'Friends not talking': Controversial decision dividing Aussie town

Farmers in a northern NSW town say they fear a massive gas project could rip apart their community, while many in town believe it could be the region’s last hope for survival.

Friendships have been broken, and nerves frayed during a decade of wrangling over the controversial gas mine in the Pilliga, 400km north-west of Newcastle.

With the $3.6 billion plan to install 850 gas wells over 20 years approved by the NSW Independent Planning Commission (IPC) on Wednesday, campaigning on both sides is set to intensify as the federal government considers whether to sign off on it.

While the project’s architect, mining giant Santos, did not respond to requests from Yahoo News Australia for comment about community concern, many locals living around Narrabri were keen to share their thoughts.

Left - Cattle farmer David Chadwick. Right - The A gate covered in 'No Entry' signs in front of part of the Pilliga gas project.
Cattle farmer David Chadwick says governments must prioritise food production over mining projects. Source: Supplied / AAP

Those supporting the project believe the plan will create new jobs, while those working to stop it are concerned its waste could poison the water supply and contribute to global warming.

The region’s major town, Narrabri, has been hit particularly hard by 10 years of drought and a dwindling availability of jobs in the region. The farming sector in particular has been impacted, and this has caused a flow-on effect with less money to be spent in businesses around town.

The town is united in its fight for survival, but divided by the road ahead.

Friends no longer speaking to one another

Cattle farmer, Stuart Murray, bought a 1,700 acre property situated less than a kilometre from the Santos exploration area 25-years-ago.

He bought the farm to “keep (himself) off the streets during retirement” and live a quiet rural life, but now finds himself busily campaigning to stop the gas project.

While Mr Murray isn’t reliant on feeding his cattle through underground water, he worries the project will contribute to climate change, impacting the viability of his land for generations to come.

As summers become hotter and dryer, that will mean less food for cattle, and he fears this could hasten the demise of farming in the area.

Mr Murray wants the town embrace renewable energy projects like solar, which he believes will provide a sustainable future.

Left - Cattle in a field. Right - Cattle farmer Stuart Murray wearing a blue jumper and collared shirt.
Cattle farmer Stuart Murray says there are friends who support the gas project that he no longer sees. Source: Supplied

While he has seen businesses boycotted over their stance on the project, Mr Murray has no intention of staying silent on the issue. He’s an independent farmer who can speak his mind.

“This has got people that used to be friends not talking with one another,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

“I’ve got a really good friend, he used to come around for coffee on a regular basis, and he put in a submission in favour (of the gas project).

“He's well aware of climate change and the problems it's causing, but he’s told me to mind my own business and not do anything about it, because nothing can be done about it.

“Since then, I haven't rung him up to come around for coffee, but he has not spoken to me either.”

‘No alternative’ for regional areas

Of 23,000 submissions lodged in response to Santos’s environment statement, 98 per cent voiced opposition.

In approving the project, the IPC acknowledged the public response, but indicated it believed Santos could effectively manage potential groundwater impacts and set a requirement for the company to offset emissions.

The venture is expected to run for 20 years and some believe that with farming not offering the same degree of long-term employment it once did, gas will mean jobs.

Local father, Justin Smith, thinks the project is needed to ensure his kids can stay in the town when they grow up, and not have to move to a larger city like the Gold Coast or Newcastle.

Mr Smith joined the Narrabri Industrial Network to help the town recover from its financial downturn.

Right - Jason Smith wearing a high-vis jacket in front off an open cupboard. He his his thumb up. Right - a drought affected paddock in Narrabri.
After years of drought, father of two, Jason Smith says projects like gas drilling can save Narrabri. Source: Supplied / AAP

Pubs have shut their doors, the bowling club is facing difficulties, and Target will likely leave town.

He already knows ten families that have left the area and says it was the drought that finally “cut the cord” for many of them.

“Without some sort of diversification, there is no town. There's no jobs,” Mr Smith told Yahoo News Australia.

“My kids are one and two years old and this is happening now. In 18 years time we’ll have to be situated somewhere else.

“I might survive, because I've got contacts… but there's no future for them.”

Project will help town survive until renewables ‘ready’

Like the farming sector, Mr Smith accepts that the gas project will shed jobs in years to come, but he believes it will hold the region together for the near future, and his “kid’s kids” will have a future in Narrabri.

In 20 years, he is confident there will be new ventures “ready” like renewables which will provide new careers for the next generation.

“We’ve ridden on the sheep’s back... we've ridden on cotton's back, and now we need a new industry,” Mr Smith said.

“I've had people say to me in 20 years time, this industry is going to be robotic. And that's fine.

“Because at least we're buying 20 years… and the renewables will be ready to go (by then), but we need to buy that 20 years, we can't expect to this town will survive otherwise.”

“For these regional areas, the alternative... there is no alternative.”

Cattle farmer worries about feeding grandchildren

Feedlot operator David Chadwick is also thinking about the next generation, but he believes the mine will be a burden on them, rather than an asset.

The cattle farmer is one of the many in the area reliant on the Great Artisan Basin for clean water supply to keep their business running.

He fears that toxins from the gas drilling could leak back into the underground water table, or flow down into the Murray River, despite the IPC placing 134 conditions on the project which Santos has agreed to.

“Once this is compromised, it's gone forever,” Mr Chadwick said.

“In the same way that once you put the milk in the tea, you can't get it out.”

Shot from above, a large crowd holding yellow signs opposing coal seam gas.
There has been vocal opposition to the Santos project. Source: Supplied

Mr Chadwick believes governments need to take a “generational view” like farmers are conditioned to do because of their closeness to the land.

Key to this, he says, is ensuring that farmland remains viable to grow crops.

“What are we putting in our grandchildren's lunchboxes in 60 or 70 years time?” he asked.

“What are they going to say when I look back on our generation and analyse the fact that we had all the information… and we still went ahead and did this to them?

“What right do this generation have to give that liability to future generations?

“Apart from all the things that we see as essential, the human species just needs two things, it has to have food and it has to have plain water.

“How can we possibly place food production against gas?”

Whether it is good or bad for the Pilliga region, it is not locals who will have the final say on whether the plan goes ahead.

The town’s path forward will be determined by the Federal Government who now need to assess the Santos project’s environmental impact before giving it the go ahead.

With Prime Minister Scott Morison arguing that the gas industry is key to helping the whole of Australia out of the economic woes caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it is widely believed that it will get the rubber stamp.

The farmers opposing the project say they will fight on regardless.

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