Can’t Touch This – Jock Serong's Visit To The Bentley Blockade
The murky waters swirling around coal seam gas in the Northern Rivers
By Jock Serong
The workings of New South Wales politics are incredibly obscure.
I’m sitting in a rented hatchback in the carpark at The Wreck, watching a guy in a beard and a beaver-tail wetsuit trying to squeeze himself and his Takayama single-fin into a clear emerald barrel. And I’m thinking… how does this scene tie back to Eddie Obeid?
Byron Bay (along with many dozens of less-recognised coastal communities in northern New South Wales) is at the coastal edge of a region called the Northern Rivers. The eponymous rivers are the Richmond, the Clarence, the Tweed and their tributaries, emptying from the lush Northern Tablelands of the interior into some of the most venerated surfing and tourist hubs on our coasts: Coolangatta, Byron, Brunswick Heads, Lennox Head and Angourie.
As much as this place is defined as a region, so too it’s an ecosystem. The abundant tropical fruit, grains, dairy and drinking water that sustain life for some of the nation’s best-organised conservationists down at Byron, are produced in these headwaters. Anything you do upstream in the northern rivers has a direct consequence for the coast and its people.
Which brings us to Metgasco. Metgasco's license to explore for coal seam and conventional gas resources in the region was first granted to another company back in November 1996, by the Carr Labor government. More on that shortly. But first, a little about gas exploration.
Coal seam gas (CSG) is frequently discussed in the context of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, which is the fracturing of rock by injection of pressurised water. Typically, the water is mixed with chemicals to control its viscosity, and the mixture is injected at high pressure into a wellbore to create small fissures (around 1mm wide), along which gases can migrate to the well. As well as the fracking fluid, small grains of “proppant” (usually sand) are added to keep the fractures open.
CSG is also known as coal bed methane (CBM), and it differs from other gas deposits in that the gas exists in a near-liquid state. Coal seams are considered shallow resources, occurring between 500 and 1500 metres below the surface. Although CSG is seen by some people as synonymous with fracking, it is often obtained from coal deposits without fracking. The environmental effects of CSG extraction, whether by fracking or otherwise, are a red-hot focus of community concern throughout Australia right now.
So back to the drill rigs. The Bentley licence was transferred to Metgasco in 1999, when Eddie Obeid Snr was minister for Mineral Resources. You will have heard of Obeid thanks to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), so I won’t tickle his lawyers with further explanation. Obeid renewed Metgasco’s licence in 2000, as did his successor, the disgraced Ian McDonald, in 2006. The last person to renew the licence, just last year, was Chris Hartcher, who is himself under the ICAC microscope over the Australian Water Holdings fiasco. The licence has quickly become a poisoned chalice.
As the likelihood of a start to drilling began to escalate, a long-term blockade was established at the gates of Peter Graham’s Bentley farming property. Activist groups including Lock the Gate applied a very systemic approach to fortifying their lines, including the use of watchtowers, concrete “lock-on” points, heavy timber barricades and a human presence that climbed to many thousands at crucial times. As the pressures escalated, police announced they would use 800 Public Order and Riot Squad officers to break the blockade, the ranks of which included women and children and the elderly. When SW visited the site on a beautiful Saturday in mid-May, there was ample evidence of people who didn’t habitually hang out at pickets or take on the Riot Squad. They included famers and their entire families. An ugly confrontation was brewing.
On Wednesday 14 May the tension broke, with a surprise announcement by the state government’s Office of Coal Seam Gas that the exploration licences over the land were being suspended due to alleged breaches of a licence conditions by Metgasco, including their failure to undertake “genuine and effective consultation with the community”, and their referral by the Energy Minister to ICAC. (ICAC later declined to investigate Metgasco on the grounds that the matter fell outside their jurisdiction).
This sudden action, the state government would have you believe, was the result of “The CSG Commissioner… conducting an ongoing audit of all Petroleum Exploration Licences across NSW…” This appears to be code for “we sniffed the political breeze and we smelt a massacre.” Community opposition to CGS extraction in NSW, according to protest group Lock the Gate, is running at “an average of 70-80% across the state, and out here, it’s more than 90%.” A popular rumour among protestors suggested that so many police had indicated their unwillingness to be involved, that the Minister would have been unable to summon the much-vaunted line-breaking squad.
Metgasco’s shares went into an immediate trading halt, while its CEO assured everyone that their compliance was up to scratch. But the halt will be a little late for anyone who invested – the shares have fallen by -84% over five years. In the aftermath of the announcement, there have been calls to convert the “suspension” into a full-scale cancellation of the exploration licences. Greens and Labor politicians as well as local councillors visited the site in the wake of the suspension announcement, urging the state government to kill off the project indefinitely.
It has now emerged that the company which is Metgasco’s biggest shareholder (at 12.8%) was awarded nearly $1 billion in contracts to supply electricity to government departments in April by the NSW state government. It’s worth dwelling for just a moment on that shareholder company, while we reflect on the wonderful weirdness of NSW politics.
The company, ERM power, is chaired by Tony Bellas, a mate of Eddie Obeid’s nephew Dennis Jabour. Both are shareholders in the Queensland company Gasfields Waste Water and Services, of which Mr Jabour is the sole director. Bellas is also linked to another ICAC punching bag, Nick Di Girolamo, who’s the guy dishing out forgettable bottles of Grange. ERM’s CEO has firmly denied the links, saying in a statement that the company “has not, and has never had, any connection” with the Obeids, Australian Water Holdings, or Di Girolamo.
But wait, there’s more. Bellas was the head of CS Energy, while it was developing a coal seam gas joint venture with Metgasco in 2004. Best of all, Bellas is also the current chairman of national legal firm Shine Lawyers, who offer among their services to negotiate on behalf of landholders against CGS proponents. ERM was massively increasing its shareholding in Metgasco, even as the numbers of landholders looking for legal advice were beginning to grow. Shine’s website boasts, without a shred of irony, that they have “the experience and know-how to go head to head with the big guys…” Confused yet? You should be.
To be clear, ERM doesn’t have a seat on the board of Metgasco. But they, and by extension Tony Bellas, do have their money riding on Metgasco’s success.
There are other, equally glaring conflicts of interest. Shadow minister for the north coast, Walt Secord, stood up in state Parliament in mid-April to deliver this blast about Lismore National Party MP Thomas George, “a fierce opponent of the Bentley Blockade. It turns out that his son Stuart George is the community relations manager for Metgasco. This is the bloke who does spin for Metgasco.” There was much howling and throwing of paper planes, but no-one denied the link.
Conservation groups say that connections like these illustrate the troubling networks of shared self-interest within the coal and gas sector. They say the planning scheme in NSW is so flawed that it allows such relationships to flourish. According to the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, “Changes to planning laws over the past decade have increased the state government’s powers in regard to mines and other large developments, overridden important environmental approvals, and restricted third-party merit appeal rights.” The result? Rampant cronyism.
The northern rivers are covered by four state seats, all of them controlled by the National Party: the tiny Tweed and Ballina (which includes Byron Bay) and the much larger Lismore (covering the Bentley site) and Clarence, which extends south from Bentley. The state MP for the seat of Clarence, Chris Gulaptis, now wants the Metgasco licence cancelled, despite his party being broadly in favour of GSG development. Indeed, the turnaround from these politicians has been a slow manoeuvre: as recently as April, the man who made the decision to suspend the licence, Anthony Roberts, was describing the Bentley protestors as “extremists.”
On the day that SW visits Bentley with Dave Rastovich, the atmosphere at the site feels eclectic, but it’s far from extreme. A PA system is endlessly looping MC Hammer’s ode to baggy pants, Can’t Touch This. The gathering are careful to call themselves “protectors”, not protestors. Passing cars almost unanimously toot their horns in support (the striking exception being a large woman in a hatchback full of kids who winds down a window and screams “MOVE YA SHIT SO I CAN GO FASTER!”).
A huge timber beam blocks one of the gate accesses to the property. It’s inlaid with a dozen or so iron ringbolts, “lock-ons” as they’re known. Some of the people around us are wearing chains and padlocks on their wrists. At a signal from the watchtowers above us, they’ll instantly lock themselves in position. At another entrance, the lock-on is a concrete block, sunk in the earth and penetrated by two pieces of poly-pipe. In the bottoms of the two pipes are steel bars – the protestor lies on the ground with their arms shoved down the pipes and locks their wrists onto the bars, making their hands completely inaccessible to anyone but themselves. It’s a confronting thing to look at – the lengths that people will go to. If a piece of machinery, a truck, a drill, arrived… a frightening game of bluff would be played out.
Among the tents, there’s a guy dressed as a clown who remembers protesting at the Springboks rugby match in the early 80s. There’s a group of women knitting. A massive operation is devoted to washing dishes, and another one to cooking the food. There’s no booze or drugs – signs are posted everywhere to emphasise this. In the wake of the decision to suspend the licence, the mood in the camp is joyful, and maybe a little bewildered. So people are doing what people do when nothing’s happening – they sit and stand in concentric circles round a fire, yacking about fracking.
There are genuine hippies by the dozen, but all sorts of other walks of life too. And among them, a tall man with a hat and a cane, a furrowed face: a Sliding Doors vision of what Peter Garrett might’ve been. He’s smiling softly and stopping to speak to all sorts of people while a camera crew hovers. He’s Drew Hutton, university lecturer and lifetime activist since the Vietnam War – the man who’s become the figurehead of Lock the Gate.
“I knew this day would come,” he tells us. “I think we’ve won permanently here.”
We talk a little about his history with the movement, and it’s clear that this sort of success and notoriety is new ground. “We needed a firm basis of non-violence,” he says. “We knew we couldn’t do it via the conventional channels, letters to local MPs and that sort of thing. By August or September of 2010, it was clear to everyone that the conventional ways of campaigning wouldn’t work.
“My argument to them (the conservation movement) was, you can’t win this west of the Great Divide. You haven’t got one seat out there. You need new methods. So I went to the ‘Blockies’ at Tara. They’re out near Chinchilla, poor people on thin land that you can’t farm. They woke up one morning and found out they were going to be in the middle of a gas field.”
The Blockies live off the grid, on small “lifestyle” blocks four hours west of Brisbane. They’re widely spurned by outsiders, which suits them fine. Somehow, Drew Hutton figured they’d be a resource in the battle against CSG. “I had to convince them about non-violence,” he says. “And the cockies over that way were talking about invoking ‘Rule 303’.
“See, you need to build a legend, a story, in any campaign. Here, it’s about people fighting for their land. And they did, they fought like crazy. In early 2011, it was me and twenty Blockies, sleeping on the ground in the middle of a mouse plague. Now look around you…”
Hutton greets Dave Rastovich like an old friend. Rasta’s been clutching a bunch of bananas, and he gets a laugh offering one to Hutton. “I’m fond of telling people our movement has pensioners and Blockies, men in suits, girls in leotards… and now we’ve got surfers.” The wider struggle now, for people like Hutton, is to convince the big energy companies like Origin to stop investing in GSG research and start putting their money into renewables – that is, to avoid the heat of popular opposition. Now that it’s been demonstrated that blockades can succeed, business decisions based on share price have to be a lot more nimble-footed.
For Hutton, Metgasco’s immediate future is clear: “I think they’ll fold. This is it: this is the turning point.” He’s not concerned by the state government’s equivocal language in saying the licence is merely “suspended”. “That’s just the government trying to stall things.”
But there’s plenty more to keep Lock the Gate occupied. In Victoria, a company called Lakes Oil (part-owned by Gina Rinehart) are trying to drill at Seaspray on the Gippsland coast. Arrow in Queensland, owned by Shell and PetroChina, “have already burned $8 million trying to get a project up, but every owner’s locked the gate on ’em.”
More pressingly, there’s Maules Creek coal mine near Gloucester in the Hunter Valley. It’s a very advanced project – the proponents bought the land, to avoid the impediment of having to negotiate with an occupant. Then there’s the Pilliga State Forest in northwest NSW’s Liverpool Plains: a million square acres of wilderness on a mix of state forest and conservation reserve zones, where Santos is the proponent. The environmental values are critical: Pilliga is the southern recharge of the Great Artesian Basin. And, according to Hutton, “they want to put 850 wells into the forest.” A recent EPA report confirmed an incident had occurred at the Pilliga site already, whereby saline wastewater leached a number of contaminants, including uranium, into two aquifers.
Hutton seems constantly amazed by the duplicity he encounters in government and business. “The state government tried to suggest the public were not allowed onto the land to protest – it’s a public space! But the farmers have been magnificent there, even though it’s further from urbanised areas than this is.”
A bystander directs us to a quiet man who’s watching Hutton speak. He’s John Jenkins, a small-block farmer from thirty-five kilometres south of Chinchilla, in the Tara field. He says the ground there smells. “There’s a hundred wells, just across the road from us. We’re getting sicker – nausea, vomiting, loss of smell and taste – that’s the big one.” He isn’t jubilant like everyone around him. He seems purposeful, solemn, a harbinger of lost battles elsewhere.
A farmer in a workshirt and a big hat is slouching nearby. He sounds less than euphoric too. “Yeah,” he says to someone nearby, “but it’s like a snake, right. Good that it’s dead, but I want to see the head cut off before I’ll be happy.”
In the wake of the suspension decision, the Bentley Blockade is being dismantled. But the activists have vowed to watch the company carefully. The abiding lesson from the win is that direct, non-violent protest works. As Drew Hutton tells us, “Metgasco now know, every time they try this, this is what’s going to happen.”
The other, less visible, lesson from this episode is that “divestment” actions also work: a group of Australian National University students, teachers and alumni forced their Vice Chancellor Ian Young to divest the University’s Metgasco shares. The share price has dropped through the floor like an anvil since then. They can now lay claim to having saved the university a seven-figure sum – the ANU at one stage had the twelfth-largest share in Metgasco, at around a million dollars.
A share-trading site, reflecting on the Bentley debacle from an investment point of view, offered this summation: “Don't pit yourself against the people! Instead, look for small cap stocks that actually grow profits...” And remember, that’s not written for activists. That’s written for people who are looking to make money.
Metgasco’s chairman announced in early June that the company will ask the NSW Supreme Court to set aside the suspension of its licence to drill at Bentley. They’ll also ask the court for a ruling that they had complied with their obligation to consult, and indicated they’d explore a claim for compensation.
But in the end, it feels as though the Obeids had nothing to do with Bentley at all. Eddie Senior was a cardboard cut-out villain, used by an embarrassed government as a smokescreen while it withdrew its political support for the drillers. But why, you might ask, is any of this inlanders’ brawling the business of Surfing World?
The answer to that clicks into place the next morning, as I watch Dave Rastovich slicing through the crystal-clear waters of Broken Head. He’s been stuffing his face with local fruit for the twenty-four hours I’ve been with him. He is, in short, feasting on the very things that this project had put at risk. It’s often the case that the purveyors of something destructive will argue for its limited effect, try to isolate it from any suggestion of chain reactions elsewhere. The topic is a Rasta favourite, one he keeps hammering in the car on the way back down to Byron: all natural systems are interrelated. You can’t punch a hole in one without seeing the consequence in another. The things that were going on in the hills, the good things and the bad things, they were always going to flow downstream.
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