Nearly all the social struggles in Narrabri essentially centre on fossil fuels, and exist within the complex of the ‘Carbon Oligarchy’ and ‘Polluter Elites‘, joined to both the effects of climate change (long scale droughts, followed by massive flooding) and the apparent decline of agriculture. Agricultural decline seems to be arising partly through climate change, and partly through displacement, or fear of displacement by mining and loss of useable bore water, again through mining. The importance of long term drinkable, and useable, bore water supplies is obvious. As well as the long-term, risk to bore water (no matter how well the current isolation plans work), there also seems to be a risk of surface and air pollution through coal dust and through mineral leaks at the gas mine heads. While it was not discussed often, there is also the threat that burning these new fossil fuels (wherever they are burnt in the world) will increase the effects of climate change in Narrabri, even though their effect may be overshadowed by the effects of other fossil fuel burn offs.
Fossil fuels are intensely supported by the State and business interests. The mine expansions and the new coal-seam gas fields have been approved, although there are still some delaying court challenges. The NSW government has also just begun a process which they hope will lead to an energy intensive manufacturing site in Narrabri, powered by gas from the gas fields (again to boost local jobs). It does not look as though they will accept intense energy manufacturing through renewables with gas back up. The gas fields are being given an artificial market as we would expect in a Carbon Oligarchy.
This context makes the disputes in Narrabri existential. There is a real, and acknowledged, threat that the town could decline, and even come to an end, without some change, as the current trends do not appear good, especially if you think population and economic growth is good. This situation is a direct threat to the residents’ existence, and likely to heighten and polarise responses. The Oligarchy approved solution of fossil fuels should bring some jobs and finance to the town, which may go some way towards helping out. However, it is not clear how many of those jobs will come to exist, or how many will be for existing locals or for temporary workers or workers from elsewhere. It is also not clear how long those jobs will last.
There will likely be many jobs during construction of the gas fields, but they will be temporary, and largely go to outsiders, as the local population is small, and does not necessarily have the required skills. We have also seen how (probably due to the population size) the high-paying jobs in the mines can already lower the workforce available for the town, and the loss of farmers can increase dislocations between town and country, as their interdependence is broken. There are, apparently, many examples of mining towns which boomed, gained complete dependence on the mining, and then collapsed when the mining ended. The mining in Narrabri is short term. The gas fields are limited even if the company moves into the better agricultural lands nearby. Fossil fuel mining is also under pressure from the possible resolution of ambiguities of State policy, through States taking serious climate action and phasing fossil fuels out. This adds to the possibilities that fossil fuel mining may not guarantee a good future for Narrabri, and indeed may help destroy that future both in terms of the town’s economy, and the local ecology.
The existential nature of the dispute, and its polarisation, may be being encouraged by mining companies and the Oligarchy, phasing the dispute not only in terms of town vs country (accelerating the dislocation) and framing objectors as outsiders, but by phrasing mining as the only, and inevitable, way forward. Given the Oligarchy, the mining can seem inevitable despite the ongoing struggles against it. Whether correct or not, the mining companies appear to have control over most of the information that local people will find easily, through their own funding and talks, but through the local newspaper growing dependent on their advertising. The companies, also have the ability to fund the community and community events and clubs, and again whether or not this is true, can appear to obstruct the presentation of counter knowledges and counter proposals. This in itself can heighten the polarity. Not only is the dispute about existential issues, but about morality.
The effects of the dispute have caused much pain to local people, and show that this kind of dispute is not beneficial for local problem solving, although it may help the established powers carry on, as the local area is fragmented. It is also worth investigating whether the dispute hampered the region’s response to the crises of climate change, or whether those crises lowered the friction as people ‘pulled together’.
In contrast with the fossil fuel industry, the renewable industry appears to distance itself from the area. Its plans are not well advertised, seem covered in unintentional secrecy, are not integrated with local business, the companies make no claims about local jobs, or supplying local energy, and appear unconcerned about engaging with locals at all. This has rendered renewables marginal to the debate and until recently, there has been little locally organised support for renewables. Even renewable providers have come from out of town.
This means that the only way forward for a renewable alternative locally is through local organisation, and local support, and this is what has happened, and which will be the subject of another paper.
Going by this initial research, it can be suggested it is important to heal the country/city gap, to connect the country with the town’s workforce again, connect with independent information, and build increased communication. Mutual exclusion is misleading in an age which requires an understanding of an interdependent and inclusive ecology. We are “all in this together,” there is little chance of a fortunate few escaping. However, this is easier proposed than carried out, as the sides are not equal in their abilities to influence events. The Carbon Oligarchy will play its role in the approval process and the information likely to be promoted will support the Oligarchy and its needs. However, climate change threatens the Oligarchy as much as it threatens everyone else and its position is ambiguous and uncertain. Therefore it is possible that local people, joined with others, can persuade the State to take its obligations seriously, even despite a better funded campaign against climate reality.