We’re standing on the edge of a quarry. At the far wall my eyes travel up through a dissection of the earth’s first 50m, layers of shale, sandstone and earth in shades of grey, yellow and brown. Atop the hill, grey-green against the fields and the sky is a gas plant, the central point of a new generation of resource extraction South West of Sydney, sucking gas from drills up to 4km underground in a radius of 100km around the plant.
The Camden gas fields are 66 well sites spread across a 160 square kilometer area in northern Campbelltown and Camden, traversing the Nepean river and both residential and rural properties. The gas field is believed to be Australia’s first coal seam gas drilling project in residential areas. The suburbs of Kearns, Currans Hill, Raby, Eschol Park, Varroville and Gregory Hills could have wells in their backyards.
House and land packages are currently on sale in the freshly developed suburb of Gregory Hills. Never-been-slept-in homes on Freedom, Explorer and Voyager streets are fetchingly displayed with warm, homely lights against a backdrop of sunset and twilight skies at realestate.com.au for an average of $500 000. Formerly St Gregory’s College Farm, a Marist Brothers boys farming school, the new housing development at Gregory Hills advertises a suburb “overflowing with opportunities to enjoy the outdoors (with) a modern village at its heart”[i]. But they are apparently not advertising the proposed gas drill next door, with many residents unaware of the proposal when they bought their properties. Steven Maharaj, commenting on an opinion piece in the Macarthur Chronicle, writes “Iam about to sign on land release at gergory hills,paid 15k depoist.due to gas mining can i get my money back?(sic)”
The gas drills, many of them sample sites, appear relatively innocuous on first inspection. The ones in operation are about the size of a school hall, with fencing that can be peered through to see the drills, storage containers and office ‘donger’. They are manned 24/7, and at night time a security guard in shorts and a t-shirt who describes his main task as looking out for graffiti kids, watches over the site.
However on Sunday AGL broke its pledge to not use fracking, a technique used to create fractures deep underground, in the Sydney suburbs. Fracking is a risky and damaging gas-mining technique that allows gas to travel more easily from the rock pores to the production well. In order to create fractures, a mixture of water, proppants and chemicals are pumped into the rock or coal formation at high pressure. This practice is highly controversial as gases can make their way to the surface endangering human health; aquifers can be irreparably damaged; and water sources contaminated. AGL’s promise not to frack was backed by Premier, Barry O’Farrell, who said the plan was to “horizontally drill under people’s homes”[ii]
Not only are the gas fields next door to residential areas, they are nearby educational institutions, railway lines and water catchments. The day before our visit to the drill sites, on Sydney’s record-breaking 46* day, a freight train had ignited a bushfire that reached within 50m of an operational drill site wedged between UWS Cambelltown campus and the railway line. Two exploration drills were just 200m from the Nepean River, buffered only by porous sandstone.
The campaign against the Camden gas fields is just one front of a battle that is taking place across the country. Around the Campbelltown area, BHP has learnt from Lock the Gate tactics and bought up large tracts of land. Yet the gas field’s proximity to the city and to residential areas may prove to be this campaign’s greatest strength. While the threat of mining pollution is easy to ignore when it’s a long way from home, a NIMBY mentality may prove a great asset to the fight again CSG in South West Sydney, since the industry is reliant on backyards across the region for its gas.