For example, Murandoo Yanner from the Carpentaria Land Council was interviewed by ABC radio’s Rural Report on April 4 this year, where he called for a moratorium on CSG exploration - but only until the miners “demonstrate a commitment to the environment and local job creation before work proceeds”. Despite his history of struggle against mining companies, Yanner’s current call for a moratorium makes it easy for the miners to proceed after some greenwashing and the hiring of a few locals.

Similarly, talking about Armour Energy exploring for petroleum and gas on land around Doomadgee and Burketown in central Queensland, Yanner told ABC radio: “If you want to do business in the lower Gulf, you have to employ blacks and whites in this region, you have to employ the youth of this region and people from Karumba, Normanton, Mornington Island, Doomadgee, Burketown, Gregory”, adding, “Those people will have to be employed, have to be involved in the project, and services will have to be tendered from within the region”.

Likewise, two of the demands of Lock the Gate - which call for an immediate moratorium “on approvals of coal and coal seam (and other unconventional) gas mining projects” and to “limit the impact of existing licences/agreements” - unnecessarily yields to the CSG industry just as the campaign has begun.

For a total ban
This is why it has been relatively easy for local councils such as Lismore, Tweed and Byron in northern NSW to adopt motions in favour of a moratorium. Rather than debate the various motives for a moratorium, the movement needs to take up a more universal position by calling for a total ban on CSG mining.  

A campaign to ban CSG mining totally has the potential to mobilise similar numbers of people as the sustained campaign to ban uranium mining in the 1980s. This campaign was unable to be easily bought off by the Labor party and led to the formation of new political formations and sustained activism that eventually led to a large defection from the ALP to the Nuclear Disarmament Party.

Current calls for a moratorium, a legal struggle, or even a royal commission into the effects of coal seam gas mining assume that the “law makers” (the politicians and bureaucrats) are going to side with the people without a public fight. It implies that peace can be made with the cowboy capitalists of the CSG industry. But all the evidence is to the contrary. Laws such as the Mining Act and the Petroleum (Onshore) Act mean that mining is the only industry in which a private company can apply to develop another person’s land without their consent. And the time it takes for a royal commission to publish its findings might be just the opportunity the industry needs to put in place infrastructure such as pipelines and liquefaction plants for the 40,000 plus mines planned from Gippsland in Victoria through to Gladstone in Queensland.

The campaign against CSG has the potential to reactivate thousands of people in the climate movement who have been wasted in Get-Up style events on World Environment Day in favour of the ALP’s carbon tax policy. A campaign to ban coal seam gas - the newest incarnation of the fossil fuel industry - would be a great step in uniting people around a single demand that takes up issues of carbon pollution, sustainability, globalisation, social justice and land rights. If the current wave of protests is any indication, it is a campaign that is gaining strength.