Farmers, teachers and retirees are fighting controversial gas exploration plans in South Gippsland.
ON a rainy Saturday morning in early June, three-dozen men and women, nearly all middle-aged and wearing sensible shoes, sit in the council chambers at Leongatha, learning how to be activists. “The battle lines are drawn at Seaspray,” says Wendy, from Poowong, a dairy town in South Gippsland. “Something will happen, and we need to know how to conduct ourselves.”
Julie Boulton, a dairy farmer at Seaspray, a tiny town on Ninety-Mile Beach, explains that she’d been involved in a flash blockade a fortnight earlier, confronting the gas company Lakes Oil. “It was scary,” she says. “I want to learn heaps today and take it back to my community.”
Participants have arrived from all over Gippsland. Farmers, teachers, doctors and retirees, there to learn the basics of non-violent, direct action protesting. They hear about all manner of civil disobedience – blockading, locking-on, sitting-in – techniques employed successfully by residents in NSW’s northern rivers, where two coal seam gas companies recently suspended their operations.
South Gippsland is blanketed with more than a dozen licences for unconventional gas exploration – which uses controversial techniques to access hard-to-extract resources. For now, nothing is happening. In August 2012, the state government announced a moratorium on coal seam gas exploration and on the drilling method known as fracking, in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground at great pressure to fracture coal or rock, and release gas.
Even so, people are worried, fearful about risks to water supplies and local health, as well the price and productivity of their land. Poowong has declared itself “coal and coal seam gas free” and six other towns are likely to do the same before the year is out. The South Gippsland Landcare Network – which comprises 18 smaller groups – has publicly opposed the industry. “I’ve spoken to people who’ve never been against anything their life and they’re willing to go to jail over this,” says Mark Walters, the network’s vice president.
The training session in Leongatha is coordinated by the Lock the Gate Alliance and Quit Coal, a Melbourne group affiliated with Friends of the Earth. Julie Boulton listens intently, anxiously twirling her ponytail. For the last three months, she has been leading the campaign in Seaspray. When the facilitator from Quit Coal warns the Gippslanders that the police will probably keep track of them – as “activists and trouble-makers” – Julie turns to her daughter, who is a teacher, wide-eyed.
Ray, from the Strzelecki Ranges, has no such concerns: “If we stop ’em at Seaspray, we’ll stop ’em all over Victoria!”
Lakes Oil had been preparing to frack a well to the west of Seaspray, on land adjoining the Boultons’ dairy farm, in October 2012. The company wants to exploit an unconventional gas resource known as tight gas – which is held in sandstone, much deeper below ground than the coal seams – but the moratorium scuppered its plans.
Local angst has not abated. Over summer, Seaspray Primary School refused a cash donation from the company. In May, the board members – including former Liberal Party leader Alexander Downer and outspoken climate change denier Ian Plimer – visited the site to watch the flaring of a well, but were confronted with protestors instead.
Rob Annells, the CEO, is undeterred. He says he understands locals are worried, but believes their concerns are based on misinformation. “Wells all over the world are always drilled through water tables. Providing the regulations are good and adhered to, there’s no danger.”
“There is some disruption to the farmland at the time of drilling and fracking, but once it’s in place and the land is restored, you can hardly see where we’ve been.”
Annells is urging the government to lift the moratorium. He says the company could re-commence testing within six months, and if all goes according to plan, begin production within two or three years.
In late May, the Napthine government released its response to an inquiry into mineral exploration in Victoria. Its two-dozen recommendations are largely designed to secure resources, speed up approvals and reduce costs for miners.
The day before the meeting at Leongatha, energy ministers from around the country agreed on regulatory guidelines for the coal seam gas industry. In Gippsland, there’s growing apprehension that the moratorium will soon be lifted.
Ursula Alquier, from Warragul, is a coordinator with the Lock the Gate Alliance. She says the Minister for Energy and Resources, Nick Kotsiras, has refused to answer calls from Gippsland residents. “The main reason people are frustrated is because they’re being totally ignored,” she says.
Kotsiras, however, insists there will be “proper and thorough community consultation” before any decision is made about the moratorium. He says his department has begun identifying the changes necessary for Victorian rules to match the new national standards for coal seam gas, but it has no plans to assess tight gas.
Meanwhile, the federal government has funded new research, including a bioregional assessment of the Gippsland basin and a study of the chemicals used in fracking, but it will be about two years before they’re complete.
Kotsiras says he will pay close attention to the science, but won’t promise to wait for those studies before deciding. The ban on fracking and coal seam gas is likely to remain in place until the end of the year. An announcement about community consultation is expected within weeks.
Nationals leader and Deputy Premier Peter Ryan is the member for South Gippsland. He maintains the government won’t “abandon those rolling green hills”.
“We are not going to risk our aquifers, or put farming in jeopardy – let alone our liveability – for the fact we may or may not have this resource underneath us,” he says. “This will be done very appropriately and in a timely manner.”
North east of Seaspray, Gregor McNaughton runs sheep on one of the largest farms in the area. He’s familiar with miners: they’ve been drilling on his property since the early 1980s and pipelines from Esso’s offshore oil and gas fields pass beside his paddocks.
For the last decade, he has received rent for ten gas wells on his land, which are now owned by a joint venture between Ignite Energy Resources and Exxon Mobil. As well as the income, he’s enticed by the prospect of new irrigation water, which would be created by the extraction process, should the companies go into production.
“We’ve never had any problems with mining companies here,” he says, as we bump over his paddocks towards the wells. “I’d be dead against them drilling on a small farm or close to town, but on broadacres like ours, I’ve got no objection. They’ve been very kind and they’ve kept up with their commitments.”
The wells haven’t yet produced anything. There’s a strong chance they never will, because Victoria’s resources are far from proven. Over the next two years, Ignite and Exxon plan to drill seven new wells in the area, continuing the search for coal seam gas.
Rick Wilkinson, from the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, expects that onshore gas production here, from “whatever the rock – shale, coal or sandstone”, won’t occur for “another five to ten years at the earliest”.
All of Gippsland’s coal is brown. Wilkinson is not aware of brown coal seam gas having been produced anywhere in the world. “It would be particularly difficult and quite surprising if it actually comes to fruition,” he says.
Even if the gas flows, water may not. Most of the brown coal in Gippsland is subject to a groundwater cap, managed by Southern Rural Water. Producing gas is a thirsty business, and as it stands, miners will be forced to buy water rights from an existing user.
But the industry argues that exploiting unconventional gas is necessary to avoid shortages in coming years. Exxon Mobil spokesperson Chris Welberry says conventional gas fields in Bass Strait will diminish by mid next decade.
Critics of the industry, such as Mark Ogge, from the Australia Institute, say that any pressure on supply isn’t due to local demand, but rather, the lure of exporting gas to Asia at higher prices. “No one would consider drilling for gas in Seaspray if we weren’t about to begin exporting liquefied natural gas.”
Given our need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he argues, it makes more sense to phase out gas in favour of renewable energy.
The Climate Commission last month released a report stating that most fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change. “Why burn gas when renewable energy has no emissions, is often cheaper and getting even cheaper just as gas prices are about to skyrocket?” Ogge says.
At 66 years old, Gregor McNaughton remains a keen tennis player. He noticed recently that friends from the tennis club in Seaspray have put up Lock the Gate signs. The yellow triangles are appearing on more and more properties, bearing this warning: “Entry to this property is prohibited to coal and gas companies”.
“Something like this, it splits towns,” McNaughton laments. “People need to get educated about the facts.” But then again, he admits, others would say the same about him.
And whose facts, anyway? Last month, the Australian Water Association hosted a capital city tour on unconventional gas, featuring Dr Ian Duncan, a geologist from the University of Texas. In Melbourne, he told regulators and industry attendees that in the USA, where there are hundreds of thousands of shale gas wells, there was almost no evidence of adverse effects on groundwater or human health. The risks associated with coal seam gas, he suggested, were even fewer.
Wilkinson, from the petroleum association, ascribes worries about safety to “fear of the unknown”. “If half the so-called facts I’ve seen flying around were true, I would be worried about it as well,” he says.
But in a well-regarded report released last October, Dr John Williams, the former chief of CSIRO’s land and water division, concluded that the risks to water systems, agricultural land use and biodiversity were serious. Our piecemeal approach to regulation is leading us towards “degraded and collapsing landscapes”, he wrote.
Similarly, the National Water Commission has warned that coal seam gas poses significant risks to surface and groundwater systems. Recently, the commission’s chair, Karlene Maywald, said that while regulators had begun playing catch up on the science of coal seam gas, they were neglecting to prepare for tight gas.
Dr Gavin Mudd, a senior lecturer from Monash University’s engineering department, has been speaking about the risks at community meetings across Gippsland.
He says projects in Queensland have been approved without adequate background studies. “It’s absolute blindness to pretend there have been no impacts so far,” he says. “The problem is that evidence is often anecdotal, because the industry has been developed and regulated on the belief that there won’t be any impacts – so why waste money on monitoring?”
Down a dirt road out of town, Julie Boulton is showing me the spot where the locals blockaded the Lakes Oil board members, when a four-wheel drive comes the other way.
Bob Thompson, liaison officer for Lakes Oil, is taking a departmental inspector on a tour of the wells. “What’s your concern?” Bob asks, tersely.
“I’m concerned about our groundwater,” Julie replies quickly. “I’m concerned you’ll take a risk and damage our aquifer and we won’t be able to farm and live here anymore.”
“We don’t touch the aquifer,” Bob says. “There’s steel casing and concrete on the well.”
“But how long will that last?”
Bob brushes it off. He turns away and complains to the government man that she won’t believe him.
Afterwards, at her house, Julie and her husband David say Bob was right about one thing: “We don’t trust them. It’s too risky.”
On their table they have the results of a door-to-door survey conducted by local volunteers. All but a handful of residents agreed; they’ll to fight to keep Seaspray “gasfield free”.
GAS IN GIPPSLAND
Coal seam gas: Methane trapped in coal deposits.
Tight gas: Methane held deep underground in hard, impermeable rock, sandstone or limestone.
Fracking: A drilling technique used to extract gas by injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture coal or rock. Fracking is always used to produce tight gas, but only sometimes for coal seam gas.