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Community vs. gas in a post-coronavirus Victoria

By the No New Gas Working Group

Extractive industry represents a major threat to the world's ability to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the fragility of global systems and triggered an immense associated economic fallout, highlighting a need and opportunity for a radical recovery plan in line with climate justice.

In spite, or perhaps because of this, the federal Australian government appears content to remain in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry. It has propounded a 'gas-led' coronavirus recovery that places immense pressure on state governments to 'remove red tape' and open land and waters for gas exploration.

Despite its attempts to market itself as 'natural gas' and a 'transition fuel' through the climate crisis, methane is the second-most significant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. Due to poor monitoring of fugitive emissions in Australia (which have risen by almost 46% since 2005), it is likely that gas may be no better for the atmosphere than coal.

The use of gas is moreover uneconomic in the face of falling renewable prices and a broken gas market that sees domestic consumers pay up to 51% more than consumers in export markets. Yet the miseducation surrounding so-called 'natural' gas in the popular imagination has been compounded by federal government lobbying. It has seen the issue of gas emerge as a strategic frontier in the fight for climate justice.

The response: The No New Gas Working Group

In 2018, the Victorian Government released five new oil and gas exploration blocks off the Otway coast, stretching west to the South Australian border. The coastline from Port Campbell to the SA border is home to a major tourist industry. Income comes from whale watching, surfing, and all manner of accommodation, hospitality and service industries which support tourism. These communities are already being hit hard by COVID-19 travel restrictions. Imagine the devastating impacts of a major oil spill on this shoreline.

It is in this context that the No New Gas Working Group was established at Friends of the Earth Melbourne. The group aims to pressure the Victorian government to heed the community's opposition to gas, rather than the vested interests of the Federal Coalition and big industry.

Our inaugural action was staged on World Oceans Day on June 8: a #StayInPaddleOut virtual paddle out in support of the endangered southern right whales and the south-west Victorian local tourism operators that rely on their migration for revenue in an uncertain economic climate.

On June 8, individuals and communities across the state came together to call on Premier Daniel Andrews and Resources Minister Jaclyn Symes to cancel tenders for offshore gas exploration along the south-west coast. Some took photographs from their homes – in backyards and lounge-rooms with makeshift surfboards and signs. Others participated in socially distant community actions on the shores of Victoria's coastline: such as Surfers for Climate and the Otway Climate Emergency Action Network (OCEAN), a new community group propounding climate action and opposing industrialisation in the Basin.

The event was an impressive show of community opposition to gas exploration in the state, demonstrating that there is no social license for fossil fuels in an uncertain future. Together, we can show the state government that gas drilling is bad for tourism, bad for wildlife, and bad for the climate.

If you would like more information about the No New Gas Working Group or are interested in becoming involved, contact convenor Nikkola Mikocki-Bleeker at [email protected]

Published in Chain Reaction #139, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, May 2021.

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