There’s a meaty little stink out of northern New South Wales this week which is dividing a community in two, and which could easily have, ahem, high steaks for the entire country.
It’s grey skies for families fighting the health problems allegedly caused by coal seam gas extraction
After this May’s annual Beef Week parade in the NSW town of Casino, the Beef Week committee voted unanimously to ban protestors from future parades. This, despite just three of the 60 floats being protest floats.
Two floats protested the threatened closure of small local hospitals. A third opposed the coal seam gas (CSG) extraction industry. By all accounts, many townsfolk supported its sentiments. The president of Beef Week was less hospitable. It just so happens he is employed in the CSG industry.
Beef Week burgher Stuart George has presided over his town’s biggest event for five years. He’s not a farmer himself. He ran pubs before he moved into the CSG industry. Sometimes he wishes he never switched. He reckons the Saturday night brawls were much easier to handle than the ongoing stoush over CSG.
Mr George had his first run-in with CSG protest group “Lock the Gate” at the 2011 Beef Week parade. He says they disrupted the event without officially entering it. After meeting with police, he welcomed Lock the Gate back in 2012 as long as they registered and behaved properly.
This they did. Lock the Gate marched in May, causing no damage or disruption. Yet when the 30-strong Beef Week committee met in June, it banned them and all other protestors from future parades.
Stuart George claimed he’d received an “avalanche of complaint”. As he told The Punch:
“We received 20 to 30 complaints which was quadruple the usual number… The community spoke and spoke loudly, and we decided that a community parade like this should have no politically-aligned floats. It doesn’t matter if it’s Save the Whales or or Labor, the Libs or the Nats.”
Even in a small town, 30 complaints seem like a reasonably small avalanhce. Other figures suggested locals weren’t perturbed at all. An online survey revealed that just 11 per cent of people were offended by the protest floats. You’d see angrier crowds at Christmas pageants.
Indeed, more locals seem to have been annoyed by the presence of a float representing Stuart George’s employer, the CSG company Metgasco.
Lock the Gate president Drew Hutton hadn’t heard about the ban till yesterday. He nearly fell off his chair when The Punch told him about it. He said the parade was “a good natured protest emphasising the need to protect food security against the resources boom, which is a major threat to agriculture”.
Mr Hutton firmly believes CSG extraction cannot coexist with activities like agriculture and tourism. He says there are major environmental and health issues associated with CSG extraction. Most of these hinge around the extraction of bore water, which can become toxic after CSG wells are sunk.
And that’s not to mention the disruption faced by farmers when they wake up one morning with wells, service roads, and assorted bits of other CSG infrastructure criss-crossing their properties.
Mr George sees it differently. He says he knows many farmers in Queensland who operate their agricultural enterprises, be they dairying, beef or cropping, while maintaining land access agreements with CSG companies like Metgasco.
Maybe, says Lock the Gate’s Drew Hutton. But he claims that not a single Queensland property with CSG wells has sold in the last two years. Not one.
Mr Hutton calls Metgasco and their ilk bullies. “The proponents of CSG have treated land owners with complete contempt from day one,” he says. “They have used people like Stuart George to screw farmers by pretending to represent farmers while at the same time using their local influence to get CSG as much access as they can.”
“As president of Beef Week he should be showcasing fine cuts of Angus. Instead he is attempting to close down any sort of protest by farmers who don’t want CSG interfering with their industry.”
Coal seam gas extraction is an issue unlike any we have seen in Australia. It pitches neighbour against neighbour, political ally against political ally, friend against friend.
As the Beef Week mob has shown, a committee is rarely the key to a sensible outcome on anything. All the same, there is a distinct lack of red tape in the CSG industry.
The current state of the CSG legal landscape is that governments own the minerals under the land owned by farmers. That means farmers have to fight huge, protracted legal battles just to prevent drilling on their own land.
As Lock the Gate’s Drew Hutton says: “They can really turn it on, these CSG people. They turn up to landowners and say we’ve got 40 lawyers behind us, how many have you got?”
There’s a strong argument that landholders deserve much stronger legal protection. There’s also a pretty fair case that anti-CSG campaigners should be able to march down the main street of a CSG frontier town, especially if their legitimate beef isn’t overcooked.
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