Seaspray residents vow to do whatever it takes to protect land

Phil Evans and Noah Beecher Kelk

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013,

In a show of determination and courage, residents of coastal Victorian town Seaspray have taken a pledge to "do whatever it takes to protect water, soil and air, even if it means taking part in peaceful direct action and risking arrest". Residents took the pledge near the site of the Wombat 5 drill site which Lakes Oil, a company backed by Gina Rinehart, has earmarked for further exploration for 'tight gas'.

Growing pressure from community groups across the state, Friends of the Earth, Lock the Gate and Quit Coal saw the moratorium on the hydraulic fracturing ('fracking') process extended until 2015. However the current moratorium does not cover all exploration activities, including drilling techniques that involve similar risks to the fracking process. Lakes Oil has applied to explore further for tight gas in the area using a 'horizontal drilling' technique, which will not be covered by the moratorium.

Lakes Oil's Rob Annells said in The LaTrobe Valley Express last year that the process "would involve a horizontal drill at 1500 metres below the surface. As you drill vertically down, the rock gets tighter and tighter. The rock that we'll be accessing was on the surface millions of years ago, so the permeability is better than what you're looking at another 1000m deeper ... by keeping ourselves within that top weathered zone and going horizontal within it, we believe we'll get that (gas) flow naturally, without any artificial stimulation, which hopefully will be commercial."

The company wants to proceed with the project despite 98% of the Seaspray community opting to declare their town gasfield-free last year, and in direct contradiction to Premier Napthine's assurance in November that: "We will never, ever allow onshore gas, if it jeopardises our underground water, if it jeopardises our environment, and if it jeopardises our food and agricultural production".

The process Lakes Oil wants to use is dangerous because a shallow aquifer near the well could easily become contaminated by fugitive methane emissions. There are also fears that the casing of the well may fail and contaminate the water, which is extremely likely after several years.

Lock the Gate's Victorian co-ordinator, Ursula Alquier, laid down an election-year ultimatum to the government and their junior coalition partners: "Without assurance from [Victorian National Party leader] Mr Ryan and the Premier to protect rural communities like Seaspray as promised in November, we will be left with no other option but to commence peaceful direct action and blockade Lakes Oil if they attempt to drill here again."

Quit Coal and CounterAct, campaigns running out of Friends of the Earth, have been working to train and support the local community in developing skills that they will require to successfully deploy peaceful direct action tactics and have also promised to actively support the community should the need for such non-violent direct action arise.

The community's pledge is even more courageous in light of the current push by the Napthine government to make changes to the Summary Offences and Sentencing Act. The changes to the laws will mean that police will have increased powers to issue move-on notices to demonstrations, pickets, and blockades, and to issue on-the-spot fines of approximately $700. Furthermore, the new police powers will mean that individuals may be barred from areas like the Melbourne CBD or Seaspray for up to 12 months, and face prison sentences of up to two years if they do not comply.

Residents of Seaspray, along with Quit Coal and Friends of the Earth activists were amongst the 3000 strong, union-led group that rallied in Melbourne city on Tuesday February 18. They called for an end to Napthine's 'Silencing Act' and demanded that the government uphold the right to demonstrate.

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