Everything is as it should be in the sleepy rural valley of Bentley, 15km west of Lismore. Cattle graze, creeks burble and local farmers go about their everyday tasks tending herds and crops.
It is hard to imagine two years ago this district was embroiled in a heated dispute with mining company Metgasco about its plan to drill for coal seam gas (CSG) deposits.
In a successful campaign that has now been accorded the same impact as the Terania Creek and Franklin Dam conservation protests, thousands of locals blocked the gates to Metgasco’s Bentley drill site for months in 2014.
By late April, tensions were reaching a head. The NSW government was preparing to send in 800 riot police to break the peaceful blockade. Organisers expected 7000 to turn up in support.
But at the last moment, the government withdrew the plan and, surprisingly, suspended Metgasco’s licence a month later for its failure to adequately consult with the community.
Pressure mounted for the government to cancel Megasco’s three petroleum exploration licences (PELS) and others over the north coast.
By late 2014, with a state election looming, the Baird government initiated a PEL buyback scheme that offered CSG companies an opportunity to surrender their titles and be compensated.
Despite this, the sitting Nationals in their safe Northern Rivers seats received a voter backlash in the 2015 state election that saw the Greens snatch Ballina from them after 27 years. The Nationals just hung on to Lismore.
By year’s end, Metgasco’s shareholders accepted a state government buyback, at a cost to taxpayers of $25m. It was a resounding win for the community.
Bentley landowners and self-confessed hermits, Meg and Peter Nielson, were among those peacefully blockading the miners. They first discovered Metgasco was in their area exploring for CSG in 2008. One site was just beyond the fence line of their picturesque farm, Runnymede Ridge.
“It was just there,” Peter says as he points down the grassy the slope below the house. “About 500 metres from our boundary, there were trucks and men in hard hats. We had no idea what they were doing.”
It was only after further investigation that Meg and Peter discovered the men in those hard hats were test-drilling for gas deposits.
“We were horrified. There had been no notification,” explains Meg in her soft English accent. “No community consultation whatsoever.”
The Nielsons were not alone. Concerns over CSG in NSW had begun building in 2010. Environment centres, local action groups and the broader national Lock the Gate alliance investigated the more established industry in Queensland and informed the wider community about CSG.
Lismore City Council asked voters in the 2011 local elections if they supported coal seam gas exploration and production in its local government area. Almost 87% said no. Lock The Gate surveyed local communities, street by street, on whether CSG mining was wanted and garnered similar or higher results. Some communities were 100% against CSG mining.
Regardless of community sentiment, the NSW government continued to grant and renew petroleum exploration licenses (PELs).
In reaction, an unlikely alliance of environmentalists, farmers, traditional owners and activists blockaded Metgasco test drill sites: at Casino, Glenugie near Grafton, then Doubtful Creek near Kyogle and finally at Bentley.
Farmers 'brushed off' by Nationals
The Nielsons have been farming in the Northern Rivers since the 1970s. They searched for their dream property for more than ten years.
Runnymede Ridge was vacant land, nestled between Lismore and Kyogle, where the Nielsons built a comfortable home with a wildlife-friendly garden designed to take in the stunning views of the Mackellar Ranges.
Believing themselves caretakers of the land, the Nielsons wanted to know more about CSG.
What they found was not encouraging. After trawling government and mining company documents, it was clear that this type of gas extraction had multiple potential impacts for farmland.
Coal seam gas is predominately methane, extracted by drilling deep into underground coal beds. Pumping out groundwater releases the gas. To increase gas output, water, sand and chemicals are injected under high pressure into the well, causing fractures in the coal seam. This process is known as fracking.
From a farming perspective, Peter suspected even the smallest margin of error would result in water contamination or depletion.
Like many rural voters, Meg and Peter turned to the Nationals for support. To Meg’s surprise, when they first approached Thomas George, the state member for Lismore, with their concerns, they were “brushed off”.
Peter said he found the Nationals’ response disconcerting.
“Their arrogance concerning the issue was really off-putting.”
By 2010 a National Water Commission CSG position statement pinpointed vulnerabilities between state-authorised mining activities and federally controlled water protections.
The commission recommended “industry, water and land-use planners, and governments adopt a precautionary approach to CSG developments”.
Senior advisor to the community-based National Toxics Network, Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith also identified multiple problems with fracking, including fugitive methane emissions, dewatering and chemical contamination of aquifers.
In 2011 Lloyd-Smith told the ABC current affairs program Four Corners, Australia needed to pause and think through the dangers associated with CSG fracking.
“We need a moratorium on fracturing chemicals until a complete assessment has been undertaken by our national regulator.”
The following year NSW government regulations were changed to ban the use of BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) in fracking fluids, however BTEX chemicals also occur naturally in gas deposits and benzene is a known carcinogen.
Northern Rivers community demanded 'no gasification'
The Page electorate in the Northern Rivers covers nearly 20,000 sq km of mixed farmland, protected forests, rich fisheries, niche boutique enterprises and diverse villages and towns.
Mining is virtually a non-existent industry.
The electorate’s boundaries cover five local government areas. Its people, like the Nielsons, are relaxed and friendly. They value their rural way of life.
The Gasfield Free Northern Rivers campaign emerged to support landowners who feared the sort of CSG industrialization that was occurring north of the border.
In Queensland over the past decade thousands of gas wells have been drilled, many in the rich farming and grazing lands of the Darling Downs. Wells are positioned every 750 metres on a grid and linked by roads and 500km of gas pipelines.
After visiting CSG hotspot Chinchilla, the Nielsons felt they had no choice but to get involved if they wanted to stop their land and the surrounding Bentley valley becoming a gasfield too.
“Down there are some of the best plains that you’ll find,” says Peter, referring to neighbouring farms extending along Back Creek.
“They would have had huge fracking ponds and in a high rainfall area those ponds would overflow into your creeks, into the river system.”
Bureau of Meteorology estimates put the median yearly rainfall in Lismore at 1270mm and records show rain events that have exceeded 150mm in a 24-hour period. A complex network of springs, creeks and rivers that flow to the ocean frequently flood.
Disposal of large quantities of CSG treated water, a by-product of the mining process, means water storage is a constant problem for all CSG miners.
Metgasco was fined in 2012 for failing to adequately plan for wastewater infrastructure. The companyhad been dumping its extracted water at the Casino sewerage treatment plant. Yet in 2015, AGL escaped a reprimand from the Environmental Protection Authority for doing the same in Newcastle.
Mismanagement of storage ponds and aquifer contaminations have been documented elsewhere in NSW including at the Pilliga State forest in western NSW.
The Pilliga is a large inland ecosystem, home to a range of unique wildlife many of which are listed as threatened. CSG expansion into the Pillaga has seen substantial forest clearing, for wells, roads and pipeline infrastructure.
Pilliga State Forest miners Santos was fined $52,500 for failure to report a toxic spill in 2011 after a rain event. The area impacted is yet to recover.
Flinders University’s leading Groundwater Scientist, Professor Craig Simmons is deputy chair of the Australian Government’s Independent Expert Scientific Committee. He called for calm within the farming community while more research was conducted.
Simmons told the ABC in 2013 that it is important “to make sure that the scientific discussion and the technical discussion are really well-informed and not just emotive ones”.
But for the Nielsons, and many in the Northern Rivers, the issue was just that – highly emotive. With so much invested in their homes, their lifestyle and supporting ecology, it was hard to not be angry with representatives in parliament.
All four NSW north coast Nationals members, Don Page, Chris Gulaptis, Geoff Provest and Thomas George publicly supported the state government’s CSG expansion policy.
Candidates know CSG is an issue
While most of the control over this sector of the mining industry lies in state government hands, the political parties well know that regional gasification can resonate at the ballot box federally.
Janelle Saffin was Labor member for the Page electorate between 2007 and 2013, where she lobbied for stronger commonwealth powers over CSG mining through amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, the so-called water trigger.
When Saffin narrowly lost her seat in the 2013 election, one which punished Labor nationally for the party’s acrid leadership battles, federal responsibility for Page passed to the Nationals’ Kevin Hogan. He too publically backed his electorate’s stance against CSG.
Yet in 2014, Hogan faced a problem when the Coalition proposed changes to the EPBC Act, which effectively handed responsibility for water back to the states and territories, the same governments who had so actively issued CSG exploration and drilling licenses.
Hogan pushed through two conditional amendments, which left some discretion in federal hands, before he voted with the Coalition. But many in the community felt betrayed as Hogan had promised to cross the floor on the issue.
Even in the wake of the NSW government’s PEL buyback scheme and stricter laws for CSG mining, the issue is still on the minds of voters.
The Nationals were in shock with the 2015 state election result. Thomas George nearly lost Lismore, a seat he had held since 1999. A swing of 21.5 percent to The Greens was seen as a direct voter backlash about CSG. In nearby Ballina, Don Page actually lost his safe seat to the Greens Tamara Smith.
This voting trend could transfer federally in the upcoming election, Page is held by the Nationals, with a slender 3.1 percent margin.
Other moves by the NSW Baird government in 2016 have also hit voter trust. These include the NSW Baird government's controversial and widely criticised anti-protest laws, which would jail protesters on mine sites for up to seven years and have now come into force along with its watered down regime of fines for environmental damage at mine sites.
Many voters want a federal representative that will bat for a CSG-free Northern Rivers.
Labor’s Janelle Saffin aims to be that candidate and win Page back. She regards CSG on farmlands as still a major community concern and would take up discussions in her party to further protect farmland.
“The better public policy option is no CSG mining allowed on farmlands, full stop,” she says.
The Nationals’ Kevin Hogan also sees CSG as an “inappropriate” industry for Page, a point he reiterated in parliament last year.
“My community has spoken. I have listened and I will do whatever I can do to support my state colleagues in anything we can do to keep the Northern Rivers coal seam gas free.”
From the outset, The Greens have opposed CSG. Their new Page candidate, Kudra Falla-Ricketts, cut her political teeth at the Bentley Campaign and believes “the community must remain vigilant”.
The Greens are also pushing hard in Richmond, which takes in the coastal stretch from Tweed to Ballina, and have said Dawn Walker, if elected, would put forward a bill to ban CSG.
Even though state government and federal representatives have publicly ruled out CSG in the Northern Rivers, the mapping of mineral resources including CSG reserves in the draft NSW North Coast Regional Plan has many locals concerned that the door is still open for mining in their region.
And as yet no Coalition strategies have been officially endorsed that rule out CSG on farmlands beyond the Northern Rivers.
CSG and the Bentley protest changed Meg and Peter Nielson’s lives. Their hermitic lifestyle was transformed into a bustle of volunteering at environment centres, producing a community radio show and continuing the fight against CSG.
Even with Metgasco gone from her valley, Meg remains resolute.
“There’s so much that needs changing,” she says. “The very least you can do is to speak out and try and make a difference.”
POSTSCRIPT: In June 2016, Metgasco announced to the Australian Stock Exchange that its CEO Peter Henderson had resigned and would walk away with a $300,000 golden handshake. The company noted it was planning to continue exploration opportunities but if it did not find appropriate ventures in the near term it would consider a 'return of capital' to its shareholders 'early in the second half of 2016', essentially winding up the company.