It has been blamed for everything from contaminating drinking water to disrupting eco-systems. Because of its potential to pollute aquifers, some of Australia’s most productive agricultural land is said to be at risk. Among farmers and many urban dwellers coal seam gas has earned a bad reputation.
Which may explain why the New South Wales government last month recommended removing the term “coal seam gas” and its acronym CSG from official documents in the state.
The federal Standing Council on Energy and Resources wants the terminology changed to “natural gas from coal seams” as part of what it calls a “national harmonization initiative."
The proposed switch prompted one Greens member of parliament to accuse the government of adopting “Orwellian tactics” to diminish legitimate community concerns about the risks posed to land and water by CSG.
Australia is not the only country where extracting gas from coal and shale seams has generated controversy. On Oct. 8, France’s highest court upheld a government ban on hydraulic fracturing because of environmental concerns. A few days later, the advocacy group Environment America called for the practice to be banned in the United States until the cumulative impacts of fracking at a state or national scale were quantified.
For Drew Hutton, president of Lock the Gate, a grass-roots movement aimed at protecting Australia’s natural heritage from mining, the New South Wales government’s name change is no surprise. “Coal seam gas used to be called coal bed methane. Then the government realized that people who Googled ‘coal bed methane’ would see all the horror stories associated with fracking in places like Colorado.”
A veteran environmental campaigner from Queensland, Mr. Hutton has never shied away from a fight. But when he started hearing stories about companies bullying hundreds of farmers into giving over their land to extract gas, he knew that conventional activism wouldn’t work.
“We could either roll over or do the best we could,” says Hutton who grew up in the small town of Chinchilla on the Darling Downs, one of the most productive farming regions in the state.
“I told them there was another way which was to spark a landowner rebellion – a Gandhian style movement which I suggested we call “Shut the Gate.” They said you can’t call it that because everyone in the country shuts the gate. Call it ‘Lock the Gate’ and that’s what it became.”
Since its formation in 2010, the Lock the Gate movement has spread to every state and territory. There are now more than 200 groups around Australia and up to 15,000 landholders who have said no to mining companies coming on their land, out of a total of 115,000 farmers nationwide.
Despite the significant number of farmers involved, the Lock the Gate movement is fighting an uphill battle. Australian law states that minerals found under the soil are owned by the government, which provides mining companies with access to these resources in exchange for royalties. The arrangement leaves landholders with minimal rights to negotiate an access agreement and a compensation deal.
If a landowner refuses to allow access, a company can take the matter to court. But if a sufficient number of landowners lock their gates, that avenue becomes untenable.
“We refuse these companies entry. And if they do get on the land and the rest of community is opposed, we reserve the right to blockade them which we do,” says Hutton.
In one incident near the coal port of Newcastle a grandmother chained herself to a tractor for five days to stop drilling rigs owned by CSG company Dart Energy from accessing her land. The case is now before the New South Wales Land and Environment Court.
Hutton says Lock the Gate is not opposed to mining outright.
“What we do say though is that high-impact activities such as mining are incompatible with intensive agriculture. It’s got to be kept off our best farmlands, its got to be kept out of areas where there are important water resources, sensitive environmental regions, and closely settled areas.”
Earlier this month the New South Wales government introduced new regulations setting aside 2.8 million hectares (about 6 million acres) of important agricultural land that must be rigorously investigated before coal seam gas projects can proceed. It also put a two-kilometer buffer zone between such mining activity and any residential zone.
But the new measures have done little to mollify farmers. “Our industry needs energy as much as any, but we don’t want to develop the gas industry at the expense of another – we need balance,” says Fiona Simson, president of the NSW Farmers Association.
Lock the Gate has had a number of significant victories against mining companies in recent years. But with 56 percent of the Australian continent covered by exploration licenses and a new federal government pledging to cut “green tape” that has been holding up mining developments, the battle has just begun.
“What is happening with the mining boom is that the whole of the Australian landscape is under threat. We’re going to be changing whole regions. We’re creating an industrial wasteland in places like the Darling Downs. There won’t be 40,000 gas wells, there’ll be 100,000 and that means no place for agriculture,” says Hutton.
The newly appointed federal Industry Minister, Ian Macfarlane, has dismissed such concerns as unscientific and driven by small but vocal interest groups. He told Australia Broadcasting Co. (ABC) radio recently that 4,000 farmers in Queensland had signed access deals with CSG and other mining companies and were reaping the economic and social benefits.
“I'm not interested in noisy protesters, minority groups, with no interest in the development of regional Australia and the economic progress of agriculture and mining together. They simply want to politicize this issue and tell lies,” Mr. Macfarlane said.
Hutton charges that it is the minister who is lying. “There are a few farmers who’ve made a lot of money. But most landowners I’ve spoken to – and I’ve met hundreds of them in Queensland – signed up because they believed they had no alternative," he says.
“They couldn’t afford a lawyer, they didn’t want to break the law because the law is weighted heavily in favor of the mining companies. Often they got very poor deals and many are very, very sorry they did.”