Movies, musicals and meetings give momentum to coal seam gas campaign

By Tim Stewart — Movies, musicals, bush meetings and speaking tours continue to characterise the campaign against coal seam gas (CSG).

On August 16, a 205km walkathon from Casino in northern NSW to Ipswich in Queensland was completed by anti-CSG campaigners walking the route of a proposed “feeder” pipeline from gas field sites in northern NSW. Dairy farmer Lesley McQueen and resident Darren Rowe were cheered on by 100 people at the Qld-NSW border as they met activist Linda Weston, who walked through to Beaudesert and then Ipswich.

The same week of the walkathon, local cinemas in the towns of Lismore, Nimbin and Byron Bay were booked for screenings of Rock the Gate, a feature documentary based on the May 12 protest in Lismore in which an incredible number, 7000 people, crowded the city’s streets to protest against coal seam gas exploration and mining. This eclipsed a similar outpouring in Murwillumbah in May 2011, at which 3000 people turned out for a day-long protest and concert.

A musical parody of the CSG industry raised thousands of dollars for the campaign in June, while sponsorship of the annual Lismore Show and the Lismore Lantern Parade by mining exploration company Metgasco has been turned down — a reflection of the public positions against CSG activities now being taken by local councils and various prominent people.

The momentum against CSG mining and exploration has reached the stage where community meetings in country halls attract large swathes of people, first discussing the potential impact of mining and often ending in pacts to “Lock the Roads” and declare thoroughfares “Gas field free — protected by community pledge”.

To rally support for such meetings, residents are letterboxed with letters beginning “Dear Neighbour, Coal Seam Gas companies want to turn all of the Northern Rivers into gas fields”.

The leaflet continues “[The] countryside would be covered by a spider’s web of gas wells, pipelines, toxic holding ponds, fences, roads, and compressor stations. Aquifers, springs and creeks would be depleted and contaminated.

“The NSW Government has given the miners Exploration licenses on our lands without any mandate or public consultation. Gas companies have the money to run expensive TV and newspaper advertisements promoting their industry.

“It is important that communities be given information about the dangers of this industry from sources other than the gas companies.”

The first of these bush meetings to declare an entire road “gas field free” was held at The Channon (near Nimbin, NSW) and became an event opened by the mayor of Lismore, Jenny Dowell, who accepted the “human petition” in which people found their local roads mapped onto an oval and then assembled shoulder to shoulder to meet neighbours also opposed to CSG. The event became another mini-video circulating on campaign lists and has resulted in continuous organising across the northern NSW region for at nearly two years.

Meanwhile, self-published books are now coming out, such as Rich Land Wasteland by Sharyn Munro, which is based on a year-long tour of mine-affected areas and aims to be “an exposé‚ on the true costs of coal mining and coal seam gas on our communities”. Another, by academic Paul Cleary, titled Mine Field, “plots the dubious networks created and greased by mining companies to get their projects through”. While not necessarily radical in their conclusions, the coming to the debate of well-researched opinions is a reflection that there is a desire to expose thoroughly the myths peddled by mining companies.

In a similar vein, a “Frackfinding Tour” of coal seam gas fields in the US by NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham and Lock the Gate President Drew Hutton will be reporting back to public meetings across NSW and Qld in coming months. This obviously touches a raw nerve: spin merchants supporting the mining companies in Australia have tried to counter Hutton and Buckingham’s tour by setting up websites and Twitter accounts to create a sandstorm of white noise and personalised insults.

While Lock the Gate has been the “co-brand” of the anti-CSG campaign, there hasn’t yet been any attempt to consolidate the various affiliated groups into a broadly run campaign organisation. With no democratic control over what is said or done in the name of Lock the Gate, Drew Hutton has found himself leading marches in Brisbane with climate change denier, racist and media loudmouth Alan Jones. And there has been a tendency at some of the sites of confrontation such as in Beaudesert at the beginning of this year, for the “leaders” of Lock the Gate to discourage democratic discussion or decision making and instead elevate “symbolic acts” like “throwing down farmers’ hats” on the picket line as the most radical gesture.

While the information campaign against CSG mining and exploration is running white hot in northern NSW, it remains to be seen whether Lock the Gate becomes the vehicle for organising people into collective protest or just a platform that gives uncritical support to frenemies like Alan Jones.

Direct Action — August 20, 2012