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What a relief and what a great moment for democracy the peaceful resolution of the Bentley blockade has been. Finally the state government acknowledged that the desire of the people of the Northern Rivers to remain gasfield free has reached the point of virtual social consensus. It wasn’t just the blockade itself but the widespread passive resistance to Metgasco, ranging from the refusal of fencing and other contractors to supply them through to the unwillingness of the RFS, caterers and other businesses to be associated with any policing action. Ultimately the police association made it as clear as they reasonably could that they did not want to be involved in what would have been a virtual state based invasion of a region that was simply standing up for its way of life.
What part of ‘consultation’ does Metgasco still not understand. A handy online dictionary offered this meaning in seconds: “to seek advice from; ask guidance from or to have regard for (a person’s interest, convenience, etc.) in making plans”. That’s right, consultation is a two way street where you need to actually be guided by the feedback from the other side.
However when faced with 87% of the Lismore LGA and 65% of the Richmond Valley LGA opposed to gasfields, and when faced with a well site at Bentley encircled by farmers who did not want it at all, Metgasco simply insisted that they had a right to push in and drill regardless.
It’s a long time since we have heard anything from Metgasco about social license, instead in recent years it’s been about their ‘legal rights to drill’. Well, sorry to say but a Petroleum Exploration License is not a carte blanche entitlement to drill anywhere anytime, it contains an important obligation, and that is to engage in genuine consultation.
Constructing a business model that relies on an assumption of large scale police support to overwhelm community opposition is the polar opposite of a consultative approach. The state government was right to suspend Metgascos’ license, and the community is right to keep pushing for its complete cancellation.
The outcome at Bentley has not changed the underlying problem of mining industry domination and corruption of our parliaments but it is a very historic crack in that wall. The task now is for communities across the nation to get in there with their elbows and crow bars and widen that crack up until all communities regain the democratic right to say NO to the invasion of their way of life by unsustainable industries.
Unfortunately Metgasco is a corporation and so has no real capacity for human relationships or self-reflection, it has not learnt its lesson and like the black knight from Monty Python keeps insisting it will fight on.
And as for demanding compensation, what on earth for? I ask. Metgasco is a speculative exploration company. By their nature such companies are a risky investment. In the case of the Northern Rivers, there are sound geo-political, socio-economic and environmental reasons why the gas cannot be viably extracted. Metgasco and its shareholders need to accept that the gamble did not pay off and look for that exit strategy they should have considered a long time ago.
Thanks to the police for their restraint, to the businesses of the region for their support, and to the state government for coming to the party albeit a little late. But thanks most of all to the people of Northern Rivers for your courage, unity and peaceful determination.
Originally published in the Northern Rivers Echo, June 5, 2014.