Frocks on the frontline: Queers say ‘no’ to coal seam gas
The NSW Government last week suspended the licence of a resource company for a mining operation at Bentley on the NSW north coast. Ahead of the decision, James May spent time at the protest site, Camp Liberty, and spoke to local queer protestors saying ‘no’ to coal seam gas.
It’s a gorgeous autumn day and a rural field in the state’s north coast is buzzing with people donning frocks, make-up and accessories. Guys and girls in all kinds of weird and wonderful get-up are stepping out of their tents in wigs and heels. Ambient music swirls from the site where everyone has gathered to compare outfits and get to know each other – in drag.
The music lifts a notch and some people dance around a fire like gypsies, gazing into the sky as if they’re channeling help from a higher source. Some link arms and twirl about in flowing skirts and gowns. Guys in dresses wear pig tails, plaits, sneakers and witches hats. One wooshes by singing, “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman!” Others sit round the blaze clapping to the music or sipping mugs of tea in sombre reflection. Some are a bit frazzled after camping under the stars since February but the mood is full of joy.
It could be a scene from 1960s Woodstock or a theatre revival of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. But in fact, it’s ‘Frocks on the Frontline’ – a protest event held on May 9 at Bentley, a small town just outside Lismore in north-east NSW. Hundreds of people have been living in a makeshift village known as ‘Camp Liberty’ since February, protesting against plans for an unconventional gas drilling operation by Metgasco, a Sydney-based oil and gas company.
There’s a shout from the organisers and a gaggle of frocks rub shoulders out front for a photo shoot, with signs that read ‘Frock off CSG’ and ‘Go away Metgasco’. The gang smiles as the cameras click, in a display of peaceful protest. “Be a frocker not a fracker,” one woman shouts. Adds another: “Frock against fracking! It’s our time to celebrate.”
Above and top image: Demonstrators dress up at Frocks on the Frontline. Photo: George Giannotis
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Coal seam gas is a form of natural gas that is found in coal seams hundreds of metres beneath the earth’s surface, and is comprised mostly of methane.
Coal seam gas is extracted through vertical and directional drilling. Sometimes, a method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is also used. Fluid, typically a mixture of sand, water and other chemicals, is pumped under pressure into the coal seam to open up fractures, creating a path for water to flow back to the surface. The process depressurises the coal seam, allowing the gas in the pores of the coal to be released and flow to the surface.
According to the NSW Government, coal seam gas makes up the gas supply in more than one million homes and businesses in NSW. Over 30 per cent of the eastern Australian network is fed by coal seam gas, the government says.
In NSW, major coal seam gas reserves are found in the Gunnedah, Gloucester and Sydney basin, and on the Northern Rivers region in the Clarence-Moreton basin.
And it is here, in the town of Bentley, where Metgasco is planning to build a gas drilling operation, a proposal that has prompted strong opposition from locals and galvanised the community into action.
Since 2008, Metgasco has been actively exploring for unconventional (coal seam and tight sands) gas in the Northern Rivers. In that time they have drilled around fifty exploration wells and constructed a number of large holding ponds for storing waste water from their drilling and pilot production program.
Metgasco says their aim is to supply gas to the local industry in the north-east corner of the state before supplying gas to the broader eastern coast and possibly the export LNG market. “Metgasco is well positioned given that it is generally accepted that a shortage of gas is imminent on the eastern coast of Australia,” the company states.
The Gasfield Free Northern Rivers is among the groups that have formed to oppose mining in the area. They believe the majority of coal seam gas being developed is destined for the export market. They say the methods used to extract the gas such as hydraulic fracturing or lateral drilling pose serious risks to groundwater. Furthermore, coal seam gas mining has severe surface impacts as it requires large numbers of wells to extract the volumes of gas that are sought. They cite the Queensland situation where, between 2010 and 2011, more than 18,000 gas wells were approved.
“Along with gas wells come roads, pipelines, tracks, compressor stations and water storage ponds, which results in an industry that spreads out across the land and carves up rural landscapes into giant industrial zones,” Gasfield Free Northern Rivers states.
Metgasco asserts “the CSG industry uses international standards and is highly regulated”, that “numerous studies have been completed to demonstrate that CSG operations will not threaten water supplies” and that “CSG operations can and do exist with farming, and provide an economic benefit to regional communities”.
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Ted is a queer activist and a local marketing manager at a large organisation in Lismore. He has lived in the Bentley area with his family for 19 years and owns a small cattle property. He says the techniques used in the exploration of coal seam gas such as fracking lack proper scientific research. There are wells located within a two kilometre radius of his home and he is concerned about the water supply being contaminated.
“One of the wells started leaking recently and had to be repaired by Metgasco,” Ted says.
The Northern Rivers is a high rainfall area with high food production and Ted says the risk of CSG is not worth it. “The current proposal at Bentley is only 16 kilometres upstream from Lismore with a population of 45000 people. The community’s water supply will be at risk if a spill happens.”
Ted is also concerned that if one well goes head, many will follow. He explains that a gasfield could change the face of the region as seen in other rural areas where rents have gone through the roof with fly-in, fly-out workers and jobs being procured from outside towns.
“Australia is the driest continent on earth and the Northern Rivers is one of the wettest regions. It should be maintained for food production and the food quality secured.”
Ted says the locals at Bentley feel humbled and blessed to see the contribution of so many visitors to Camp Liberty. “People from other areas like the Byron shire are coming because they know their water supply could be compromised too.”
GALLERY: Frocks against fracking ... Camp Liberty in Bentley, NSW. Photos: George Giannotis
He says up to 3000 people have visited the camp some days. “We’ve shared many joys and agonies over this potential gasfield. We need to question our leaders in the corridors of power and what they have in store for our region.”
Around 300 tents are permanently stationed at Camp Liberty. The surrounding landscape is breathtaking and activists have created communal spaces such as a kid’s and family area, a massage tent, elders’ tent and ‘The Tarp Mahal’.
Therapists offer shiatsu and yoga and run workshops like painting and knitting to keep protestors physically and creatively nourished. The camp is staffed by volunteers and there’s always new visitors arriving to help for a few hours or pitch a tent for a few days.
Each morning begins with a dawn service at 5am when key speakers and musicians address the crowd. Some sing and dance, some huddle around a campfire as a sheath of mist rolls through the valley. People from all walks of life share stories and discuss when Metgasco will make their move. At night, they gather at ‘Liberation Central’ and listen to a choir perform as they wind down with a wholesome feed.
Josephine teaches ‘aerial circus bootcamp’ at a commando-style gym in Lismore. She visits Camp Liberty each Monday with donations of fresh produce from her garden. “It’s empowering to watch people come together,” she says. “It’s a friendly family atmosphere and I learn something new about CSG each time.”
Josephine says the protestors have a good rapport with the police and interactions between the two groups are always polite and respectful. “It’s very well organised here. Everyone contributes something whether it’s slashing grass, composting or gardening. People can work the gates and direct traffic, they can serve and cook food.”
Josephine has met lots of other queer activists including farmers, artists and performers. She says people in the city don’t understand the threat of coal seam gas due to the lack of media coverage. “Around 7000 people marched in Lismore against CSG. It was amazing.”
She’s concerned because the Lismore area is prone to tropical storms and floods all the time. “The toxic ponds where they store chemical waste can overflow. I manage five acres which used to be a barren cow paddock. I put 15 years into restoring our creek and caring for the land and planting trees. Metgasco doesn’t care about displacing people or the effect of their machines that run 24 hours a day. They wanna take our resources and leave us their toxic ponds.”
Above: Protesters say a proposed gas drilling operation will have significant environmental impacts to the area. Photo: George Giannotis
Ruth has lived in the Northern Rivers since 1997. She is a volunteer counsellor at ACON and has a private practice in Lismore as well. AIDS activism was her first passion in the 1980s and she’s also an environmentalist. Ruth provides ‘deep ecology workshops’ at Bentley to help people deal with their feelings and connect more deeply with each other and the earth.
Ruth says the gasfield threat has aroused fear and outrage, and she helps people express and transform these feelings. “Once people understand what they’re feeling they can take useful action instead of folding inwards.”
Ruth facilitates exercises that help protestors bond and work together more effectively.
“People were visibly shaken early on but now there’s a strong sense that we’re working together to stop this.”
People’s lives in the Northern Rivers depend upon their connection to the land, Ruth explains. “People want to grow their food and live on the land. This type of mining has no respect for the land, water or soil. And it lacks a social licence. They’re trampling our human rights.”
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On May 15, the NSW Minister for Resources and Energy, Anthony Roberts, announced the suspension of Metgasco’s right to drill an exploration well at Bentley. The operation was suspended on the grounds that it did not fulfil a condition of its exploration licence – to undertake genuine and effective consultation with the community.
Roberts also referred the project to the Independent Commission Against Corruption “to ensure that any decisions regarding the project had been made entirely properly and without any undue interest or influence”.
There was a sense of ecstasy and disbelief at Camp Liberty following the decision. “This is outstanding news,” Ruth said. “It’s a great victory for people power and restores a glimmer of hope in democracy.”
Ruth says protestors will remain vigilant until Metgasco’slicence is fully revoked. “We want the region declared gasfield free.”