About the Gasfield Free Campaign
Early days of opposition
The anti-CSG movement in the Northern Rivers came into being in early 2010 when Arrow Energy commenced drilling an exploration well in the Keerrong Valley and local residents were alarmed by the constant noise of the drilling and the large trucks on their small rural roads. After finding out more about the issues around CSG a small but determined band of women set out to inform their neighbours and the wider community about the threat that had come to the region. Market stalls, visits to local and federal politicians and screenings of the US film Gaslands around the region by the Keerrong Gas Squad gradually woke people up. The momentum built further when Lynch’s Creek residents near Kyogle heard of plans for a gas pipeline through the World Heritage listed Border Ranges National Park and formed the Kyogle Group Against Gas.
By early 2011 these groups plus the Nimbin Environment Centre, the Northern Rivers Guardians and Byron’s BSANE were active in raising public awareness with information meetings, stalls, rallies and events. The formation of the regional alliance of local groups in mid-2011, which linked in with the broader Lock the Gate national alliance, saw community groups from across the region working together and supporting each other to build an organized campaign against gas field industrialization of the Northern Rivers.
Birth of a mass movement
The start of 2012 saw innovative new strategies being developed to engage and activate local communities against the CSG threat to their livelihoods and well being. The gas field free communities initiative, a grass-roots democracy process to survey local communities house by house and road by road, was launched at The Channon in April. In a colourful and moving ceremony, large numbers of scrolls were presented to Lismore’s Mayor declaring that 99% of residents wanted their road and local area to be gas field free. The rapid spread of this initiative across the region prompted a shift in the campaign from asking for the pause button to be pressed on the CSG industry to drawing a line in the sand and saying “We don’t want this unsafe, polluting industry in our region!”
In a transformation from an organized movement to a mass movement, early 2012 also saw massive numbers of people from all walks of life and political hues turning out to oppose coal seam gas. A 700 hundred strong public meeting in Lismore resulted in large numbers of people getting involved who then set to work creating musicals and films and organizing a rally and concert that saw 7,000 people on the streets of Lismore calling for a CSG free Northern Rivers. Large, colourful events and protests became the order of the day across the region as local action groups sprang up all over the place and got involved and active in a social movement unprecedented in its size and diversity.
Blockades and victories
The first non-violent direct action at CSG operations in the Northern Rivers took place in mid 2012 at Shannonbrook near Casino, where Metgasco was constructing yet another controversial waste water holding pond. The two day protest in which a man locked himself to a bulldozer and was subsequently arrested highlighted the sham of a supposed government ban on evaporation ponds and the risks to land and water from the toxic waste water produced during CSG operations.
Despite such evocative actions and the high level of opposition to the CSG industry in the region; despite the letters and visits to politicians and the protests and marches; despite the submissions to inquiries and the gas field free road surveys, it became increasingly clear as 2012 progressed that the state government was not prepared to listen to the concerns and wishes of its constituents. In September 2012, when the government announced that it had renewed the CSG exploration licenses in the region and granted a new production license to Metgasco, just days after 87% of Lismore residents voted “NO” to CSG in a Council commissioned poll, community members were outraged.
The evident complicity of government and industry made it clear that the community was all that stood in the way of the wholesale destruction of the very values and attributes that the Northern Rivers is renowned for – clean air and water, fertile soils, scenic landscapes, rich biodiversity, pristine natural areas and healthy, vibrant communities. In defence of these values people had taken to the streets, in late 2012 they took to the barricades, vowing to block every move of the companies CSG operations in the region.
True to their word, late 2012-early 2013 saw almost four months of continuous blockades at Metgasco drill sites near Grafton and Kyogle with hundreds of community members turning out to block drill rigs and determined protectors sustaining permanent roadside camps in floods and wild weather to maintain a constant presence. People who had never ever protested before put their bodies on the line to defend their environment and community. Indigenous elders stood beside farmers to protect land and water. Massive police numbers, at huge taxpayer expense, were required to facilitate drilling operations.
Suddenly, in March 2013, Metgasco, the most active CSG company in the region, announced it was suspending its operations in the Northern Rivers indefinitely. Soon after, Dart Energy followed suit. The companies blamed government regulations, but the constant blockades, the consistent 95%+ results in gas field free surveys, the persistent opposition means that this industry will always face huge challenges in the Northern Rivers. It has no social license in the region and will never get one.
With the companies saying they will be back when the political climate is more favourable, the CSG free campaign goes on! Gas field free surveys are continuing to spread rapidly across the region and local action groups remain active raising awareness about the issues and lobbying politicians for real protections from the threat of unconventional gas. The battle for a region free of CSG and other forms of unconventional gas goes on, as individuals and community groups vow to continue their efforts till the entire region is declared a no go zone and all exploration licenses are revoked.
Metgasco’s announcement that they would be returning to drill at Bentley, 14 km from Lismore in 2014, saw the establishment of a protector’s camp adjacent to the proposed drilling site that heralded the beginning of the historic Bentley Blockade. This camp initially started as a road side vigil, but grew to be a fully functional camp with facilities that supported thousands of visitors exercising their right to lawful protest. Numerous activities and events were held over the 4 months the camp was in existence, including legal training workshops, music events, training days and community building events that united people from across the region. Despite Richmond Valley Council threatening to shut down the camp, the generous landholders and Northern Rivers community were not prepared to bow to State government and industry pressure.
The extraordinary and well attended ‘Greet the Dawn’ events at 5 am every morning united the community and sent a loud message to government that people were prepared to put their bodies on the line to defend their community from invasive gasfields. The power of the community to stay resilient, non-violent and united in the face of adversity is a tribute to the commitment and sacrifice of the Northern Rivers community.
Such was the overwhelming opposition to the drilling operation the government had to suspend Metgasco’s licence, just days before thousands of people were expected to show up to protest the arrival of Metgasco’s equipment assisted by significant police numbers to ‘break’ the blockade. Whilst this was a significant victory to people power, Metgasco has since sued the NSW government, and intends to return to drill at Bentley if successful. The community will remain vigilant and will continue to campaign against invasive gasfields until all gas exploration licences across the Northern Rivers are cancelled.