Last week I was working with my son Andrew on our farm 25 kilometres north of Coonamble when he received a message that there were trespassers on the neighbouring farm. A digital alert system had been put in place for such an event.
Within minutes, farm vehicles from all the neighbours converged on the scene. Others moved in on the trespassers from the eastern side and in a pincer movement the trespassers became trapped and unable to gain access to their vehicles.
By this time, about 100 agitated and concerned farmers, their employees and families were there to express their disgust at what had just occurred. The police had also arrived.
It was ascertained that these trespassers were not your everyday illegal pig hunters or bushwalkers. But they were no less illegal and in breach of the law.
These trespassers were eventually allowed to leave after the police took their details. They proceeded to another small town called Warren, more than 100 kilometres away, where they were observed acting strangely.
The next day, they were followed on the ground by vehicle and in the air by aircraft and again they invaded private lands without appropriate authority and were hunted off. They returned to Coonamble to complain to police about being harassed, and then they left the district.
The trespassers were dressed in new clothes, trying to look like ecological scientists but without any identification. They had a security officer with them.
The question is why? Why would these people climb over a gate to gain access to the property when on that gate was a sign warning about biosecurity, with the farmer’s mobile phone number on the sign? Why wasn’t contact made? Why were they behaving like this?
It has often been said there will be wars over water. In its own way, the scene I was watching was a skirmish in what has the potential to become a war and rewrite the politics of water, land use and energy in this country. It was also an insight into how threatened the farm community felt and demonstrated how it would be difficult to fight these farmers’ guerilla tactics. It was a warning they were serious players.
It also occurred to me that most people in our major cities would not necessarily understand why a small community would mobilise itself so quickly at an apparent breach of their rights.
This article is an attempt to explain some of the detail and policy clashes that will evolve over the coming year, on the Liverpool Plains, on the plain country west of the Pilliga, and around the Adani coalmine in Queensland.
The reason these strangers were encroaching on private land reads like a story of political intrigue, legislative flaws and an abuse of the laws of supply and demand.
They were there in an attempt to survey a pipeline to convey coal seam gas from gas giant Santos’s proposed Narrabri gas field. As one landholder, David Chadwick, said: the pipeline was the “head of the snake” and if allowed to proceed would provide the infrastructure to convey the gas to Sydney or internationally and provide the political pressure to develop about 850 gas wells near Narrabri, with a view to hundreds more across the Liverpool Plains and associated areas.
More than a decade ago, a relatively small company called Eastern Star Gas Ltd took over the leases to explore for CSG in the north-west of New South Wales, with a view to onselling the project when certain milestones were met. An attempt to establish a pipeline corridor from Narrabri to Newcastle had failed in 2011. The project was eventually onsold to Santos.
The original pipeline attempt failed because it was to proceed across the famed Liverpool Plains area, some of the most productive land in the world, where there were leases to explore and potentially develop hundreds of gas wells. Farmers there were petrified that the Namoi groundwater system, which extends for 300 kilometres along the Namoi Valley, could be affected by such developments.
So the head of the snake – the pipeline – became critical for Santos. It was critical not only for the Narrabri–Pilliga gas field but also would provide the infrastructure to move onto the Liverpool Plains at a later date. The snake would push for the whole development.
Adding to the complexity is the fact the two water resources under threat are different in nature but both unique in an Australian context. One thing they do have in common is the law of gravity: water runs downhill and if a contamination or geological event occurs, it is those downstream who may be affected. When dealing with these massive water resources, these risks are enhanced.
The Namoi system is the largest groundwater system in the Murray–Darling catchment. Its fresh water is used for livestock and domestic purposes as well as sustainable irrigation where possible. It also contributes to inflows into the northern basin river systems.
The Chinese Shenhua mine proposal on the Liverpool Plains is located on this system and is next door to what was the largest groundwater bore in the world, until it was regulated to sustainable limits decades ago.
The Pilliga Forest lies to the west of the Liverpool Plains and is a natural recharge area for the Great Artesian Basin, the largest artesian resource in the world, which lies under 22 per cent of Australia’s landmass.
Although much less productive in an agricultural sense, the recharge function, the Indigenous cultural sites, and the ecological significance of the forest itself, known as the “lungs of inland NSW”, make the Pilliga critical for those who live to the west on the fertile black soil plains. Hence the Coonamble blockade.
The common concerns of the communities that rely on these two systems – outside the obvious disturbance to businesses and ecology – are the risks of salt contamination, fracking as a gas extraction method and the chemicals used, and potential geological problems that could lead to the mixing of different aquifers and associated water-quality issues.
In the years of the Gillard minority government, two important legislative instruments were initiated: the “water trigger” amendment and the independent expert scientific committee. This was done as a response to the growing developmental pressure on sensitive water areas by large coalmines and coal seam gas proposals. It was thought that, given the states and the Commonwealth had come together to form the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, there needed to be some form of federal oversight process based on science. Previously, these decisions had been left to the states.
It is interesting to note that during the run-up to introduction of the trigger, Santos ramped up political donations to the Coalition.
The water trigger was an amendment to federal environmental law that gave the federal government veto powers on such projects if the independent expert scientific committee found significant risks to water existed. A bioregional assessment of landscape capability was also funded, with the capacity to do physical exploratory work on the ground rather than just accept the desktop study data of the coalminers or CSG companies.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott and then agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce attempted to water down the powers of the water trigger under their thinly veiled red tape reduction agenda, handing the powers back to the states. This was defeated in the senate.
Joyce then reduced funding to the independent expert scientific committee, preventing independent work on the ground, and delayed the bioregional work. This was a blatant attempt to keep the decision-making processes within the political sphere rather than accept objective risk assessment. It was classic Barnaby.
The claims buzzing around that NSW is running out of gas have given Santos an opportunity to reach for some form of broader social licence for their actions in the region. Sydney’s gas supplies could be provided from within and around Sydney itself, but this is little canvassed. The reason it is not happening is because Sydney has had community and political support regarding concerns about its long-term water supply. There is less of that concern for people in the country.
In the Coonamble case, it will be left to the community. The politicians have deserted them. The world is run by those who turn up and whether it be the Shenhua Watermark mine or the Liverpool Plains and Pilliga gas fields, we are about to witness the people taking charge. Until the appropriate science is objectively done, the message is loud and clear: if you don’t know, don’t go.
If you care about the long-term future of these amazing water resources and some of the best soil in the world outside the Ukraine, give these people a hand. Give their voices support. Unborn generations will thank you.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2017 as "The case of the trespassing strangers".
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