A brief lifting of the political iron curtain has revealed what NSW deputy premier Andrew Stoner (Nationals) really thinks of those who oppose gas drilling at Bentley.
‘Mark my word we were prepared to go head to head with that protester group,’ was just one of a few comments made to Jenna Cairney, deputy editor of The Land (Fairfax) newspaper, at a recent Nationals convention.
She shared the comments on social media site Twitter, with other comments reading, ‘It broke my heart that some of those professional bludgers thought they had a win.’
The belligerent and pro-gas mining stance comes despite Mr Stoner having not travelled to meet with the farmers who may still be affected by Metgasco’s drilling attempts just outside Lismore. The Echo previously reported some of those farmers were prepared to be arrested and had ‘locked on’ to concrete devices.
And while the comments were condemned by Lock The Gate’s Michael McNamara, Mr Stoner’s office confirmed with The Echo he was quoted correctly. ‘I said words to the effect that it was a large protest which included a core of hardline protesters who had travelled to the area but also some good local people.
‘At no stage did I suggest that all the protesters were professional bludgers.’
The ‘head to head with that protester group’ comment remains without elaboration. Mr Stoner is also on record as saying he would not want a gas operation near his property.
Democracy! Bah! When I hear that I reach for my feather boa! – Allen Ginsberg
1930s US journalist and satirist H L Mencken once told the internet that democracy is only a dream: it should be put in the same category as Arcadia, Santa Claus, and Heaven.
Debunking that theory was Council’s meeting last Thursday morning – Mencken would have found it hard to get a seat it was so packed.
There was plenty of fodder apart from West Byron (see page one story), with ALDI’s Byron liquor-licence application, North Byron Parklands noise monitoring, the future use of our rapidly deteriorating railways, the recent corporate Clarkes Beach party and declaring the region gasfield free. Cr Chris Cubis also contributed a motion to abolish the mayor’s park-and- ride pet project (lost by the mayor’s casting vote), while Cr Duncan Dey dragged up the awkward episode of Cr Alan Hunter’s warehouse or distribution centre in a rural zone (Cr Dey lost; it will not be excluded from an LEP amendment).
Again it was a gruelling and long day, made slightly easier with the offer by Cr Wanchap of chocolate in a break at around 2pm. Innocent bribes aside, the meeting did threaten to descend into anarchy at around 4pm when some councillors erupted into a tit-for-tat over whispering comments between factions. What a bunch of babies.
Anyway, on with the show, which mainly consisted of agreeing – or not – to write lots of letters and sign submissions.
The top brass in state government – ie premier and relevant ministers – will be soon receiving letters calling on them to review and consider revoking all Petroleum Exploration Licences (PELs) and Petroleum Special Prospecting Applications (PSPAPP 55) in the northern rivers region.
They will also be asked if we can pretty please be declared Gasfield Free. Another letter will ask the Aboriginal Land Council (ALC) ever-so politely to withdraw the PEL application that covers the region. All were in favour.
ALDI’s liquor licence
A submission from Council will be made to the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA) objecting to the proposed liquor licence for Aldi supermarket in Byron Bay.
The submission will outline community concern about alcohol issues and the potential increase of alcohol availability, especially cheap alcohol.
Mute on new liquor licences
Council will also write separately to the Office of Liquor Gaming and Racing (OLGR), ‘pointing out that the Byron Bay Alcohol Action Plan is mute on the issue of new liquor licences and should deal with it...’
Crs Cubis, Woods and Hunter voted against.
For the full run-down, see Council’s revised website at www.byron.nsw.gov.au/ meetings.
With the Bentley outcome a fresh momentary victory, the great big Green event, held at St John’s Hall in Mullumbimby last Saturday night, was a celebration of grass-roots activism.
The Echo asked questions of three Green MPs before their appearance, and the night’s bill included federal senator Scott Ludlam (WA), senator Larissa Waters (Qld), and NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham.
What’s your bet on a double dissolution if the budget is blocked?
MP Ludlam: There will most likely be a series of blocked bills that will just pile up month after month until these lunatics produce others. As long as Labor hold, we’ll be sending them back.
At some point they have to decide whether to abandon this disastrous budget or come and talk to us.
What’s your take on Clive Palmer and his ideas on taxation – do you agree that abolishing expected corporate tax earnings would inject billions into the economy?
MP Ludlam: Palmer’s whole policy platform is tax evasion for his mining companies. He ran on that platform, and his cleverness is being able to disguise that while saying he is standing up for mums and dads. That’s real political artistry. But you don’t know what’s policy and what’s been made up on the spot. There’s still an element of genuineness in there that is obviously resonating with people and we shouldn’t ignore that. My prediction is that they won’t last a year once Abbott tries to buy his senators from him with various bribes and break the parliamentary block.
Palmer’s policies have an interesting element of social justice – if he calls a press conference on the treatment of children on Manus Island, we’ll go and stand by him be cause he’s absolutely right. And he’s already proposing to block things in the budget.
Do you know why we don’t have domestic protection for oil and gas reserves like they have in America and WA?
MP Buckingham: What we don’t have in Australia is a national interest test. There’s no question asked by the government and the exporters about the triple bottom line: economic, social and ecological interests. [Mining company] Santos was recently exposed in one of their strategy documents when they were considering exporting. One of the things they recognised early on was that when they went to export they had parity to international prices. They could leverage their conventional gas off that export and get higher prices domestically. So what’s underpinned their business model from day one was higher domestic prices. They say more gas will put downward pressure on prices – well you can do that but it won’t make it cheaper.
Are you all fans of rare- earth mining, which produces solar panels, magnets and computer chipboards as well as considerable toxic waste? Australian rare-earths mining company Lynas moved their processing plant to Malaysia after all political parties rejected their application to operate here.
MP Ludlam: We met a number of times with Lynas, but they’re just going for the dollar. What Lynas tried to do was to export the high value jobs from their processing plants. They do the bulk mining in WA, then ship this radioactive sludge from Fremantle, which is very heavily populated, in plastic bags and it contains a lot of thorium.
So the rare-earth minerals themselves aren’t radioactive, but they tend to co-exist with toxic ones. When it arrives in Malaysia they immediately throw all the thorium and radioactive sludge away into these tailings dams next to the refinery.
And in Malaysia, they have had a real horror show with the rare-earth minerals.
They have basically been tipping the radioactive sludges into the fields. So that sparked a very substantial counter-movement in Malaysia and we’ve been doing everything we can to support them.
I’m not opposed to rare- earth mining, but that doesn’t mean your company should get a free pass on your social and environmental obligations.
MP Buckingham: Our view is that we need them, and we introduced a bill into the NSW upper house called the Responsible Mining Bill.
It recognises we need to keep making some steel and coked coal in the short term, but we need to be smarter about how we produce it.
And there’s certain areas where mining is just too much of a risk.
The NSW government’s new Office of Coal Seam Gas is refusing to answer how much public money is being spent assisting junior gas mining company Metgasco with its proposed drilling in Bentley near Lismore.
It was just one of a few questions raised by The Echo regarding the proposed Bentley mine after the recent NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) report into the Pilliga CSG operation. That report confirmed saline wastewater leached a number of heavy metals, including uranium, into two aquifers.
Additionally, Lock the Gate’s Carmel Flint said, ‘The report [into the Pilliga incident] reveals that the EPA did not conduct any independent sampling of their own, but relied entirely on data provided by the company they were investigating, Santos, and that the NSW Office of Water were effectively sidelined from the process. 170 million litres of toxic wastewater is now sitting above those two groundwater aquifers right now with no clear plan to clean it all up.’
Despite the damning EPA report, a media spokesperson instead replied with general statements regarding the legitimacy of Metgasco’s operation, citing various petroleum legislation, along with ‘over 300 conditions.’
But with only one sample of surface water movements being taken so far, there has been much public concern that testing was not comprehensive enough to ascertain the impact mining may have over all seasons.
The spokesperson said, ‘Richmond Valley Council is providing independent water bore sampling from local creeks and water monitoring bores subject to landholders’ agreement to allow access to their properties. Metgasco is paying for Council to independently oversee the water sampling, which is publicly available on their website.
‘Metgasco has in place an approved groundwater mon-
itoring and modelling plan that was developed in consul- tation with the NSW Office of Water.’
No water production
‘However, as the Metgasco bore well is a gas well and not a coal seam gas well, water production is not expected.
‘Water safeguards include all waste water being cap- tured in fit-for-purpose tanks with at least 20 per cent of the tank required to be left empty and management and transport safeguards in place.
‘This is an exploration core hole to remove a sample of the geological strata. It is not a pilot production gas well like the ones being operated in the Pilliga. Water produced in drilling a core hole is very very minor.’
The spokesperson de- clined to comment on whether they regarded the Pilliga contamination, the subsequent fine of $1,500 and the damning EPA report as responsible governance.
A group of Bentley residents that live near Lismore travelled to Sydney last week to speak to politicians about their concerns over unconventional gas exploration in their area.
Former Byron Shire may- or and now upper house MLC, Jan Barham (Greens), told The Echo, ‘I was very pleased to be able to assist the delegation while they were in the parliament and encour- age other MPs to hear the locals’ fears about their future if Metgasco proceeds.’
‘The Christian Democrats and Robert Borsack from the Shooters and Fishers Party did meet with the Bentley delegation and respectfully heard their side of the story.
‘Many ALP and coalition members also met with the Bentley farmers, but it was extremely disappointing that the premier did not.’
Ms Barham said that many MPs raised questions about the use of police against the protectors.
‘The new premier is now aware of the broad community opposition to CSG on the north coast and the requests for him to review the situation.
‘Many people have concerns that the Bentley exploration approval is the trojan horse of industrial-scale gas production for the north coast.
‘The community are savvy enough to realise that it’s crucial to stop this now, so that the sustainable future that locals want is possible.
‘As I raised in an adjournment speech last week, Mr Baird’s inaugural speech in 2007 stated that he expected the Liberal Party to lead the restoration of a community-based party in this place.
‘He said at the time: “We should never be ashamed of listening to our conscience or to our community – in essence this is why we are here.”
Licences should be reversed
‘Premier Baird should listen to the community and reverse the licence approval and call off the police intervention on a peaceful, democratic response to an unwanted industrialisation of the north coast.
‘This issue will be a test for the new premier and the government and will impact on next year’s election.’
Again state parliament was in dis- array last week with resignations, slush funds, bribe allegations and dodgy appointments debated.
But one other item stood out.
Lennox Head-based upper house MLC Catherine Cusack (Liberal) lashed out at comments by Labor’s Walt Secord in parlia- ment after Mr Secord said Thomas George (Nationals member for Lismore) is ‘a fierce opponent of the Bentley blockade’.
Mr Secord also told parliament Mr George’s son, Stuart, is the com- munity relations manager for Metgasco. ‘This is the bloke who does spin for Metgasco,’ he said.
That prompted Ms Cusack to call out across the floor, ‘withdraw that disgraceful smear.’
When asked for clarification on why it was a smear, Ms Cusack told The Echo, ‘The imputation made was to smear Mr George’s reputation and integrity.’ However when asked if it was a conflict of interest that Mr George’s son, Stuart George, is Metgasco’s communications relations manager, she declined to comment.
Ms Cusack also declined to comment on whether she thought the fossil fuel industry unfairly influences politics and would not say whether she supported lobbyist or donation reform.
But when asked who she supported – either the protesting Bentley residents or her government – she paused and replied, ‘I support my government’s position.’
Despite being cautious with her words, Ms Cusack did elaborate on how the expansion of mining has become a hot-button issue. ‘The mining licences were issued by [former disgraced Labor MP] Ian McDonald. I can’t recall how many throughout NSW but there are a lot.
‘When I saw the map I was very surprised. He took upfront pay- ments from mining companies for the licences, so this has become their legal right. But we have changed that, so now that money is not upfront.’
Ms Cusack was also cagey on whether there is any public support for Metgasco’s planned Bentley operation, apart from Liberal and Nationals MPs themselves.
‘I would personally like to have seen a different approach and wish there had been better engagement earlier in this,’ she said.
A unified vote by Byron councillors at last Thursday’s meeting will see two letters sent to state government MPs regarding concerns over the rapidly expanding gas mining industry.
It will be requested that macadamia, dairy and beef industries of the northern rivers be classified as a critical industry cluster (CIC). Only horse breeding and wineries in the Hunter Valley have been classified as a CIC – as Cr Alan Hunter pointed out, it was only because they have open cut mines to contend with.
Water threat to region
And likewise, Council will express its concerns with pen to paper that ‘gas exploration is taking place in a location (Bentley, west of Lismore) within the surface water catchment of one of the region’s urban water supply sources.’
Cr Duncan Dey’s motion says, ‘Incidents in recent years such as wastewater overflows in the Pilliga State Forest and at Casino demonstrate that the infant unconventional gas industry is either not willing to, or not capable of averting such incidents, and that the planning for and granting of exploration licences was premature.’ Will this all make any difference? Probably not if done in isolation, as Cr Di Woods pointed out.
She suggested it would be more effective if all north coast councils were aligned. But that’s notwithstanding the public’s discontent which saw thousands turn out at Bentley recently.
One of the most interesting parts of the meeting’s debate was the idea put forward by Crs Hunter and Chris Cubis that Council should instead concentrate on the three Rs: rates, roads and rubbish. We shouldn’t be political, they said.
It’s an intriguing argument: should we operate as non- political vessels and let the state and feds take care of us?
Or, can humans ever achieve a pure non-political state of being? It’s understandable to want less work given the rates of councillors’ pay, but such is the calling to a higher purpose.
The possible contamination of waterways from gas mining at the proposed Bentley site, just west of Lismore, has sparked a motion by Greens Cr Duncan Dey for this Thursday’s council meeting.
Cr Dey, who is also a councillor of water authority Rous Water, warns that Metgasco’s attempts to extract tight sands gas from prime agricultural lands could have ‘catastrophic impacts.’
He says in the upcoming council agenda for April 10 that the risks have ‘not been adequately investigated’.
Additionally, Rous Water, which supplies water to Lismore, Ballina, Richmond Valley and Byron LGAs, has called on the state government to prevent gas exploration in areas it is planning to explore for under- ground water sources. It comes as the state government recently announced a six-month freeze on all new CSG explorations.
Cr Dey wrote, ‘My view is that the risk to water quality is substantial while the necessity for unconventional gas to be discovered or, if found, extracted in this particular locality is negligible.
‘There is gas elsewhere.'
‘Rous and hence Byron Shire Council and their de- pendent water supply community rely on the Lismore source. If it were to be re- moved from Rous’s supply system, our future water strategy would be undermined in that a replacement source would be required almost immediately. While groundwater is proposed as ‘the new source’, it requires several years of investigation prior to use.
But in reply to Cr Dey’s question on possible contamination, Rous staff said, ‘It is unlikely that surface water runoff will have the potential to impact on local tributaries’, but ‘a key question to be ad- dressed concerns the extent to which the upstream migration of contaminants occurs during... intermediate flow ranges, when potential expo- sure could occur.’
‘This analysis requires consideration of the variability of tidal flows that would also introduce variability to this situation.’
Meanwhile Council’s Infrastructure Services director, Phil Holloway, says in the re- port that council staff contact- ed Richard Green, team lead- er of the state government’s Groundwater North, over the issue. ‘He has verbally advised that they have no concerns with the Bentley project.
‘It’s a conventional gas bore in that they are looking for dry gas, not fracking for coal seam gas. He also advised that groundwater flows very slowly and said that it may not be even possible for ground- water to travel from Bentley to Byron.
‘Without further investigation he couldn’t comment any further on the issue.’
But in his comments Mr Holloway provided the federal government’s Atlas of Ground- water Dependent Ecosystems which, ‘suggest the ground- water between Bentley and Byron Shire could be linked.’
State govt refused to fund water test
Regardless, for those living next door, the possibility of toxic spills and runoff are a major concern. Boudicca Cerese from Gasfield Free Northern Rivers claims the water testing that was done last year was insufficient to make any reasonable comparison.
‘What is required is proper baseline data’, she said, ‘not just this one-off testing but actually, over a period of time, through all different seasons.’
Richmond Valley Council, which covers Bentley, commissioned Lismore-based Richmond Water Laboratories to carry out the 2013 testing, with Metgasco paying for the test after the state govern- ment refused to fund it.
No baseline testing
It was done within a two- kilometre radius of the well’s location, and looked at the water quality in two creeks, two bores and two dams adjacent to the property where the company plans to drill for tight sands gas. The tests will be repeated two months after the drilling is complete and again 12 months later.
Cr Dey is asking for Council to write to Macquarie Street- based NSW coalition MPs regarding the dangers of the activity, while Cr Basil Cameron is calling on councillors to support a letter-writing push to include northern rivers agricultural industries as a Critical Industry Cluster (CIC) status.
Currently there are only two CICs in NSW: the horse and wine industries of the Hunter Valley. That legislation protects just those two indus- tries from the state’s rapid expansion of gas mining.
While the state government spewed its usual rhetoric this week, there was one issue that spun at a higher pitch: the rising unpopularity of fossil fuel expansion, especially in regional areas.
A temporary suspension on the issuing of new coal seam gas exploration licences was announced by the O’Farrell coalition government, while the NSW Labor opposition called on the premier ‘to go further and halt all CSG operations across NSW.’
It’s a turnaround for NSW Labor; when in government previously – for 16 hard long years – they were responsibble for the unfettered expansion of the industry, including $1,000 mining licences and royalty-free periods.
Meanwhile two major gas mining companies, Santos and AGL, have sought to address public discontent with a non-binding agreement with NSW Farmers, Cotton Australia and NSW Irrigators Council.
It accepts the right of landholders to refuse miners access to their land for gas development. Notably it poo-poos any neighbour who may disagree, with the agreement stating, ‘The parties condemn bullying, harassment and intimidation by third-party groups and individuals in relation to agreed operations.’
It comes only weeks after a Greens bill to give landowners a say on land access was not only rejected by the major parties, but not even debated.
While welcoming the announcement, Lock the Gate’s national co-ordinator Phil Laird said the commitment, ‘is no comfort to our Queensland members or to communities in the northern rivers facing off against gas company Metgasco, and cannot be relied upon unless it is enshrined in law in NSW.’
‘Our message to the government is this: extend rights and protections not just to landholders, but to the communities that rely on the health of the land and the water. Otherwise a gas company can still undermine the safety and security of landholders by buying high-value farming land for coal seam gas extraction, as AGL has done in the Hunter.’
There’s a new approach by activists battling against the planned natural gas industry expansion in the region: a number of Metgasco’s largest shareholders have been sent a letter advising them about the size and effectiveness of the social movement that opposes its operations.
It comes as protesters gear up for a fight against proposed drilling operations at Bentley, near Lismore.
Michael Qualmann, on behalf of Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, sent the letters last week saying that Metgasco had been understating the scale of public opposition and that the regional community was well organised and had undertaken training in non-violent direct action.
Mr Qualmann says Byron Bay resident John Vaughan, whose super fund is listed in Metgasco’s 2013 annual return as its eighth largest shareholder, contacted Mr Qualmann after the letter was sent and told him that he may lose his home in litigation.
‘I don’t know why anyone would consider this litigious’, Mr Qualmann told The Echo, ‘I’m actually doing the shareholders a service by providing them with information about risks to their investment that they may not be aware of.’ He also referred to the 87 per cent who voted against gasfield developments in the Lismore poll and that over 119 communities had declared themselves gasfield free by margins over 90 per cent and were prepared to fight to prevent gasfield establishment.
Both Mr Vaughan and CEO of Metgasco, Peter Henderson, declined to comment to The Echo.