People Power Can Halt Gas Expansion: An Interview With Stop CSG Sydney’s Pip Hinman

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Gas Expansion

On 3 June, a bill that would have imposed a statewide ban on coal seam gas (CSG) expansion passed in the upper house of NSW parliament. However, the Berejiklian goon squad made sure it appeared prematurely in the lower house on the following day, where it was promptly shot down.

The state Liberal Nationals government has a fossil fuel habit that’s just as bad as the one Scott Morrison has. And neither of them have shown any signs of wanting to give up.

But, their substance of choice is changing. No longer is the PM waving around a lump of coal – these days, they’re all into gas.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was the shock and awe of the bushfire crisis. And in late January, while the fire fighters were still trying to put out the blazes, Morrison and Berejiklian cut a new gas expansion deal, ensuring future bushfire seasons will be extra toasty.

While in March, the liar from the Shire Morrison put together an advisory body, the NCCC, charged with guiding the economy out of the COVID lockdown. And just last month, a “leaked” draft report revealed that it’s proposing the nation’s recovery be based upon gas, gas and more bloody gas.

Fracking the future

In February, a group of scientists from around the globe published a study in the journal Nature, which outlines that estimates of the amount of methane being emitted by the gas and oil production has been grossly underestimated.

The study found that these fossil fuel industries have been producing about 25 to 40 percent more gas emissions than previously thought.

Methane is about 80 times more potent than carbon in terms of global heating. And its presence in the atmosphere is currently leading to at least 25 percent of changing climate.

Coal seam gas mining is an invasive form of unconventional gas extraction, that involves methane trapped beneath a bed of coal. To extract it, a well is drilled down into the ground, fracturing the coal seam, which is then dewatered to allow the methane to escape.

This process includes fracking, which involves injecting a toxic mix of chemicals into the ground to fracture the coal. This process contaminates water sources, can cause earthquakes, impacts the health of wildlife and humans, while completely destroying ecosystems.

People have the power

The 2014 Bentley Blockade saw the NSW Northern Rivers region join together to stop gas expansion in the vicinity of the small town of Bentley, not too far from Lismore. Thousands set up camp on a cattle farm earmarked for exploration to prevent fossil fuel company Metgasco moving in.

Stop CSG Sydney spokesperson Pip Hinman points to this ground breaking mobilisation as an instance when the citizenry successfully rose up to prevent corporates and government from simply pressing ahead with their business as usual agendas.

Indeed, Hinman asserts that this is what’s needed now to quell the Coalition’s new push for gas.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Pip Hinman about the unholy alliance Morrison, Berejiklian and the rest of their cronies have with the fossil fuel industry, the falsehoods behind claims that gas is some sort of clean alternative and how society’s current period of transition seems quite promising.

Stop coal

Firstly, the Coal Seam Gas Moratorium Bill was introduced into state parliament by independent MLC Justin Field last week.

As part of Stop CSG Sydney, you’ve been campaigning to see a ban on the exploration and mining of coal seam gas implemented in this state.  Pip, how did the local movement against CSG get underway?

I got involved back in 2010, when a test drill for coal seam gas was set to go in close to Sydney Park in St Peters. The local community found out and were completely shocked.

So, we got organised at the end of 2010, and actually stopped the test drill proceeding. If people don’t know where that is, it’s just four kilometres from the CBD. I live around there.

As we were getting organised, a lot of education was happening in the process. Gasland, a documentary by Josh Fox, had just been released in the US, and we helped screen it in Sydney. It educated people about the problems with the unconventional gas industry.

As I said, we managed to stop the test drill from proceeding. And by 2015, we managed to get a petroleum exploration licence that covered the whole of Sydney Basin cancelled.

Other communities across the state were also campaigning to get other petroleum explorations licences cancelled as well.

At the time, exploration licences were given out like confetti by both Labor and Coalition state governments.

That was a period when a lot of people were getting active and learning. It was in the city and in the country. Farmers were worrying.

Queensland farmers started speaking up about their experience of the industry. They thought it was benign at first, but then found that it wasn’t. Water was being used up and polluted.

They weren’t being told what the toxic mix of chemicals that was being put down the drill site was made up of. And the news from the US about the shale gas industry was really bad.

Also, a farmer from Wyoming John Fenton toured Australia around that time as well. He was invited by the Greens and supported by all the local anti-coal seam gas groups.

Fenton went to regional Queensland and NSW deliberately to talk to farmers about the industry and that was a huge spark in helping galvanise a country-city alliance.

With the support of the Greens and Labor, the CSG moratorium bill was passed in the upper house on 3 June. However, on the following day, it was voted down in the lower house.

The failure of the bill has been blamed on some underhanded politicking. Can you explain how that worked?

It wasn’t that underhanded actually. The Liberals and the Nationals are big supporters of the fossil fuel industry. They’re shameless about supporting it.

It got up in the upper house, because the Shooters and Fishers and more importantly, the Labor Party supported Justin Field’s moratorium bill.

This took an enormous amount of work, because there were two previous attempts to get a moratorium through in NSW, both by the Greens.

Labor had produced its own moratorium-type bill, but it never actually put it to the vote. So, the fact that the bill got up was an enormous achievement for the campaign.

When it did get up, the gas industry and their lobbyists were apoplectic. They would have made sure that the Coalition in the lower house – where they knew they had the numbers – brought the debate on to sink it.

But, we must remember, they sunk the bill by only two votes, which is very close.

Under normal circumstances, it takes two weeks to bring a bill from the upper to the lower house. But, they were worried about the possibility of National MPs straying, because they’re under enormous pressure from their constituents in regional Australia to take a stand against fracking.

There’s a movement called Anyone But Nats. And because of it, the Shooters and Fishers took that seat off the Nationals in the last election, partly on the basis of the Shooters and Fishers taking a stand against the unconventional gas industry.

Gas expansion sign

As you said, you’ve been campaigning on this issue for a decade. The Coalition has been in power in NSW most of that period.

During that same time, the awareness that fossil fuel-caused climate change is leading us towards extinction has been growing.

Would you say the stance of the Berejiklian government reflects this climate change awareness any more than when Barry O’Farrell was at the helm?

They do understand the climate science, they’ve just taken an ideological stand to ignore it.

O’Farrell was in charge at the time when this movement against unconventional gas was growing. It had grown to the point where he was forced to commission then NSW chief scientist Mary O’Kane to undertake an independent review of coal seam gas activities.

It is not that O’Farrell wanted to do this, but the movement across regional Australia was such that they had to be seen to be doing something.

The state government ended up cancelling licences, paying out licence holders and conducting this independent review.

O’Kane produced a report stating that the industry was not safe, as it was presently being conducted, but it could be made to be so. And the industry jumped in and said her finding vindicated their position.

Campaigners, including First Nations people, stepped in and said that it didn’t vindicate their position, it actually showed the industry is not safe, and there aren’t many conditions under which it could be.

That was under O’Farrell. I don’t think he was more or less of a climate denier than Gladys Berejiklian is.

What happened then was the movement had built to the point where he had no other option, but to have a good hard look at what had happened over the past decade in terms of handing out these licences with no accountability.

In January, as the last fires that were part of the unprecedented bushfire season were still burning, prime minister Scott Morrison cut a deal with premier Gladys Berejiklian that involved escalating the amount of gas this state is mining.

What are the implications of this deal?

It was bizarre to see them do that in January. You could read it as them flagging to the fossil fuel industry that they weren’t going to be deterred by everybody talking about the fires being linked to climate change.

It was a $2 billion funding deal that had been organised the previous year. But, it was really about the federal and state commitment to the fossil fuel industry.

Some insiders have said that NSW was keen to announce a funding deal focused around renewable energy, but clearly this wasn’t it.

This was committing NSW to supply at least an additional 70 petajoules of gas into what’s called the east coast market each year.

Now, this amount of gas is exactly the same amount as what Santos is promising to deliver from their Narrabri gas project in NSW.

Regardless, of what the backstory is, it does show that both federal and state governments are recommitting to gas right now. And this is not just Coalition states, it’s Labor states as well.

This has sent another signal to everybody that governments are onboard with pushing the gas industry. And they’re regurgitating all the lies about the industry, which is that it is clean and safe.

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the PM established the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC), which was to guide the Australian economy during the pandemic and into the recovery following it.

Last month, a draft NCCC report was leaked to the press, which outlined the advisory body is pushing an economic recovery “based on public handouts to the corporate gas sector”, as you put it in an article.

What’s your opinion on what was outlined in the draft proposal?

That report was just a regurgitation of all the lies again. The report is from what this handpicked recovery commission called its Manufacturing Taskforce.

The taskforce includes representatives from the gas industry and some significant unions: the metal workers union and the Australian Workers Union, both of which have strong ties to Labor.

This report is basically saying we need a massive expansion of the domestic gas industry to create a globally competitive industry, and a globally competitive domestic gas market.

It also wants government funding – that is taxpayers – to underwrite this recovery.

When I’m referring to the old lies, this includes more gas production being key to driving down energy prices. But, Australia is already the biggest gas exporter in the world, and prices for domestic gas are not coming down.

They also keep saying that unlocking gas will be an ongoing jobs bonanza, but this is another myth. After the initial infrastructure set up, ongoing jobs in the gas industry are actually minimal.

The proposal is pushing for gas to be opened up in the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory, Narrabri in NSW, the Bowen Basin in Queensland and the Perth Basin in WA. It also wants a gas pipeline connecting the east to the NT and WA to with urgency.

My objection is the same as so many others have already documented. Gas is not clean. It is not a transition to renewables. It simply extends the life of the fossil fuel industry, right at a time when governments should be pivoting to renewables.

The climate scientists say we need to transition. The prices for renewables are competitive. Beyond Zero Emissions has actually sketched out a scenario where a million jobs could be created with such a pivot.

So, this is crazy talk from people who just really want to prop up an industry, which has enormous power in Australian politics and close ties to major parties.

This leaked document from the NCCC was presented like it was a new proposal to help the economy post-pandemic.

However, others have suggested that this was a plan already in the works prior to the COVID-19 crisis. What’s your opinion on that?

Yes. It definitely was. Morrison has always pushed the fossil fuel industry. If you listen to Joel Fitzgibbon who represents a wing of the Labor Party, it’s very committed to the fossil fuel industry too.

The industry holds a lot of power in this country. There’s no doubt about it. And that’s why we see such huge public subsidies.

Last year, the International Monetary Fund – which is no left-wing thinktank – actually said fossil fuels subsidies in Australia amount to nearly $1,200 per person per annum: a total of $29 billion.

Now, that’s a considerable fund. Imagine if that sort of public money was directed towards clean energy and sustainable jobs.

In your understanding, why the big push towards gas?

It’s a way of extending the life of the fossil fuel industry. Coal fired power stations have a shelf life, and a lot of them are nearing the end of their life. And they cost a packet to build.

Gas is delivering more in export income to Australia. It’s the biggest export earner for Australia at the moment. It’s an easier sell compared to coal.

A lot of the fossil fuel corporations are actually investing in renewables as well, but they’re not necessarily promoting that.

Gas is still one of the biggest export earners at a time when a lot of the export income has shrivelled because of COVID.

It’s a combination of that and the myth that it’s somehow a clean fuel. However, methane is much nastier than carbon dioxide.

Frankly, not much accounting has been done in Australia around the leakage of methane from gas wells either. If that was done, we would find out the real climate costs of gas as well.

And lastly, Pip, back in January, there was a wave of climate concern sweeping the nation due to the bushfire catastrophe. Although, since then, the pandemic has shifted public focus.

But, time is ticking out. How are we going to keep changing climate front and centre without having to rely on great tracts of forest burning to the ground to get it there?

That’s the big political question. How do you force a change in government policy?

As I said before, it’s not that governments don’t know what the alternatives are. It’s that they’re committed to their mates in the fossil fuel industry. They’re ideologically aligned to that industry.

If we’re going to change their minds on this, we’re going to have to change the power imbalance.

No one would have expected that the Northern Rivers community in NSW could have fought off the combined weight of the gas industry, the NSW government and the NSW police. But, it did.

The 2014 Bentley Blockade made history. It was a community organisation built up over months and months of education and alliance building that eventually won the day.

In the end, the police refused to go in and knock heads. They told the NSW government they were not going to do it.

That’s how we win in the end. Ordinary people have to force the government. They listen when their power is being threatened.

In the case of Bentley, it was a significant part of regional NSW that was speaking up against unconventional gas.

We’re living through a time of transition. We’ve seen schools striking for real climate action, unions laying out alternatives on energy and the Stop Deaths in Custody movement stopping cities in their tracks and putting racism on the agenda.

That’s a strong enough message to everyone that people’s movements can and do change minds, and they can and do change policy.

There’s no other secret way. This is how we are going to keep climate change on the agenda, by working together with everyone else who can see the danger of continuing with this crazy business as usual.

First image is of Pip Hinman and the Knitting Nannas just before Justin Field’s bill passed in the NSW Legislative Council. Photo taken by Bronwyn Vorst

Second image is of US farmer John Fenton touring Australia in 2014. Photo taken by Peter Boyle

Third image is of Stop CSG Sydney rally in 2014. Photo taken by Peter Boyle

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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