Losing farmland to fossil fuels

At the same time as state governments are making it almost impossible for farmers to install clean power-generating wind turbines, they are opening up farmland to miners. What's wrong with this picture?

Today, across NSW, farmers are participating in wind projects by co-locating wind turbines on their land. Just 2,000 modern 7.5MW on-shore wind turbines would provide enough electricity to power more than half of NSW.

The NSW government is opposed to wind and the development benefits that accompany it, including financial benefits of $8,000 per wind turbine. This money flows to farmers who are choosing to diversify and play a part in the 21st century move to a renewable powered economy.

The NSW Liberal party policy, now law, sets up a buffer zone of 2km around any house in the state for the sighting of wind turbines. Our farmers, many of whom are doing it tough, are being deprived by this ill-thought-out decision to effectively ban wind turbines from the entire state.

Wind developers are now looking elsewhere, funders in trail.

You would think that with laws like this, where anyone can veto any wind turbine anywhere, that property rights and the country way of life are being protected. Well, think again.

Farmers own just the top few metres of their land, and everything under that is up for grabs, thanks to the NSW government policy of trying to sell as many gas and coal exploration and extraction licenses as they possibly can, property rights are likely to be a thing of the past.

Unlike with wind power, where anyone can say no to your wind turbine – even though you wanted it, and the financial rewards that go with the business opportunity – a coal or gas company can slap a court order on you and force their way onto your land after just 28 days. You have no right to stop them. One day you could be growing wheat, corn or running your sheep, and the next you've got a great big cyclone fence topped with barbed wire on your land.

Inside the fence surrounding a coal seam gas mine is a well-head pump, settling ponds and flaring pits, drums of oil, and tonnes of unknown chemicals. Connecting it to the next coal seam gas site – which, unluckily for you, is probably also on your land – is a pipeline. When the drilling rig is in, it is injecting the unknown chemicals underground to create the openings that allow the gas to flow. They're pumping water from what are often very saline and toxic aquifers and hoping to evaporate that off in the middle of the year's harvest. In many instances, with the drilling come mini earthquakes and contaminated aquifers – a disaster if you're planning to irrigate your crop or water your stock. The damage from coal and gas mining can take a very long time to be reversed, whereas all wind turbines can be upgraded or completely removed, sites 100 per cent rehabilitated at the end of their 30 year lifespan.

In the Hunter, Ian Moore, a blind farmer from Jerry's plains, was issued with a court order from the Land and Environment court by Coal Miner NuCoal. Only a brigade of farmers and a huge public outcry which played through the media was able to stop this money hungry company from ruining Ian's only way he knows of earning a living – farming.

Coal seam gas in NSW is no different to Queensland, where a stacked planning and permit process railroads unsuspecting farmers into signing away their land. Miners have guaranteed access under the Petroleum and Gas Act. The Act guarantees the miners access to farmers' land within 50 days, and if a farmer refuses to let them onto his land he can be fined $50,000 under the notorious s.805 for obstructing access.

In this way the livelihoods of our farmers and their aspirations for the futures of their loved ones are being destroyed by mining companies and a complicit government using the courts and police to force them to sign away their family farms under duress.

Many NSW farmers are seeing what's happening up north and today are getting organised, locking their gates and preparing themselves for the coming energy wars that will be waged across rural communities, until the threat of the coal and gas expansion is eliminated.

We are no longer seeing a fair go for farmers. Instead, the government is favouring the prospect of a windfall for big miners, who would rather see Australia as a low-cost producer of a basic commodity, competing with the poorest of developing countries. While many farmers would rather partake in a modern 21st century, renewable-powered Australia, with the latest efficient transport systems and a high-tech smart farming sector that will keep us resilient to future energy and resource scarcity.

If we want to feed ourselves in the future, it is time to put a stop to this. It's time to pull together and starve out the greedy gas and coal miners and any government that choses to put mines before mouths, letting them know that they will be very lucky if they make it to the next election.

A future of food farms, wind and solar is a bright future, whereas a future of coal and gas exploitation is a future sold off forever.

Matthew Wright is executive director of Beyond Zero Emissions

The Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan was released in 2010 and will be significantly updated in 2012. In the meantime we'll be releasing the ZCA Buildings and Transport plans.

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