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Local government, community dispute ‘facts’

MORATORIUM NEEDED: Robe District Council Mayor Peter Risely – pictured with council chief executive officer Roger Sweetman – says the overwhelming community support for a moratorium on unconventional gas mining in the South East is gratifying, the law rests with mining companies.

ROBE is hardly a place for political ferment and if far left and Greens-inspired ‘activism’ are rife in town, no one told the locals.

But this conservative, coastal fishing and tourism enclave has become a catalyst to change the way the debate surrounding unconventional gas exploration will proceed.

With a potential threat to underground water, the farming and fishing industries (on which people depend for their livelihoods), public anger, perceived disinformation and a ‘deaf’ state government have been enough to make the mouse roar and empower South East communities.

Honesty, conviction and the feeling something was just not right had convinced Robe’s Liberal Party branch and Robe District Council to make it known that unconventional gas mining in the region could not be accepted as a competing industry without proper analysis.

This has been followed by a massive groundswell of support from farmers, irrigators, residents, local government, the grape and wine industry and the medical profession (among others), leading to the formation of the Limestone Coast Protection Alliance, the Limestone Coast Grape and Wine Council’s USG sub-committee and the emergence of Lock the Gate in the SE.

But the state government appears oblivious to what is happening which, by all accounts, should be pretty obvious.

There appears to be almost negligible support for coal seam, shale or tight gas exploration in the Mid and Lower South East where possibly Australia’s most fragile aquifer system is already under immense pressure.

While the threat to water quality was the trigger for protest against companies such as Beach Energy, which has already sunk two exploratory wells near Penola, land degradation, air pollution and health issues are fast pitting the rural community against the mining companies that have the state government’s blessing.

The Liberal opposition, with little to say for itself on the issue before the March election – belatedly announcing that it would establish a parliamentary committee to examine unconventional gas mining if it won – appears to have been swept up by the tide of community sentiment and is trying to find a safe haven: does it run for cover or stand up and be counted?

In the blue-ribbon state electorates of Mount Gambier and MacKillop, and the federal seat of Barker, any mining company which believes it can stake claims on the promise of great riches while espousing safety claims that fail to satisfy community expectations is likely to be given short shrift.

With seven member councils voting at the South East Local Government Association’s June meeting to carry five resolutions relating to the issue, including one to “support a moratorium on unconventional gas extraction”, the stage has been set for either a reasonable dialogue with state government ministers and the mining companies – holding petroleum exploration licences over vast areas of SA – or an ugly confrontation.

Mayor of Robe Peter Riseley says community concern is growing by the day.

“Council received about 50 letters from farmers and others in the community raising concerns about possible adverse impacts of unconventional gas mining in the region,” he said.

“It was enough to ring alarm bells.”

Significantly, SELGA’s proposed moratorium – which calls on state government to “require tight gas, shale gas and geothermal developers to acquire a water allocation under the SE Water Allocation Plan for their activies” – has no timeframe, saying “the moratorium is not concluded until matters (detailed in the five motions put by Robe, City of Mount Gambier, District Council of Grant and Kingston District Council) are concluded.”

* Full report in Stock Journal, July 3, 2014 issue.

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