Community is the real cost of coal seam gas
You get the feeling not much happens on a Saturday morning in Merriwa. The sleepy country town in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales just hums along quietly. Except for its proud and tidy RSL, where the front bar opens at 10am, horse races flash across the television screens and tickets pump out of the Club Keno machine.
In a stuffy back hall, on neat rows of red vinyl chairs sit the Merriwa Healthy Environment Group; a group of local farmers and landowners who came together in February to unite against the coal seam gas companies as they rode into town. Seven months later, they feel under attack.
Their enemy? PEL 456, PEL 468, PEL 4 and PEL 433; coal seam gas exploration licences for Merriwa and its surrounding areas of cattle, sheep and cereal farming land, up for sale to the highest bidder.
Well, at least everything below the top soil. Under the provisions of the Mining Act and the Petroleum (Onshore) Act, an individual does not own any of the gas, minerals, and in some cases the soil underneath the surface of their land.
The Merriwa Healthy Environment Group and their neighbours are landowners but they have no right to deny the mining company’s access to their properties. The government says they must let the mining companies in.
These crucial and astonishing points of law have divided the greater Merriwa community - inspiring anger in some, and apathy in others. “One man came up to me in the street and said you’re doing a good job mate, but you’re not going to win,” said Graham Brown, one of the group’s leaders.
It’s a fair point - mining is big news in NSW right now. Not to mention big bucks.
Under current state legislation the mining is considered state significant development; that’s a fancy way of describing a streamlined approval system that waives otherwise essential approval for pollution licenses and protection of native vegetation. One third of NSW is already approved for mining and exploration. Almost half of these licenses cover coal seam gas extraction, each one selling for $100-300 million dollars a pop.
With the industry singing the praises of a cleaner, more efficient alternative to coal, the future couldn’t seem brighter for everyone. Everyone, except of course, the farmers. A collective who would be proud of the punctual, serious and sensibly dressed group from Merriwa who arrived for a workshop on land rights, run by the New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office last Saturday.
It’s one of a series of seminars planned throughout the region and run by the legal centres’ Legal Outreach Director, Jemilah Hallinan; and one of the only programs in the state offering much needed support and advice for those confronted by the CSG industry.
“I can’t understand why there aren’t more of us here, “ said Pat, a cattle farmer who’s lived in the area for 25 years and entertained the group with a story of the time he left a mining company representative unassisted and bogged in his back paddock.
Shock and fear might have something to do with it.
Fiona Simson of the NSW Farmers Association says the situation has “overwhelmed” their members. They’re concerned for the future health of their crops and livestock; confused by the pressure and demand around access to their properties, and in many cases despair over their lack of rights. Most are also terrified about water- and for good reason.
As Graham Brown put it: “[In the Upper Hunter] Nothing happens here without it…Merriwa’s town water comes from the same underground source as the irrigatiors. No usable water means no town or farmers producing food.”
Santos is one of three mining companies currently operating in the Merriwa region. Yet according to their NSW spokesman, Sam Crafter, the rural community has very little to worry about. He says it is in Santos’ best interests to defend the aquifers, because without them they won’t have a business or an industry.
They’re also proud of their minimal footprint. Crafter says the coal seam gas wells only require a space of 80m x 80m to mine. Space enough for cohabitation – a far cry, he said, from the forced annexation of traditional coal mining communities.
Crafter was also happy to cite the success of the Santos commitment to community ($500 million given to local business in regional Queensland); as well as noting the absence of health concerns (“nothing significant has been raised.”); but was reluctant to compare the regions in terms of the long term impact of coal seam gas wells on the land.
Public opinion of coal seam gas tells a far less confident or positive story. Australia does not have sufficient agricultural data to support an industry growing at such a rapid pace. While the recent and ongoing NSW parliamentary inquiry into the CSG industry has received approximately 800 submissions from farmers around the state, declaring their opposition.
One thing is for sure. While the scientific and environmental impacts of coal seam gas continue to go unmeasured, the social costs, even at planning stage, have not gone unnoticed. Starting with health. Just last week the parliamentary inquiry heard from Dr Wayne Somerville, a clinical psychologist and farmer from Northern NSW who expressed grave concern for the long term effects of CSG on the mental health of the region. But the bad stuff is already happening. Fifty per cent of the 10, 000 current members of the Farmers Association have reported signs of mental stress in the past year; numbers not recorded since the drought.
It’s hard not to think of those people when watching the new batch of pro CSG advertisements on television. As one farmer’s wife said on Saturday: “It’s one thing for people to agree to the extractions on their properties, but quite another for them to be so vocal about their support for the industry. It’s like a slap in the face for the rest of us, who are too worried about it.”
Education is a great starting point. Not a single person who attended the comprehensive EDO workshop at the Merriwa RSL hall on Saturday afternoon left before it had finished. And the workshop ran for four solid hours.
Armed with brochures, contact details and solid legal advice, they even lingered by the door, talking about neighbours, friends and spouses they wish had come along. It was not hard to understand why.
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