Written by Griffith Review

Powering Asia: The Battle Between Energy and Food

New Asia Now. Powering Asia

I MEET TONY Pickard on the side of the highway at the X Line Road turn-off. He’s a grazier at the edge of the Pilliga Forest, in north-west New South Wales.

‘You’re lucky I’m still here,’ he says, his brow furrowed.

The local radio station is crackling out from his battered tray-top ute. I’m fifteen minutes late because of roadwork on the Newell. Tony orders me to leave my car in a discreet location between the trees and jump in with him.

We rattle down the X Line, an old logging track in the forest, kicking up a plume of fine dust behind us. Where the road dips you can see orange sand creeks trailing off into the scrub. Typical of bush utes, my door doesn’t have any upholstery and my knee bounces into bare welded frames and metal panelling. I try to read a white notice on the roadside with a whole bunch of black and red text saying something about restricted access and disclaimers and dates, but we pass too quickly.

It’s easy to lose your bearings in the Pilliga with its endless low canopy of eucalypts and pine. I’m trying to visualise the map of criss-crossing roads I had in my car but I have no idea where we are now. At a narrow driveway Tony pulls up then turns in. It runs parallel to a silty fill line covering an underground gas pipeline, with postcard-sized caution markers flapping in the breeze at regular intervals. Further in, behind hurricane fencing, is a coal seam gas water-treatment plant, lined tanks and an old well pad. Bibblewindi-1. This is what Tony brought me to see.

AT 3 PM, on 5 January 2015, the LNG tanker Methane Rita Andrea pushed off the new wharf at Gladstone Harbour, bound for Singapore. A small gathering of locals dressed in shorts and sunglasses watched from the shore, marking the occasion with a few murmurs and claps, and clicks with their bulky cameras. This was the first consignment of liquefied natural gas processed at Curtis Island’s $60 billion super facility, drawn from gas fields connected by thousands of kilometres of pipelines stretching across eastern Australia. Previously, this side of the continent could only supply the domestic market, whereas LNG tankers will soon depart Gladstone every day of the year, destined for Japan, China, India and Singapore. Then Queensland Treasurer Tim Nicholls said his state’s energy will ‘power the world’.

However, the rush to new fossil fuel projects is giving rise to a clash between mining and another of humanity’s most fundamental industries – agriculture. Arable land is scarce. All the earth’s land that is good for farming is already under crop. In a planet facing constraints, with populations demanding more energy and food than ever before, will we be faced with a bleak future – a choice between mining and dining, between turning on the lights and eating our breakfast?

Asia’s middle class is roughly twice the size of the whole of the population of the United States. In the next five years it will triple, adding six more United States to its ranks. Humans – and the planet – have seen nothing like it. While a growing middle class means improved living standards, greater social cohesion, more education and wider political participation, it also means more consumption, and that has direct consequences for the environment. Some earth scientists call the second half of the twentieth century – the period during which the West’s postwar consumer economy boomed – ‘The Great Acceleration’, because graphs tracking use of resources and numbers of cars, appliances, air conditioners and fast-food chains suddenly shot upward. Similar trends are happening in Asia today, only at a far greater pace. An astonishing statistic in historian Vaclav Smil’s book, Making the Modern World (Wiley, 2013), revealed China used more cement in three years than the United States did during the entire twentieth century. Fifty years ago, Australia’s leaders talked about feeding China. Now China is the world’s largest food producer. India is in second place.

As millions more begin consuming energy and food like North Americans and Europeans and other rich populations, what will happen to the places that provide the materials to make it possible? How will communities respond to the influx of capital and new scales of extraction? There is a battle raging, from the Liverpool Plains in north-west New South Wales to the farmlands and villages of India and Indonesia, over rights to and control over scarce ecological resources. Mining companies are determined to profit by powering Asia’s growing middle classes, even if it means drilling into, digging up and sucking out water from agricultural land. Unlikely alliances of farmers, indigenous people and environmentalists want to stop them.

WE FOLLOW THE track along the gas line. Out of Tony’s window I can see an industrial enclosed tank with steel pipes running up its side, and surrounding this are large turkey-nest dams holding ‘produced water’ – the industry term for the groundwater and other substances that are the by-products of the coal seam gas extraction process. There are embankments and sheds and earthmoving equipment, demountable offices and orderly lines of white company vehicles, roadside ditches lined with hundreds of metres of plastic – all ringed with high chain-link fences bearing a warning in red: Keep Out.

At first Tony remains in the ute and speaks in general terms, occasionally running his hand through his white hair as he recalls the locations of the wells and lays down the figures, jumping across dates, institutions and the intricacies of geology and toxicology analysis. He hasn’t smiled once.

It’s been almost ten years since Tony’s bore failed. He’d returned from tending to the sheep and tinkering in his shed and noticed ‘bugger all water’ in the tank. It was curious. His equipment was in good order but there was barely a trickle coming in. He left it running in the hope it would fill. That night while he and his wife were showering they noticed the water reeked of hydrogen sulphide, or rotten eggs.

In the morning Tony contacted the local water office in town at Narrabri and staff told him it sounded like a ‘gravel pack slippage’. He hadn’t heard of such a thing before. Something had caused the ground at his bore to move. There were no reports of minor earthquakes or anything. It had him stumped. He asked around and some of his neighbours had started having trouble with their bores, too: the smell, the low flows, and one that had completely snapped at the bottom. It was a mystery, until a few days later when the local newspaper ran a story about Eastern Star Gas. The small exploration company had just celebrated a successful hydraulic fracture stimulation – or fracking – of a coal seam in the Pilliga Forest. The company invited investors and others from Sydney for the event. Tony looked at the date. It was the day before his bore had packed it in.

At that time Tony knew little about coal seam gas. It was enigmatic, with trucks and drilling rigs intermittently operating in the shadows of the forest, and locals knew little except that it might bring jobs and money to a farming community that had been hit hard by the last drought. Tony wasn’t against CSG or mining. Over the next few years, however, he saw spills and shoddy construction, he saw dead kangaroos and frogs, he saw trucks tearing up roads where they shouldn’t be, he saw public access restricted in the state forest.

Things started to look up again when Australian petroleum giant Santos took over the Narrabri gas project. This was an experienced company with more accountability and a duty to act responsibly. It came bearing gifts such as a flash new public swimming pool and floodlights for the footy oval. But Santos turned out to be just as reticent with information as the previous owners, and its slick PR made embarrassing misrepresentations that lost the company trust with many in town. No one suspected these cryptic activities in the bush would expand over the next ten years to become a 98,000-hectare project, encroaching over good farmland, with more than eight hundred wells planned.

In 2012, Tony’s new bore became contaminated and now he is in a protracted court battle with Santos. Each week he monitors the forest for environmental breaches and documents mining activities with his camcorder. He’s amassed thousands of hours of footage on hundreds of SD cards. Tony has brought me to Bibblewindi-1 today to show me an example of one of the spill sites scattered throughout the forest.

We get out of the ute, and this man who had shown little emotion is now on edge. This place has him so worked up he’s forgotten I’m there, and enters his own world of troubles and shocks and disappointments.

‘Oh, dear,’ he mutters. ‘Oh dear.’

Tony is bending down inspecting salt crusted on the soil and rocks. It’s even rising up into the mulch that the gas company had used in an attempt to rehabilitate the site. It’s obvious where the water produced from the well spilled and rushed into the forest. It looks as though a meteor crashed through here, flattening the trees and burning everything that remained, leaving a desolate hole the size of a couple of soccer fields in a landscape known for its dense woodlands.

‘If it’s got that much killing power in ten thousand litres, then… God help us,’ says Tony.

Tony is wearing two green jumpers, one over the top of the other. I can tell the colour of the one underneath because the outer one is peppered with fraying holes, some of them darned in neat round lumps. They’re the type of clothes that come from a resourceful, fix-it-yourself kind of home.

He gets out his old blue JVC camcorder.

‘We’re at the Bibblewindi spill site, and there’s lots of salt here, on the eastern side of the gas line,’ says Tony. He’s providing commentary for his video recording, documenting the current state of the site.

As I take photos of leaves and tree trunks that look like they are covered in a permanent frost, I can hear Tony continuing his narration.

‘Not salt but salts I should say. It’s not as good as it was, it’s getting worse, over here, that rotten stuff, and here we have salt on the stems.’

Next time I look over he’s on all fours using a knife to scrape soil samples into a jar. His do-it-yourself resourcefulness has shaped his approach to his search for answers. Like many around here, he’s not satisfied with terse and vague explanations from Santos and a State Government mired in corruption scandals. Tony tells me that analysing each soil sample costs anywhere from $140 to $3,000. Some have returned high levels of acids in some places, salts in others, and even some uranium mobilised by the spill.

Behind us, a shiny white twin-cab ute creeps up. It’s a company vehicle. The blue logo is on the door. I hold my camera to my side in a submissive attempt to hide it.

‘Don’t worry about that,’ says Tony. ‘They’re taking photos of you.’

The vehicle keeps rolling by, tyres crunching the gravel, slower than walking pace.

THE COMMUNITY IS divided over gas and mining. There are bright yellow ‘No Gas’ and ‘Lock the Gate’ signs nailed to the trees on the 260-kilometre trip from Dubbo to Narrabri, and smaller ones are taped or blu-tacked to the shop windows in town. Locals fear the salts and chemicals from produced water will work their way through the ground and into the creeks, which will carry them to the Namoi and other major rivers used for agriculture.

Perhaps most of all, they fear the drilling and accidents and corroding wells will disrupt the geology and ecology of the Great Artesian Basin. This is ancient and precious water in dry country. At the end of the Triassic period, uplift across the vast margins of inland Australia gave the angle and direction that water needed to carry sediments into the Carpentaria, Eromanga and Surat Basins – together these form what we know as the Great Artesian Basin. Thousands of ancient streams deposited alternating layers of porous sandstones and impervious clays. During the Cretaceous period, the sea overwhelmed the low-lying plains of inland Australia and dumped marine sediments over them. Volcanoes lit up eastern Australia and one hundred thousand cubic kilometres of volcanic rubble washed westwards into the inland sea, just before the sea itself retreated. These dynamic processes created one of the world’s largest aquifers, underlying nearly a quarter of the continent of Australia.

What took millions of years to create could be damaged for a forty-year fossil fuel project. Locals feel that the Nationals have sold them out to big mining for a short-term gain. One former National voter and community leader is running as an independent in this year’s state elections. Teachers, doctors, farmers and grandparents participate in street marches or run stalls on Sundays, they share information and alerts on Facebook, they lock themselves to mining machinery, they get arrested by police and form friendships in the back of paddy wagons.

This is more than just an Australian phenomenon. Opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver oil from the Canadian tar sands down through the United States to the Gulf of Mexico, has consolidated into the ‘Blockadia’ movement. Like Australia’s rural-based protests, it breaks all the stereotypes of environmental demonstration: it began in Utah, then spread to Texas and Oklahoma – all deeply conservative inland states – and sees farmers and ranchers teaming up with urban environmentalists and North American indigenous groups to resist the construction of the pipeline.

These struggles have become a global movement, a battle raging across continents against new fossil fuel development. As reserves of conventional fossil fuels diminish, exploration companies have started seeking alternative sources of hydrocarbons with methods that are more intense, elaborate and expensive. Some academics have labelled it the era of ‘extreme energy’, a term popularised by Naomi Klein in her latest book, This Changes Everything (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Coal seam gas, oil sands, deep water drilling and mega open-cut coal projects disrupt agriculture, fisheries and homes, and people are not willing to accept the loss of their livelihoods, communities and traditions.

Every August, the people of Bangladesh commemorate ‘Phulbari Day’, the anniversary of an event in which people died protesting against a proposed open-pit coalmine. The mining rights were originally held by Australian giant BHP, but it sold them to a new company called Asia Energy because the depth of the deposit would have required too large a pit. The proposed project would destroy thousands of hectares of prime agricultural land and evict tens of thousands of villagers. Thirty thousand villagers, activists and indigenous groups marched on the local offices of Asia Energy in August 2006. Police and a paramilitary group are alleged to have fired on the crowd. Six people were confirmed killed and hundreds injured. The blockades and strikes continued and over the course of the week the protest swelled to eighty thousand people. In a historic agreement, the Bangladesh government cancelled the mining license for the open-pit coalmine, and Bangladeshis have celebrated the Phulbari Agreement on 26 August each year since.

Wikileaks cables, reported in the Guardian in 2009, revealed United States diplomats have been pressuring the Bangladesh government to reinstate the mine. There are significant American investments in the London-based parent company of Asia Energy. Villagers and farmers have formed an alliance with local rights and environmental groups, as well as activists in London who lead protests at the company headquarters.

Alliances and resistance to new fossil fuel projects and ‘extreme energy’ are springing up across Asia. Late last year, fisherman and villagers from Batang, Java, joined environmental activists on the waters of the Ujung Negoro-Roban River, and arranged forty-eight fishing boats to spell out a message that translates to ‘No Coal Power Plant’. They are worried about pollution running off into the river and disruption to the water table in a region that relies heavily on irrigation for rice crops. Nearby, farmers unfurled massive yellow banners across rice fields to spell out a slogan in English, ‘Food, not coal!’ The aerial photographs were orchestrated to suit social media sharing. Batang locals have partnered with Greenpeace and the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation in continuing protests, and the Jakarta Globe reports that the Indonesian–Japanese consortium behind the coal power plant have twice failed to meet investment funding deadlines because of the popular opposition.

TONY’S CAMCORDER BEEPS and he begins documenting more dead and dying casuarinas, eucalypts and cypress pines.

‘The company says this is a minor incident,’ says Tony. ‘The problem is the accumulative impact.’

By now Tony has forgiven me my lateness, has decided I’m not a spy (a common occurrence on this trip) and smiles, laughing at his own jokes about the Pilliga yowie. He opens up.

‘To be honest, I’m cutting into my super to do this.’

His shoulders slump. His wife is a staunch supporter but it’s hard on their relationship. Later, some of his friends in the movement tell me they’re worried for him. Some say he’s a hero but others know this is all taking its toll. It’s not just that his bore has turned red or the taps in his house are seizing up. It’s not just the impending court case against a mining giant and all its financial costs. It’s the feeling that no one is listening. It’s the suspicion that the locals are being kept in the dark. It’s the division in the community. It’s the pejorative comments about his grazing by high profile politicians who support gas development. That’s why the community alliances are so important; the struggle is too big for one individual.

If there’s one thing that angers people more than anything else in the battle between energy and agriculture, it’s corruption. People here use the word to mean the myriad failures of transparency, the cryptic approvals process, inadequate environmental assessments and failures of communication, as well as the kinds of outright corruption revealed in the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption investigations.

Three twin-cab utes with orange lights on their roof turn up at the Bibblewindi site gate. Private security. It’s time to for us move on to the next spill site.

TO PEOPLE CONCERNED about what will happen to the land, rivers and groundwater on which they’ve built their lives, it’s not a good look when big mining companies begin bragging about how fast they can receive approvals in Australia. The Adani Group, an Indian multinational resources conglomerate, boasted on its website that they were granted approval in ‘record time’. Adani is set to develop Australia’s largest coalmine – one of the biggest in the world – covering ten thousand hectares in the north of Queensland’s Galilee Basin. In March 2014, Greenpeace released a report tallying a long history of corruption allegations against Adani, including bribery, falsifying information and violation of approval terms, with one case claimed to have cost the Indian government $3 billion in missing royalty payments. In October 2012, the Indian Ministry of Commerce found that Adani had ‘deliberately concealed and falsified material facts’.

The former premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman, offered Adani $450 million to help finance its rail project and waived potentially billions in royalties, but when Newman’s Liberal National Party were ousted in February’s state elections, Adani said it didn’t need the generous incentives anyway. People immediately asked why the government was handing out millions to a company that didn’t need it. Richard Denniss wrote in the Guardian that ‘the voters of Queensland had every right to be concerned about transparency and accountability in government decision making’. Queensland and New South Wales began to worry that their governments had lost control of the process.

In January this year, an ecologist named David Paull appeared to confirm their suspicions when he quit his contract with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage for ethical reasons. David released his resignation letter to the public, claiming departments had been ‘captured in the big coal and gas rush’ and that, in some instances, approvals were altered ‘to suit the goals of the mining company’. I asked David about his experiences as a consultant providing Environmental Impact Statements to the mining industry, and he told me, ‘If you don’t write what the companies want you to write, then you’re sacked. There’ll always be another consultant willing to take your place.’ A recent review by some of Australia’s leading ecologists found that ecological impact assessments are too simplistic, are reduced to suit economic frameworks for decision-making and are influenced by the companies commissioning the reports and by political agendas.

Why are governments putting mining ahead of social and environmental considerations? Why so much haste, if demand for energy looks set to increase for decades ahead? In David Paull’s opinion, they are ‘railroading through’ projects because they know the time’s almost up for fossil fuels. ‘The public interest is gone, there’s no doubt about that,’ he said, reflecting on his thirty years as an environmental assessment consultant. Governments are preoccupied with short-term gains and appeasing business interests, not the welfare of the community or its environmental concerns. ‘There is no public interest anymore.’

It’s a view shared by the Lock-the-Gaters and other members of the alliance against new fossil fuel developments, as well as some industry experts. What’s so frustrating about all this, in their view, is that the choice between mining and dining is a false dilemma: regional Australia is blessed with so much potential for renewable energy development that it seems a special kind of madness to risk degrading whole landscapes and depopulating rural Australia in an attempt to cash-in on fossil fuel before it goes bust. And it’s not even Australians who need all that extra energy – Asia does. Coal is ‘good for humanity’, we’re told, because supplying energy to Asia helps lift people out of poverty. So how could Australia’s sunshine and geothermal resources help? Industry analysts and researchers at the Australian National University have an answer.

Karen Hussey and Jamie Pittock, at the ANU’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, are experts in global environmental governance, and specialise in the nexus between water, energy and climate. They have a bold vision: an Asia–Australia super-grid, connected by high voltage direct current transmission lines across the ocean to South-East Asia, powered by a vast network of renewable energy projects. There’d be no more need for cumbersome bulk transport of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. When I ask Karen about the future for fossil fuels, she answers, ‘In ten years time, maybe even five, we won’t be having this conversation.’ The industry is changing so rapidly anything is possible. Fossil fuels could be over.

Two years ago, few would have believed that in 2015 the United States would be energy sovereign. The United States’ decades-old plan to exploit its gas reserves helped achieve this, but renewables such as solar are expanding at an exponential rate and competing on price. New intense fossil fuel projects, such as coal seam gas extraction in Australia’s east, were planned with high oil prices in mind. Now that the value of oil has crashed, those projects are starting to look too expensive to persist with. The super-grid would improve the management of energy throughout the region, allowing for advanced load balancing across different time zones, demand periods and types of renewable generation. Imagine Australia exporting solar-generated energy to China, and Australia importing geothermal energy from Indonesia during peak demand times. The gas export hub at Gladstone cost $60 billion to construct, and will supply a small fraction of Asia’s total energy consumption, and only for a limited number of years. The super-grid transmission lines would cost twice as much, but they are long-term infrastructure and could supply a whopping one-third of South-East Asia’s total energy requirements in 2050.

A super-grid of this scale is how Europe manages its energy now, so there is a model to build on. There are even plans to expand Europe’s super-grid to include northern Africa. Karen and Jamie point out, however, that Europe has developed strong co-ordinating institutions. Australia and Asia don’t have that history of comprehensive geopolitical co-operation. The main obstacles are not technical, but political. The attractiveness of renewables will overcome this though. ‘The trick is,’ warns Karen, ‘that we don’t stuff the environment before we get there.’ This is a fear that gives the Lock the Gate protests such urgency, and motivates the alliance groups fighting fossil fuels around the globe.

THEY’VE KNOWN EACH other as blackfellas, white cunts, rednecks, ferals, greenies, Abos, gubbas, cockies, townies, cattle-friggers, tree-huggers and sheep-shaggers, and now they are working together to save their place – their homes – from disruption and risks that they feel are unacceptable. There is no doubt the alliance is extraordinary. I grew up listening to landholders’ derogatory comments towards Aboriginal people (which intensified during the Mabo and Wik native title debates), I heard townsfolk’s fears about the cotton industry’s toxic chemicals, and I saw a tough grazier breakdown in tears on his front doorstep, blaming irrigators for leaving him with no water. To see these old foes putting aside their differences to defeat a common enemy in mining, to see them talking, sharing stories and forming new friendships, is exciting and heartwarming and not something I thought I would ever see.

There is something troubling, though, about the alliance – an issue left unspoken that may tear it apart, and how they address this matter will determine whether the alliance benefits all of us for generations, or whether it collapses in a heap. Imagine one of those infographics that spreads on Facebook and Twitter, the kind of political postcards activists share, asking in dot points, ‘Which industry creates up to 30 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions; uses 70 per cent of Australia’s freshwater; is responsible for millions of hectares of deforestation each year; sends toxic chemicals down our rivers and into the Great Barrier Reef; overloads marine environments with nutrients that create vast “dead zones”; displaces thousands of small landholders; exploits foreign and low-skilled workers around the world?’ It’s not mining. No industry has ever caused as much ecological devastation, and perhaps social injustice, as agriculture.

Land suitable for farming is precious because there isn’t much of it, and what little there is we already use. In the last forty years, the world lost two billion hectares of soil, an area of arable land larger than the United States and Mexico combined, and the overwhelming cause was agriculture. China, India and the United States might be the world’s largest food producers but they depend on groundwater for irrigation, which they are extracting faster than rain can replenish it. In India’s Punjab, the vast plains region that supports much of its agriculture, water is running out. In 2012, Ken Weiss reported in the LA Times that farmers are in a race to dig their wells deeper than their neighbours, and as a consequence ‘the water table is dropping at a rate of about three feet per year’. At the same time, over 600 million people in India were left without power in a massive blackout. The cause, explained Michael Webber in Scientific American, was that so many farmers switched on their electric pumps to counter dry conditions, creating a spike in demand, combined with low capacity in the hydro systems because of the water drawdown, triggering the failure of the energy grid. Ecologist Jonathon Foley describes agriculture as ‘the other inconvenient truth’. Agriculture is the basis for the current biodiversity crisis, which scientists argue has plunged the earth into a mass extinction event. Australia leads the world in the mammalian extinction rate due to agriculture. Forget mining versus dining – unless we can better support changes in agriculture, the biggest threat to food is what farming is doing to itself.

Agriculture’s effect on the environment is a taboo subject in the alliance against fossil fuels. Some of the local activists in Narrabri and the Pilliga told me organisers have instructed them to keep silent on this matter. I asked some of the environmentalists how they feel about this, and they seemed to accept it as a worthwhile concession if it means the conversations and learning from all sides continues. No one wants to risk a return to the dark days of division and old resentments, of polarised debate and debilitating conflict. Another reason was the complexity of the relationship between agriculture, environment and food. Solutions for how we prevent ourselves from eating the planet to death are highly complicated, and probably the most vexing issue facing humanity today and in the future. The alternative to fossil fuels and the greenhouse gas emissions they produce, on the other hand, is relatively straightforward. Jamie Pittock from the ANU agreed, saying energy and climate change is a simple policy problem, ‘all you need is one big lever’, such as an emissions trading scheme.

It wasn’t that long ago that comments on the Land newspaper’s website were filled with all kinds of vitriol from climate change sceptics, and on all my trips back out west I’d rarely find anyone who didn’t dismiss climate change outright or say it was just a natural change. The Irrigators Council lobbied hard against carbon pricing schemes. At Narrabri, however, I met Kim Revell, an irrigator on the Namoi and member of the alliance against coal seam gas. She’s participated in marches and surveys, has baked for the stalls and has been fined by the police. At first, people in her circle were worried about what CSG development might mean for their water supply – it was about their income. But according to Kim, it’s grown to be much more. Farmers are starting to believe in climate change. ‘Living out here you can’t ignore it,’ says Kim. ‘You see the dramatic change in weather events.’ Technically minded irrigators want to see investment in large solar arrays in rural Australia as energy alternatives to fossil fuels, and if the government doesn’t do it they’ll build a community solar installation.

On my last day in the north-west, Deborah Briggs texts me an address and asks to meet. Deborah is a Gomeroi woman, whose father was a sleeper cutter in the Pilliga, and his father before him. As we talk, she shows me a large hand-painted banner, which features a frog, koala, mouse and cockatoo from the Pilliga. Her smile is broad as she tells me the elders made it and marched with it during protests against coal and gas mining in the region. Deborah tells me she practically grew up in the Pilliga Forest and, as a Gomeroi woman, she is obliged to protect the waters of the Great Artesian Basin.

Once she was at a protest camp and the police shut her in a paddy wagon at night and drove around for what seemed like an hour, far longer than what it would have taken to get back to the station. She was terrified – an Aboriginal woman, alone with the police and no idea where they were taking her. I asked why she takes such risks, and what she would want future generations to know about why she is part of the alliance. She answered, ‘That I proudly stood for my country to save my culture and my heritage and future generations. That I proudly did what Baiami created me for, to be a protector of country. That I gave it to the mines and the government and that I stood with the others making history.’ Deborah said some farmers have said they understand now what it is like to have your land taken. ‘Well, it’s a start,’ she reflects.

Considering the history of conflict in Australia – a history that includes massacre and murder, dispossession and heartbreak – these conversations are incredible. Direct confrontation would never have achieved this. To risk damaging these fledgling relationships now would be a disaster, not just for the campaign but for all of us. That is why the discussions stick to common ground.

I CALLED TONY Pickard recently to check up on him. He’d had a small victory when the Land and Environment Court ordered Santos to release environmental and technical reports about soil and water contamination.

‘I can’t say much, but of the one hundred and thirty documents I was allowed to see, they were…interesting,’ says Tony, and I imagine him grinning.

That’s all the good news he has for me, though. Earlier in the year, while taking visitors on a tour of a bleak rehabilitation site, he noticed a high point vent spilling water and gas. He said children who were with them were overcome and had to return to the car. The EPA are investigating. Tony documented it and put the footage on YouTube.

Another video, taken from inside his ute, shows a four-wheel drive heading towards him in the centre of the dusty road. Over the clatter of the ute you can hear Tony, in an uneasy voice, saying, ‘Here comes that vehicle now…playing chicken at high speed.’ He pauses, and seems to brace, until the vehicle roars past him. ‘All right, that’s fine’, he mutters to himself.

He tells me the driver who was playing chicken is a supporter of coal seam gas.

‘My wife wants to get out of here’, says Tony. ‘And Santos made us an offer.’

Tony says that after a community consultation meeting a Santos employee approached him, saying, ‘Name your price’. Tony estimated the market value and Santos agreed to it on the spot. When they met at Tony’s property the next day, however, the employee said, ‘I’m going to write a letter, and in that letter it will say that you approached us.’ Tony and his wife were immediately uncomfortable with that condition. Then the Santos employee continued, ‘And if you don’t say anything for two years, we’ll give you an extra $20,000.’

‘I mean, come on fellas!’ says Tony, exasperated. ‘We politely refused, and we haven’t heard anything since.’

He goes on to talk about the strain of the court case, the uncertainty over his future, and the attacks on him from pro-CSG neighbours and politicians.

‘What we’ve been through is just horrendous,’ says Tony, quieter now. ‘There are times recently I’ve thought about going out into the paddock and…never coming back.’

There’s silence over the phone. I tell him people in the alliance appreciate what he’s doing, they’re depending on him.

Tony’s story is just one example of how the rush to new fossil fuel projects and their poor governance are disrupting people’s lives. The choices we make now about how we source our energy needs, how we grow our food and how we treat each other will shape the fate of the next few generations, perhaps even the fate of our species and life on this planet. An Asia–Pacific renewable energy super-grid is a positive vision for the future of this region, and in some ways it appears inevitable. In 2003, an oil price of $20 per barrel was enough for fossil fuel projects to break even. In 2015 it’s $90, so even Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in renewables, recently proposing a $40 billion investment. China almost doubles its solar capacity each year. In just one year it installed three times more solar than Australia’s total solar capacity. In the next two years it is expected to have sixty-six gigawatts of solar, which is more than Australia’s entire installed electricity generation capacity. China might just shape Australia’s renewable future.

There are good reasons to be optimistic about the alliance, too. The Pilliga is a beaten-up, burnt-out forest where the creeks flow underground and the trees grow barely as wide as a child’s arm. Its grasses have been eaten and its soils pulverised, its timber ringbarked and wood-chipped. It is crisscrossed with firebreaks and narrow old logging roads. Wild boars tear out from its sandy watercourses and wind whips dust into your eyes here. And yet there is a bunch of people lining up to get arrested – to turn their lives upside down – for this ‘scrub’. The Pilliga is wrecked and it is beautiful; it’s been abused and it’s ecologically rich. It is worth saving, although I suspect it’s tough enough to look after itself. The alliance mirrors this motley forest in some ways: it’s difficult and lumpen, energetic and persistent, it suffers setbacks but each day it holds on it strengthens.

The worst-case scenario would be for Australia to get left behind, to miss the renewables boom and have the poor government management of mining and gas leave a legacy of toxic and damaged aquifers, of ruined soils and polluted rivers. To burden future generations with a desolate, depopulated and weakened rural sector, with the few remaining farmers forced to grow food in a broken landscape with little capacity to avoid the farming practices that threaten their own viability. This is what the landholders, Aboriginal people, townsfolk and environmentalists are fighting to avoid.

Read at Griffith Review

New Asia Now cover image: Nomads, Baatarzorig Batjargal, 1983.