Why the tension in north-western NSW has turned toxic

Why the tension in north-western NSW has turned toxic

This week, 51-year-old Glendon Turner, an environment and heritage officer, was shot dead in Moree. It was a tragic act of violence that shook the local community. His alleged killer, Ian Turnbull, had been given a notice for clearing vegetation on his land illegally.

The event is the latest to mark the lines being drawn between environmentalists and their opposition.

Glendon Turner was shot dead on a property near Moree.

Glendon Turner was shot dead on a property near Moree.

Photo: Supplied

Moree mayor Katrina Humphries said "[Violence has] always been going to happen. I thought it would happen over coal or gas or water. The frustration is so great , but obviously to have an outcome like this is so horrible, it shouldn't get to this."

The week before, Jonathan Moylan, from Newcastle, was handed a two-year suspended sentence in the NSW Supreme Court for sending out a fake ANZ media release and disseminating false information about a Whitehaven Coal project at Maules Creek.

The two events crystallise oppositional attitudes to environmental and mining interests. On the one hand, Moylan's act has stressed the importance of civil disobedience, while alleged killer Turnbull's has underlined a feeling of disenfranchisement with government bureaucracy and arbitrary rules instigated by environmentalists.


We shouldn't be surprised. After facing declining global coal prices, Australian mines have been subjected to adverse conditions. The mining boom is slowly sputtering to an end. Many mining companies looking to diversify, maintain a profit and avoid bankruptcy, have all been effectively strip-searched by teams of management consultants looking to streamline operations and identify growth areas, amputating where necessary.

The result, in broad strokes, has been the expansion in contentious geographical locations, such as Whitehaven's plans for an open cut mine at Maules Creek, where a large, diverse and vocal protest group has set up camp. It's a somewhat unlikely alliance of environmentalists, farmers and professionals.

The protesters claim the open cut mine will destroy 1665 hectares of forest, which contains 34 threatened species, as well as putting an end to farming in the region.

It was Moylan's now infamous stunt of impersonating an ANZ staff member that got the protest into mainstream discourse. He said he didn't realise the unintentional consequence of wiping $314 million off the company's share price.

"Civil disobedience is needed because politicians are not standing up for the public interest," he said.

Moylan represents a growing number disenfranchised with the actions of government and the shirking of environmental stewardship by mining companies. His court battle is also indicative of the number who are turning to alternative pathways to get their message across, albeit illegally.

In Moree, there is frustration at what looks like arbitrary rules and big government telling farmers what they can and cannot do on their own land.

I empathise with his frustration to a degree. In NSW, farmers own only the surface (the first 15 centimetres) of their land; after that it can be the property of mining companies. Perhaps it would be advantageous if the government could take the same level of scrutiny to the environmental impact before it grants mining leases, which so often leave people unhappy.

Accidents and negative environmental impacts have been met with little consequence. A fortnight ago, Orica was fined a mere $750, 000 in the Land and Environment Court for extensive water and air pollution in Botany, and Stockton near Newcastle.

It is realities such as these that make me understand where environmentalists get their motivation, and find people sympathetic to their cause.

Realists, on the other hand, know a strong renewable energy industry will not happen overnight. The federal government seems resistant to it so far, but it is happening globally and market forces show us it will inevitably happen here.

This increasing polarity between environmentalists, and mining companies and the government, is having deleterious outcomes in the medium term. The refusal of leading banks around the world to support new coal mines is encouraging, but it's not happening here.

Australia needs to look at ways to reduce carbon emissions in the medium term. Coal seam gas is the obvious choice. An Origin Energy report found that replacing coal for liquefied natural gas would reduce carbon emissions by 13.7 per cent.

Critics are quick to point to the harmful chemicals used in the process, but this is a changing industry with increasingly better technology.

They will also point to an incident in May this year in north-western NSW, where a coal seam gas project operated by Santos had contaminated a local aquifer, causing uranium levels to rise 20 times higher than safe drinking water guidelines.

Santos was fined $1500, described as relative to the environmental impact.

Mining magnates are hesitant to embrace a form of energy that isn't as lucrative and easy as a coal mine. But if we can undo the schism between mining and environmentalist camps, and foster cooperation and constructive dialogue, better outcomes will prevail.

Christopher Harris is a journalist with City Hub. He covered the Jonathan Moylan case in the NSW Supreme Court.

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