A million threatened acres
11 September 2012
Spring had come early to the Pilliga and a warm gusty breeze blew through Baradine. The Memorial Hall – an astounding vision of Greco-Roman civilization with portico and pediment, boldly inscribed 'FIDELIS AD URNAM' – stared imperiously down Wellington Street.
I was sitting with Jesse Dingo outside Freckles Coffee Spot between Tattersal's Hotel and the Hotel Baradine, with a long black, surveilling the little convoy of gas fracker vehicles pulled up on the other side of the wide street.
I hadn't been up this way for 40 years. They called it the 'Scrub' then. Nowadays it's known as the Pilliga Forest, which is truer and more dignified. Nobody thought much of northern NSW's great arid forest. It was just a place where callitris pine floorboards came from. Back in the day, there were 15 government sawmills operating, and a clutch of private ones. There are only a couple now.
It was Eric Rolls who put the Pilliga on the map, with A Million Wild Acres, his history of the forest, its people and ecosystems. Suddenly it became a place of wonder, a place to visit.
I was in the Pilliga on a love job for a coalition of local landowners and environmentalists, and the Wilderness Society, who wanted me to gather intelligence on the invasion of the Santos coal seam gas frackers.
So I'd borrowed Stan's old 4WD and dug out my old camping gear. I stuck a spare tire, a 20 litre jerrycan and a long-handled shovel in the roof rack and left some art gear, sketch pads and bird ID books ostentatiously in the back so that I looked like a hard-scrabble bush artist.
Just to get myself in the mood for the job I came up the Putty Road way, through the bottom end of the Hunter Valley, which is being open-cut mined for export coal.
The Pilliga covers a couple of thousand square kilometres. You could fit Greater Sydney into it twice. It was a pleasure to be in the vast arid forest of eucalypts and callitris pine. Wildflowers blazed pink, purple, white and yellow. A vivid understorey of wattles jumped out of the dark trunks and muted greens of the callitris and eucalypts.
How much can you throw at a wild area? After the forestry overcutting ended, and the various land managers started to get a handle on how to fire-manage the place, after things started to look up for the Pilliga, the CSG industry rode into town with its ugly agenda.
Santos have big plans for CSG. Not long ago they took over Eastern Star Gas who'd already drilled 92 wells including 35 pilot production wells. They had no federal approval, despite the impacts on groundwater and vulnerable species. They want to put 1100 gas wells in an area of 850 square kilometres and they have exploration leases covering 5000 square kilometres.
Those who fought to preserve the Pilliga are feeling angry. Their efforts over many years appeared to have paid off with the addition of a few “state conservation reserves” to the existing national parks and nature reserves, but it turned out the new reserves just allowed the National Parks and Wildlife Service to look after them until it was time for the frackers to cut a grid of roads through them and destroy their natural values. “State conservation reserve” meant reserved for mining.
The frackers are slyly promoting CSG as a “clean transition fuel” – they mean transition from coal-fired electricity to renewable energy of course – but it's just spin. Recent studies have shown that leakage of methane gas from pipes might mean worse greenhouse emissions than you get from burning coal.
The threats are enormous. To get at the gas they have to extract a vast amount of toxic saline water from the coal gas seams – too much to be treated. Inevitably the salt will leak into, and poison, the Pilliga's precious creeks. And then there's the threat to the Great Artesian Basin – our greatest inland water resource. The project will drill right through its southern recharge area to get to the coal seams.
Once we degraded the land to export wool and wheat and extract timber. Now we're degrading it again to export global warming. In fifty years time, people will write best-selling books describing this new folly and its inevitable sorry outcome. Nobody will defend CSG, and few will admit they profited from it. Such is the nature of human greed.