In 2016 a grass roots community campaign based in Gloucester Valley, NSW scored a major victory against the Coal Seam Gas industry. In early 2011 energy giant AGL received a licence from the NSW state government to frack the area and construct up to 330 wells. Residents and environmentalists had already raised concerns regarding safety, viability and impacts on groundwater, the local economy and climate change. Few had been involved in activism before but, following on precedents set by rural groups such as Lock The Gate, they soon organised a major campaign.
In addition to education, lobbying and legal efforts Groundswell Gloucester and other concerned citizens held a number of protests and went on to blockade construction. Along the way they exposed a series of corrupt connections between big business and the state government before forcing AGL to finally abandon the project
The story and the lessons of the campaign are closely detailed in a 2018 book by campaign member John Watts, entitled The Town That Said No To AGL: How Gloucestor was Saved from Coal Seam Gas. The following extracts, from a chapter that captures recollections from campaigner Julie Lyford, provide insights into how a rural community stood up to a coalition of powerful interests and won. All images appear courtesy of John Watts.
Book Extract: Julie Lyford
Firstly, one of the most uplifting and personally nourishing outcomes of our long fight to stop coal seam gas exploration in our beautiful Gloucester Valley has been the new friendships and networks that have enriched so many lives, including my own. What I have learnt from the fiasco of the ‘vital coal seam gas industry for NSW’ disaster is that, not only was the AGL CSG Plan flawed from the outset, but also that it was beset with deception, collusion, lies, corrupt and complicit behaviour from both AGL and the NSW Government.
I often wonder if those in Government and industry, who are most complicit in forcing unwanted extractive industries on our communities, ever understand that they are responsible for the huge groundswell of peaceful activism across the whole country. When you oppress, demonise and change laws to the detriment of people’s health, when you destroy their environments and important places, pollute their air and water, trash irreplaceable Aboriginal cultural heritage and generally ride roughshod over democratic rights – you get an enlightened, networked and professional uprising from among those very citizens so badly wronged. That is what happened in the small town of Gloucester.
There is so much to tell. John’s book will go a long way to exposing such sordid and sorry tales of Government ineptitude, industry greed and disregard for the community. Many who have fought this long battle are still shocked by what they witnessed, and are to this day affected by the cavalier attitude of Government officials and how badly they, the people, were treated by certain members of Parliament and AGL.
Many ordinary people became accidental and reluctant activists who cannot unsee the injustice and maladministration of our supposed ‘democratic’ process.
After looking at the timeline since Lucas-Molopo started their exploration and the now infamous “blowout of well LMG03” in 2004 (which proved geological ‘connectivity’), it has become apparent that AGL was determined to show that there was indeed no ‘geological connectivity’. It took a blockade, many demonstrations and plenty of lobbying, visits to Parliament, both State and Federal, to highlight just how ludicrous this Gloucester CSG project was. It was never going to be viable due to the hydrogeology and heavily faulted geology. But let’s not let simple engineering facts get in the way of a 12-year drama that involved corrupt politicians (ICAC tells the story), colluding bureaucrats and a company that continued to deny facts and to show no respect for the environment and the Gloucester and Manning River communities.
The denial by AGL of geological connectivity was an early but telling example of the AGL approach to its Gloucester activities. John gives many other examples of this approach in this book.
In October 2010, as part of its proposed gas project, AGL was promising 315 jobs and a myriad of other ‘benefits’ to the Gloucester community. Then the movie Gasland arrived and more and more people started to become aware of the huge issues being dealt with by impacted communities in the USA, Queensland and elsewhere. Much later, the movie Frackman sealed the fate of any credibility the CSG industry ever had. …
In 2011 the Gloucester community, with assistance and guidance from a wide range of organisations, became motivated to start challenging the CSG industry, AGL and the NSW State Government. As we – and many others in the movement – began to uncover the health and environmental issues about which we had been ignorant, it became clear that we needed a more co-ordinated and professional response. As luck would have it, Gloucester was blessed with groups already active and savvy in tackling this medusa – specifically, GRIP (Gloucester Residents in Partnership) and BGSPA (Barrington, Gloucester, Stroud Preservation Alliance). Like a multi-layered cake we unwrapped one anomaly after another. Gloucester and the movement were also blessed with many well-qualified and committed people who were motivated to help.
As John explains, our campaign against AGL became multi-faceted with community protests, submissions to, and meetings with, Government, getting exposure in the media and lobbying financial organisations.
A “NO CSG” rally was held on 16 October 2011 in Gloucester’s Billabong Park – and the rest is history. Well, another five years of a history of hard slog to get the truth out to the wider public! Journalists with antennae for integrity and exposing the truth about what was happening to our communities were ready and willing to go to print. …As time went on we learnt more and more about what Gloucester was facing with AGL’s plans and, as we did, we became more determined to “Say No to AGL.”
I clearly remember a Local Government Shires Conference in Sydney when I was Gloucester’s Mayor, meeting then Mayor Ray Brown from Queensland’s Surat Basin area. Ray delivered a deeply emotional exposé to 700 NSW conference delegates of the nightmare scenario proposed for farmlands where he lived – a huge local government area about to be pockmarked and scarred forever by hundreds of CSG wells, evaporation ponds, infrastructure, pipelines, new coal mines and an even worse scenario that unfolded as a total disaster – underground coal gasification. Ray wanted NSW to know what was about to happen in NSW if we did not stop the juggernaut that was happening to the food bowls of Queensland. Sadly, and tragically, his concerns were well founded.
I met Ray again at a gas industry conference in 2015 during a session about ‘consulting with communities’. I attended with Jenni O’Neill, and it was the ultimate eye opener as to how this industry, Government officials and so-called experts on community liaison operated. We were ‘black boxes’ to be ‘opened and understood’, said one consultant; another outlined the two ways to approach a farmer depending on his financial situation; yet another offered the advice that “when a ‘seismic’ event happens from fracking, the house owner has a hotline to get compensation for damage to their house and that they are ‘real happy’ with getting the money”. Astonishingly, it was stated that the pinnacle of getting a community to see the ‘light’ and the ‘benefits’ is when they get a major grocery store food outlet and an international fast food store thanks to the extractive industries. I’m not sure who is advising these industry groups, but we left them in no doubt as to how disgusted we were by the snake oil and unethical tactics.
A disparaging and personally offensive comment was made to me by a South Australian Government official suggesting I was akin to the anti-immunisation brigade. This was like a red rag to a bull because, as a retired nurse with a GP husband, I have strong views in favour of child immunisation. I know that John has mentioned this incident elsewhere in his book. It bears repetition because it had a strong impact on me in showing the utter lack of respect towards anyone who dared to question the ethics of the CSG industry.
If this was an example of how the gas industry wanted to improve ‘dealing’ with communities, then it backfired. We became even more convinced that we had to expose the hypocrisy, deceitfulness and crass ‘social licence’ experiments the industry was passing off as ‘community consultation’.
The first blockade in December 2011 was Gloucester’s first taste of direct action and forced AGL to meet with Dr Philip Pells, myself and the late E.B. Phillips to discuss the appointment by AGL of an independent hydrogeologist to investigate the issues of ‘geological connectivity’. We knew from the Lucas-Molopo report of the well blowouts that ‘connectivity’ was alive and well under our fertile dairy farms and housing estates – yet somehow the AGL mantra had miraculously become one of ‘no connectivity’ and we were determined to expose the truth. Dr Pells gave a description of the valley as ‘Swiss cheese’, with approximately 3000 old coal exploration boreholes (well documented since the ’70s) ready to blow gas, mud and fracking fluids at random.
Community pressure resulted in a report being prepared by Dr Rick Evans, which is discussed by John in a chapter. Despite all the documented problems with the AGL project, our collective heads wondered why the company was spending huge amounts of AGL shareholders’ money, and the State Government untold millions of taxpayer dollars, to prosecute this doomed gas field project? Government spin and propaganda were rife with statements such as: “The elderly will freeze to death” and “NSW will run out of gas” if this critical Gloucester field is not progressed. Talk about emotional blackmail.
No-one, either in Government or AGL, had the courage or honesty to tell the real story.
Who was lining whose pockets? Who was getting inter-departmental promotions completely out of their league and expertise range? Who was giving orders to perpetuate the distress of the Gloucester and downstream communities because no-one had the guts to say they had got it wrong? Why didn’t anyone responsible put a spoke in the wheels of Government and industry dishonesty and collusion?
I don’t want to repeat all the details of our campaign but would like to share just a few highlights.
One of the many was meeting John Fenton and his family from Wyoming in the US (a courageous farming community fighting serious ill health and environmental and water degradation due to the fracking industry). After John’s moving presentation at the Gloucester Bowling Club in February 2012, a pilot suggested that he could fly over Gloucester with well-known award-winning photographer Dean Sewell and get excellent shots of a beautiful valley at risk. Costing $1,000 to hire a light plane and offering their services for free, I thanked him and said we would fundraise over the next few weeks. Local resident John Dugas suggested people could donate then and there. In less than five minutes, a crowd of 75 people raised $1,100. AGL’s community liaison staff member, who was in attendance (as they always did, with a saccharine smile), was certainly left in no doubt as to the community response! The valley images were vital to our campaign and used by many to highlight what was at stake. …
Another memorable occasion was on 2 May 2012, when we filled two buses (one of many bus trips) to Parliament House for a rally to protect our land and water. As the Upper House voted down an important bill to protect our farmlands and water resources, anger erupted from the gallery – many generational farming families were escorted from ‘the house’ for being too emotional!
Another turning point was a meeting with National Party backbenchers in Sydney to highlight how vulnerable their seats were with the anti-CSG uprising, especially the Sydney Basin. Surprise, surprise – when Sydney was declared CSG free (apart from long-suffering residents of Camden), the rural communities were deemed dispensable. After the meeting the National Party backbenchers were left in no doubt that rural and regional communities knew how to mobilise and vote accordingly.
The way we were treated and lied to by many politicians will never be forgotten, but there were two Federal politicians who were just the opposite. Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor were effective Independents during the time of the Gillard Government – they were successful in obtaining $200 million for CSG and coal mining regulation through the Independent Expert Scientific Committee. This was invaluable, as Gloucester was awarded Bioregional Status under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013 (EPBC Act). Because of their efforts the ‘Water Trigger’ legislation bill was enacted by Federal Parliament in Canberra on 22 June 2013. Chris Sheed, then President of MCWAG (Manning Clean Water Action Group) and I joined Lock the Gate in meetings with ministers about the CSG issues. We bumped into Rob Oakeshott just after the EPBC Act had been passed. It was heartening to know that there was some protection at the Federal level and that some politicians were trying to protect vulnerable communities. On the other hand, subsequent meetings after the change to the Abbott Government proved completely fruitless.
As time progressed, our trust in many of our elected officials was lost, long-term political and social loyalties shattered and belief systems whereby governments looked after the communities’ interests were destroyed. Long-term mental and physical health issues emerged, people were hospitalised and some are still seeking treatment. The consequences have been tragic across the whole CSG landscape. One can only feel desperation for those caught in the nightmare in Queensland and elsewhere. …
The duplicity by many politicians and AGL was a strong motivating factor in our campaign. Protests, street walks (both quiet and with marching bands!), vigils, household surveys, letter writing, and other peaceful activities gathered steam, fuelled by the Premier announcing a CSG ban for the Sydney Basin on February 19 2013.
However, I was shocked to hear the then NSW National Party Minister Andrew Stoner on ABC’s 7.30 say that he ‘would not want a CSG well 5km from my property’ – but when asked about the situation communities like ours were facing, responded that we were ‘collateral damage’. Sad and pathetic.
ABC’s Four Corners program did a great exposé on CSG called ‘Gasleak’ on 1 April 2013 – yet the relentless cogs of Government complicity grinded away. Departmental officials attended pro-CSG meetings while we continually failed to get meetings with relevant ministers and Government departments. However, I have to acknowledge that some within the EPA were responsive to our requests, setting up a roundtable with several Government departments that then led to the highly discredited Gloucester Dialogue Committee, which John discusses in more detail in the book.
AGL showed its true colours when, at a public meeting on 16 May 2013, company representatives arrived flanked by police and security. If the intent was to make Gloucester citizens look aggressive or threatening to AGL it backfired badly. Sadly, while our local police force was, for the most part, neutral the actions of the broader area command during the protests were profoundly undemocratic. …
An important document highlighting inadequacies and serious implications relating to AGL’s irrigation operations was suppressed. The document was a letter from the EPA and it outlined the significant risks associated with the irrigation project. Thankfully, someone had the good conscience to leak that document and it made fascinating reading. It was the subject of a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald written by Michael West.
Jenni O’Neill, Chris Sheed and I attended an AGL AGM in Melbourne and presented our shareholder handout. Jenni and I asked to meet Chairman of the AGL Board, Jeremy Maycock, prior to the AGM to voice our concerns and were given five minutes of his time – he seemed perplexed and asked why we were not concentrating on dirty coal mines instead. We replied we were fighting both.
AGL continued to ramp up pressure on the Government and community with an article titled ‘Gas project crucial to continued supply” (Gloucester Advocate, 4 December 2013). Groundswell held a direct action workshop on 4 December, and on 12 December we received notice that Premier Barry O’Farrell would not meet with Groundswell or Gloucester residents. Battle lines were being well and truly drawn, and our motivation to stop AGL just kept growing.
In this book, John details many, many incidents of Government duplicity, particularly the way the SEPP was changed to meet the convenience and commercial interests of AGL. Meeting with Minister Pru Goward seemed positive – but again proved to be a mirage. A huge amount of time was spent collating the ways in which AGL had failed to comply with its community consultation obligations and the ways that it had simply lied to the community.
We met with Minister Anthony Roberts on 17 January 2014 to discuss our concerns, but it turned out to be a complete waste of time. However, such treatment simply motivated us even more. The way we were treated by Government ministers and officials made us more determined than ever.
The Groundswell Gloucester team worked diligently, creating documents that could not be refuted, with a professional and ethical ethos. This stood us in good stead. The Groundswell team and extended ‘family’ of experts in their fields were highly disciplined. Sticking to the facts was vital. Reacting to our more vocal adversaries was not our job. Our task was to make sure the known harms to our environment and communities were published, advocated to political circles and to keep the media appraised of the situation. I am strongly of the opinion that when you inform decision makers about these known harms – and they then go on to approve the project – then they are culpable for any harm caused.
The last year of fighting AGL was a strange one. Local farmers and concerned Gloucester citizens got arrested. An incredible network of protectors ran an amazing blockade and a protest camp. We held two discussions with AGL’s CEO Andy Vesey (the subsequent leaking of the second meeting left me deeply uncomfortable for a while). We realised that perhaps here was someone who actually ‘got’ what was happening to our community and wanted to make amends for the damage AGL had caused. And, of course, the Gloucester Knitting Nannas had become an admirable force to be reckoned with.
The profound injustice, on so many levels, that was visited on the Gloucester community still resonates today. However, healing is happening, and this is a wonderful community. Unfortunately, the flawed Government processes that have caused Gloucester (and so many other communities) so much grief, are still very much in place. …
While the antics of strangers are bad enough, it was the bad behaviour of a few within the Gloucester community that upset me more – and John has given some examples. My family and I experienced some very distressing threats, as well as a smear campaign. The people responsible know who they are, but they did not win. I have to be honest and admit that the situation got so bad it almost got to the point of us deciding to leave town. My love for Gloucester waned considerably due to the efforts of a handful of unpleasant people. However, we learnt that this is the modus operandi of the extractive industries. Set up a pro-CSG or mining/dam group, glue on the Government department representatives to give them credibility, go after anyone who is against the project, and display no moral integrity. …
The saddest reality is that for many who have lived here all their lives, this bullying was rife for anyone voicing opposition. For me, I have always acted independently. I have always stood up to injustice and always will. I will never bow to bullies. Indeed, they fuel my activism.
Unfortunately, there were some people in the Gloucester community who felt they could not take a stand. I received an anonymous phone call from an elderly female farmer, in tears, asking me to continue voicing opposition to the CSG field. I was tired and replied that it was the long-term ‘local’ families that needed to step up and help us. I explained that we ourselves were being targeted and ostracised by certain sections of the community for our stand and asked – could the generational families speak up too? The devastating response was: “You don’t understand … the bullies I suffered in Year 10 are the same ones in my service club” and; “I will not be invited to family events, friends’ gatherings and could not cope with being treated like a traitor”. The deep sobs and sadness in her voice left me reeling. I came to the realisation that the real tragedy is that the bullying in rural communities stops well-intentioned and kind people from standing up and protecting their land and the people they care about. This still resonates strongly with me and is one of the main reasons I find it hard to forgive the industry and Government for fomenting the damaging community division.
On the bright side, it was wonderful to be associated with so many dedicated, concerned and highly motivated people who contributed to the campaign against AGL’s flawed project and who also gave me tremendous personal support. There are hundreds of people and many, many organisations that have been the bastions of networking, support and the ultimate success of the AGL campaign. I bow to them all.
Fighting the rapacious extractive industries is tough work, but unless communities such as Gloucester take a stand, the companies, aided and abetted by a compliant Government, will ride roughshod over us all. On the positive side, many communities are working hard in protecting their land, water and future from corporate greed. As each concerned individual stands up and is counted in the fight against environmental vandalism and the damage to our vital ecosystems, we will progress to a renewable energy and climate friendly future.
The threat from the well resourced fossil fuel industry and their political friends is ever present. It is often a David and Goliath struggle, but they can be beaten, as was demonstrated by the recent rejection of the absurd proposal to dig a dirty coal mine in the beautiful Bylong Valley, and by the defeat of AGL when it tried to construct over 300 coal seam gas well on the doorstep of the small town of Gloucester NSW. This book tells how the Gloucester community fought against the might of AGL and the NSW Government to stop the construction of the gas field.
Obtain a copy of The Town That Said No To AGL: How Gloucestor was Saved from Coal Seam Gas from RedBelly Books.
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- How Emotions Mobilise and Sustain the Anti-Coal Seam Gas Movement
- Frontline Action on Coal FLAC: Ten Years on the Climate Frontline
- Activists - Stories_Accounts about/by Individuals
- AGL (Company)
- Australia - New South Wales
- Campaigning - Grassroots
- Civil disobedience
- Climate action
- Climate change
- History - Australia - New South Wales
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti mining
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti mining (Coal seam gas) - Gloucester, New South Wales, Australia
- New South Wales