Communities lead the way in protecting their land, water and climate.
The state of Victoria in Australia is celebrating the first anniversary of their ban on unconventional gas mining. The ban stands as a powerful example of how communities can successfully mobilize against unsustainable industries, which too often devastate the environment, farmland, water supplies, tourism and health.
Fracking – the process of extracting unconventional gas – became controversial following associations with water contamination and negative health impacts in the United States and Australia, where the fracking industry is most advanced. Although touted as a ‘climate friendly’ alternative, unconventional gas is potentially more greenhouse gas intensive than coal.
Exploration licences for unconventional gas mining exist for around 30% of Australia and fracking fields already cover some of Australia’s prime farmland in Queensland.
Despite immense pressure from export hungry gas companies, this time last year Victoria banned unconventional gas extraction. In doing so the state joined New York State, four provinces in Canada, Ireland, France and Bulgaria in banning the practice. The ban was the result of years of community campaigning that developed into one of the largest social movements Victoria has ever seen.
“Fracking galvanized our towns and threw us all into political action like never before. Local towns became hives of activity spreading the word and campaigning to stop the industry gaining any traction in Victoria.”
Alison Marchant, farmer and mother of two, Moriac, Australia
Between 2010 and 2011 the then Labor government issued licences for the exploration of shale, tight and coal seam gas across a third of the state. The rolling hills of Gippsland and plains of Western Victoria are some of the state’s most fertile agricultural land, home to hundreds of thousands of people as well as tourism icons such as the Great Ocean Road.
Meanwhile community concern was growing around the impacts of fracking as stories from affected people flowed in from the United States and Queensland.
It was at this point that an unlikely alliance arose between the largely conservative farming communities and environmentally minded groups such as Friends of the Earth. Thousands demanded an outright ban of onshore gas fields. People who had previously stood on opposing sides of the political spectrum joined forces as the major parties chose to favour the interests of mining companies. The people united to protect water, land and future generations from the threats of unconventional gas.
Seventy-five communities in Victoria underwent an unprecedented grassroots democratic process. Following a town meeting, community members canvassed door to door about the gas industry, their right to refuse to negotiate with gas companies and inspiring people to join a community declaration to remain ‘Gasfield Free’. On average 96% of the community didn’t want unconventional gas mining and would do whatever it took to stop it.
In short the people sent a strong message to companies, politicians and the media that the gas industry was not welcome. But the community didn’t stop there. They continued to campaign, through stalls, letter drives, petitions, lobbying efforts, rallies and creative actions such as blockading parliament with farming trucks and a video of 2,000 sheep spelling out ‘BAN GAS’.
In other parts of Australia, communities held large blockades along with farmers, Aboriginal elders and people of all ages to obstruct gas mining machinery. The blockade at Bentley in New South Wales has made history and become legendary for Australian communities facing the threat of fracking. Communities in South Australia are confronting the industry with similar tactics, as drilling starts in one of Australia’s most famous wine regions.
It was this plethora of tactics implemented by a well connected statewide community network that led to a moratorium on fracking by the Conservative government. The moratorium was extended twice until Premier Daniel Andrews’ government finally announced a permanent ban on fracking, to the elation and relief of thousands of Victorians.
Years of hard work, determination and clever campaigning, secured not only a total ban on fracking and unconventional gas extraction, but a moratorium on all onshore gas drilling, while a task force investigates the extent of gas and the potential environmental and social impacts. Communities remain cautiously optimistic.
To those around the world facing the threat of fracking, Victoria should inspire hope that communities can take on the fossil fuel industry. The people of Victoria retained their sovereignty and forced the government to put health, well-being and democracy first. In doing so they instilled courage and perseverance in the social movement and ensured that collective action protected communities where the government failed.
Governments around the world should look to Victoria as an example of how to respect people’s demands for health and wellbeing to come before the interests of gas companies. Daniel Andrew’s government respected the people, choosing to adopt an outright ban on unconventional gas.
Yet again we need to send a strong signal to the fossil fuel industry: you cannot take advantage of vulnerable communities in pursuit of profit. Gas is a pollutant, not a transition fuel. We must say no to fracking for the sake of our water, land and future generations.
Chloe Aldenhoven is Coal and Gas Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Australia
Top image: Moriac, Victoria declare their community ‘gasfield free’ © Mik Aidt