Saturday, September 1, 2012
Lock the Gate in the South
It was a pleasure to host Drew Hutton when he took his New Zealand "Lock the Gate" tour to Southland. Drew is an Australian environmental legend, a founding member of the Australian Green Party and founder of the Queensland Greens. He is a successful man in so many areas: a respected education lecturer, a writer (on green philosophy, ethics and history), an environmental, social justice and antiwar campaigner and an athlete (now in his mid sixties he is a state champion for middle distance running in his age group). Drew has led a number of successful environmental campaigns and is never one to spend time resting on his laurels before starting the next. Lock the Gate is his latest campaign and possibly his most successful.
Greens were generally enemy No1 for Australian Farmers and yet Drew, as an iconic Green, has become the farmers No1 friend. This interesting turn around occurred because of the rapid expansion of coal seam gas extraction, or fracking. The best source of coal seam gas just happens to be beneath the best Australian farmland and under existing legislation farmers must negotiate access for energy companies to drill, but not refuse. Farmers have found their farm management severely compromised as roads, pipelines and rigs begin to snake and sprout around their farms, hugely inconveniencing their daily work and management. Poorly managed fracking disrupts aquifers and can contaminate the water, thereby ruining future farming. Fracked farms also lose their value and many farmers have found their retirement postponed and their life's investment lost.
Initially the farmers battled alone and struggled against legal brick walls and the might of the fossil fuel industry. Drew Hutton saw that the only way the farmers could succeed would be through an alliance of the rural farming communities and the urban environmentalists and the Lock the Gate Alliance was born.
Drew brought his story to New Zealand as a "cautionary tale", a warning to us that the Australian mining success had a dark underbelly and that we needed to enter into any relationship with the coal seam industry with our eyes open. Drew is a highly credible story teller, he is knowledgeable, articulate and his athletic, craggy appearance means he is often mistaken as a farmer (although he does own a few hectares). Those who attended his Gore presentation listened, and immediately realised, that Nick Smith and his government were presenting a very selective view of the fracking industry. Far from being an economic windfall that would be shared with us all, the farmers, their local towns and communities and the environment bore the brunt of the negative effects while the profits remained within the industry. Even at a national level the royalties claimed by the Australian government from the industry is 10% of the profits, while the New Zealand government only asks for 5%.
There is hope, however, because the debate we are having in New Zealand is at a point before the industry has really established itself. Drew explained to me that New Zealand is many years behind Australia in regards to the fracking industry and the debate we are currently having never happened in Australia until it was almost too late. We have the opportunity to avoid the pitfalls discovered by our Tasman neighbour. Interestingly, Drew was not against all fracking, in the right environment and with proper management and monitoring he thought it could be acceptable, but not on land or beside communities that are precious to us, the risk is too great.