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Issue #1629      March 5, 2014

Coal seam gas the new gold rush

A talk given at the Melbourne Unitarian Church by Burt Blackburne and Margaret Williamson

“Every environmental struggle on the job or in the community comes up against corporations that own the factory or the mine or the mineral deposits. This ownership and the vast wealth of these corporations give them the power to oppose changes to protect the environment.

“The power of corporations is defended by governments which support corporate interests. This is often done behind declarations that environmental protection measures will not be allowed to damage the economic interests of the country – meaning, of course, the economic interests of the capitalist ruling class.

“It is sometimes suggested that the environmental crisis is so serious that it transcends class. It has been called ‘a common crisis’ which affects everyone equally, and requires social divisions to be set aside for the ‘common good’.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. The crisis is certainly common to all who live on earth, but it does not affect all equally, nor can it be solved by ‘common action’ for two simple reasons – those whose actions hove caused the crisis possess political power and show little inclination to change their present course towards disaster ... ”

This is a quote from a powerful booklet Hot Earth which I encourage all of you to read. So, it is important to recycle and to put solar panels on your roof but unless you examine the very nature of the system that is harming and poisoning the earth, there are limitations on what we do as individuals.

Farmers, greenies and community groups are fighting back.

Government support for market-based policies including CSG mining has stifled almost all voices that question this policy and effectively ruled out the planning, regulation and legislation which are essential to ensure a sustainable future.

Fracking, otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, is a process to extract gas and oil from deposits that were previously considered too difficult to mine. Fracking is the process of pumping water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals underground at great pressure in order to break open the ground and allow the gas to flow out.

The wastewater often contains high levels of salt and other contaminants from the coal seam, including mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and other elements in harmful quantities. There is no safe way of disposing of this water. In a frack, 20-80 percent of the water pumped into the ground remains underground. This water often finds its way into ground and surface water endangering the health of local communities and ecosystems that rely on this water.

The technique can also create mini-earthquakes that cause the connection of naturally separated geological layers. This process can contaminate ground water with volatile organic compounds, methane, other gases, heavy metals, enormous quantities of salt, as well as naturally occurring radioactive material.

The regulations in Australia do not require mining companies to list the chemicals they use in fracking fluids. However, experiences in Queensland and New South Wales show the use of carcinogens, as well as other chemicals including ethylene glycol that affect kidney function, the lungs and heart; the BTex group of chemicals (benzene, tolulene, ethyl benzene and xylene) that affects bone marrow, the blood system and can cause leukaemia; and there are other toxins that affect hormone regulation and the reproductive system.

Water tested from the Condamine River that connects to the Murray-Darling system, was found to contain ten times the safe level of boron and cadmium and more than 1,000 times the safe level of silver, chlorine and copper. In the Pillaga Forest in a creek near Narrabri in NSW, testing confirmed the presence of harmful substances including ammonia, lithium, cyanide, bromide and boron. These chemicals are dangerous by-products of CSG mining and were not found in sites tested upstream of the mining.

In Victoria the exploration licences granted cover some of the most productive agricultural land. In Gippsland, the licences cover an area from Western Port Bay to Bairnsdale, from Warragul to Bass Strait. This area is renowned for dairy and beef cattle industries, vegetable and fruit growing.

Gippslanders listen to the experiences of other states in considering their view on this matter.

Elaine Armstrong is the NSW president of the Country Women’s Association. She has said, “Our members have heard anecdotally and have experienced personal examples of what has happened from unregulated exploitation of prime land by the granting of mining and coal seam gas explorative permits. Many have personal experience of irreparable damage done to their properties because of non-regulated activities.”

In October in 2012 the New York Times ran an article entitled “After the Boom in Natural Gas”. It was not about pollution or ruined land values or jobs. Their concerns: “The gas rush is a money loser so far for many of the gas exploration companies and their tens of thousands of investors.”

Gas producers drilled too many wells too quickly and the price of gas fell below the cost of production.

Energy researcher Richard Heinberg states that the industry has massively oversold its jobs record. Since 2003, oil and gas jobs account for less than 1/2Oth of one percent of the overall US labour market. Numerous industry-funded studies count strippers and prostitutes as new jobs created by the spread of fracking.

Fighting back

Opposition to fracking is happening around the world, particularly in the US and Canada, but also throughout Europe. A recent huge demonstration in Romania attacked the giant northern Californian-based corporation Chevron that plans to start fracking there.

On October 9 last year, the European Parliament approved rules forcing every company to carry out in-depth environmental audits before drilling. France has banned fracking. In Bulgaria they have outlawed fracking after major protests against Chevron’s plans to drill in Dobrudja – the most fertile farm region in the country.

The great thing is that farmers, greenies and community groups are fighting back here as well. “Lock the Gate”, which started in Queensland and NSW to provide protection to rural communities from this industry, has ramped up in Victoria because of the lack of government action against the powerful mining interests.

Despite the legal implications, farmers across Gippsland have started locking their gates to the mining companies, refusing trucks and equipment access to their land. We have escalated to the extent where we are now locking roads from mining companies and protecting entire regions from devastation.

In April 2012 a coalition of over 50 different community, environmental and farming groups launched a call for a moratorium on all new coal and CSG projects in Victoria. This forced the Victorian government to address community concerns and institute a moratorium on all fracking in August 2012.

In more recent months, the Victorian government hired former federal industrial relations minister Peter Reith to investigate the implications of fracking and CSG extraction in Victoria. For this work, Reith was reportedly paid $2,000 a day.

When Reith attended a public meeting in the township of Mirboo North, he refused to engage with the community, but did an interview with the local media. There is no doubt in locals’ minds that Reith was a spokesperson for big business.

You will all recall his pedigree when he claimed refugees had thrown their children overboard to force a rescue by the Australian Navy. You will also recall that the defence department had to come out and explain that Mr Reith was incorrect and that no children were thrown overboard.

Reith has stated publicly that there are no problems with fracking and recommended that full-scale mining should go ahead. This position ignores the evidence to the contrary both here and overseas. Notwithstanding, the Victorian Liberal government has decided to continue the moratorium on fracking until 2015. Coincidently, this is just after the state election next year.

This is an important window of opportunity for the anti-CSG movement. We are under no illusions about the current government or a potential Labor government on this matter.

The fact that the moratorium has been extended is a result of the courageous stand taken by the Gippsland/Western Victoria communities, but the war is not yet over. We can expect the mining companies and their extensive network of highly paid lobbyists to ramp up their activity as well. The battle for hearts and minds continues.

If we look to the interstate experience, we see the CSG mining industry trying to present a human face in the Hunter region of NSW.

A CSG operator tried to sponsor the Singleton Outstanding Business Awards, but its sponsorship was rightly rejected by the local Chamber of Commerce. A CSG company tried to sponsor the hugely attended Broke Valley fair, but this was rejected by the community and their cheque returned. CSG companies are now offering local primary schools cash donations in their efforts to win community support.

In Victoria, CSG company Lakes Oil (part of the Gina Reinhardt stable), sponsored a local bike ride throughout Gippsland. To its credit, Bass Coast Council withdrew its name as a sponsor of the event once it learned of the mining company’s involvement. This council has refused to sponsor the event if Lakes Oil is involved next year.

While the government has extended the moratorium on fracking, communities across Victoria, in Gippsland and now in the Southern Western District must continue the campaign and build community strength against these powerful mining companies. The state Victorian government in mid last year produced a policy on mining. This 17-point policy states that the government will facilitate the operations of mining companies and intends to hold an international conference inviting miners to come to exploit Victoria further. So, our communities must continue to be vigilant and continue to keep up the fight. We must at all costs protect the food-growing capacity of our water supply from the incursions of the miners.

Locking up roads and towns is more than a symbolic action. When hundreds of landowners in a community refuse access then the mining company is faced with a rapidly diminishing return if they try to force access into that community. The political and economic costs of launching numerous individual actions against landowners will inevitably cause a tidal wave of political backlash.

In Queensland and NSW and now in Victoria an exciting movement is growing. Faced with the imminent threat of large-scale mining, all different kinds of communities are making their roads and towns CSG free.

Hot Earth is available from the CPA website and 74 Buckingham Street, Surry Hills. The booklet is free but a donation towards its production and postage would be appreciated. Phone 02 9699 8844 or email info@cpa.org.au for copies.

The Beacon

Next article – Scientists and experts agree GMOs not proven safe

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