This blog note is an unfinished attempt to say something about the basis of ethics, legitimation, delegitimation and the struggles around them in the NSW country town of Narrabri, and the surrounding Narrabri Shire. While this is all highly provisional, it can be stated that the main struggle appears to occur within the context of ‘resources curse’.
The Narrabri region, as referred to here, is an area in the Northwest of NSW, often (but not always) called ‘the Northwest’, not just Narrabri town, or shire. It is cursed with plenty and lack of resources, both of which are issues because of climate change. Most of the time I will call the area the Northwest.
The Northwest has plentiful supplies of coal and gas, and a marked lack of water, through prolonged drought and possibly declining water tables. The Northwest used to be primarily a farming area, but farms are now hard pressed, and threated by recent mining, with coal dust and threatened damage to the water table through gas mining. There are also large cotton farms which may provoke more water shortages for smaller farms.
As shall be covered in more detail later on both the Federal and State governments seem keen to have more fossil fuel mines and have supported the mining companies in this area. These kind of events may foreshadow the outcome of the 2021 COP – we can also think of a massive expansion of Chinese coal mining , , and a UN report which apparently claims the world is going to increase fossil fuel emissions until at least 2040, almost three times higher than what’s needed to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius.
We may be seeing the Green Paradox ramp up ,  – the idea that as it becomes likely coal, and even gas, will be phased out, there is an commercial and ethical imperative to sell or use as much as possible. This is a position encouraged by a massive price increase for coal, going from $US60.00 per ton October last year to $US230.00 per ton this month.
If we are going to try and specify groups, we can specify: farmers, business people in town, mining workers, residents close to mines (usually farmers), residents distant from mines (townsfolk) and Gomoroi people.
The situation in the Northwest involves an ethical struggle over the legitimacy of fossil fuel mining. Because there is no agreed on basis for ethics, it is hard to resolve this situation totally through the application of ethics alone; it seems probable there are large irresolvable differences between the positions of various social groups/categories. As suggested earlier, ethics is a matter of relative social power between different social group or categories, group identities, relative ‘structural’ positions between groups, changing or maintaining cosmologies, changing or maintaining customs and habits and changing contexts or framings, and arguments over those contexts and framings. It can in the final case depend on threat, violence and exclusion.
It seems to me that the legitimacy argument in the Northwest has several interactive strands, based on the factors just discussed. As also previously suggested legitimacy is not distributed equally between all sections of the population and involves struggle just like ethics. Legitimacy may also be risked any time it is asserted.
Maintaining and changing customs and habits
Fossil fuels are established and familiar, they involve established customs and habits, and modes of organisation. The way forward is relatively clear. This lends legitimacy and ethical potency. Renewable Energy may require new customs, new habits and new modes of organisation, as well as generate new forms of instability while becoming established, and so looks precarious and illegitimate.
There is a sense that the company itself claims to support local customs and improve them for example:
The Santos Festival of Rugby was a momentous success for Narrabri Shire and Santos, bringing the community together after
prolonged drought and the COVID-19 pandemic for three days of rugby action in February…. The exciting pre-season game saw the Waratahs claim victory over the Reds, taking home a $25,000 reward and the prestigious Santos Cup.
In preparation for the festival, Santos upgraded Dangar Park with broadcast quality stadium lighting and installed wi-fi connectivity into the clubrooms, which will potentially attract more large-scale events in the future. The economic benefits to the community have been warmly welcomed. The event injected approximately $700,000 into the community through Santos’ direct spend with local suppliers, as well as indirect spend on hospitality and accommodation from visitors.Santos Festival of Rugby – roaring success. Santos Community News, Issue 1, 2021, p.1
Other stories in the ‘Community News’, point out the company is going to be net-zero emissions by 2040, which seems improbable, that it is “supporting local business,” “part of the community” and so on. Trying to establish it is one of ‘us’, and generous.
Other people are also mining fossil fuels and selling them, why shouldn’t we?
Cosmology: Prosperity and development
This might be called a society wide pragmatic frame, but it also involves cosmology – in the sense that accepted wisdom implies this is the way the world works, and is the way the world works for the best – the assumption is that abandoning this frame is the first step to chaos.
Fossil fuels have brought what is defined as prosperity and development, where development is defined as the process of increasing material prosperity, increasing technical sophistication and boosting military security. Prosperity and development are defined as good, and as a purpose of life which should be spread throughout the planet – the undeveloped world tends to be seen by the developed world as ‘backward’: poverty ridden and intellectually inadequate whether this is true or not. Fossil fuels are the basis of modernity and benefit many people who use electricity and automobiles, as well as those who profit from them. Prosperity and Modernity are cosmologies which provide contexts and frames for fossil fuel production and use. Maintaining those fossil fuels is therefore the basis of that good, and a potential way of spreading that good. Without fossil fuels life will decline. It is certainly true that fossil fuels have provided plentiful energy (although it is getting harder to obtain), and it is doubtful that renewables can supply similar amounts of energy in the short term.
Many folk in the town (it seems especially influential business people) also support mining because they see the mines as a potential source of prosperity and jobs in the town, which will save the town. There is also a reasonably sized body of activists who see the mining as purely destructive – some of whom are trying to encourage renewable development. Mostly the mining’s obvious deleterious affects occur in the country, and affect farmers, but the ties between farmers and town seems weaker than it once was. There are larger corporate farms rather than family owned farms. Not having the same money farmers are said to not spend as much in town, and they don’t hire as much labour from the town – possibly because of technical ‘advancement’ and the increase in scale.
[Once it was] plausible to support a large family on 250 acres with crops, … [however] today a farmer would need 2000 acres and capital to invest in machinery and equipment.Brooks et al. 2001. Narrabri: A Century Remembered 1901-2001: p.15
Given the apparent lessened ability to depend on farming, the Mayor of Narrabri at the time, Cathy Redding, argued that the mines should go ahead because:
Population retention would be one advantage for Narrabri, in that jobs would be created, new manufacturing businesses would develop and the multiplier effects of these developments would ensure regional growtPederson Dept ‘can’t reconcile community concerns with evidence’ The Land 23 July 2020
In reality, local prosperity is a matter of how the mining is organised, where the profits go, where the ongoing operational payments go and so on. It is a legitimising frame, which may have little local truth. Indeed the argument that gas mine workers come from outside, that profits are largely transferred elsewhere, while costs remain (such has increased rental housing prices, damage to ecology and water) seems to be one of the most common arguments against the mining. In general the response is largely to assert that prosperity will result, and that Narrabri Shire will avoid the costs. A number of local businesses do stand to benefit from the mines, from increased economic traffic in town and from contracting work with the mines, which legitimates the mine through prosperity contexts. However, results from the 2016 census imply that mining has a relatively low effect; it currently provides 5.4% of jobs, comparing with 11.6% in health and social assistance, 10.5% in retail, 7.7% in Education and 7% in Agriculture forestry and fishing.
Sustainability of the local area, becomes sustainability by new jobs in one field. This acts to promote the gas and distract from environmental damage. There are people who are enthusiastic about this form of sustainability, people who reject it, and people who accept it will happen. It is not really clear from the figures that the Narrabri region is in radical population decline, but we need to wait for the current census results.
I’d suggest that the people who accept it will happen and those who are enthusiastic are that way, because there is almost nothing else officially on offer to generate prosperity, although a brief survey our students did of people in the street, suggested that the idea of Narrabri as a tourist food town was very popular. Many people were clearly fed up of being questioned, which suggests they accept it will happen, rather than working towards rejection.
Renewables are personally popular, but seem to have little social consequence. There was at least some acceptance of the delegitimating arguments against renewables by lack of consistency, and lack of intensity – which is primarily about habit and custom – see below (#). There is little struggle against renewables, probably because renewables are not a threat. They can be almost ignored – which offers a degree of freedom.
Prosperity framings are reinforced by corporate and State practice, and by the widespread neoliberal ideology which acts to put business first, suggests local prosperity flows from encouraging or subsidising corporate prosperity, and attacks any kind of inhibition on business liberty – an ideology which is so persuasive that it is adopted by all the major parties. The supposed farmers party (the Nationals) always seems to put corporate interests ahead of farming interests, as when they protect mines instead of farms, or continue to agitate for lack of climate action, when farmers are pressured by climate change and water problems. Matt Canavan of the National Party has remarked:
About five per cent of our voters are farmers, it’s about two per cent of the overall population. So 95 per cent of our voters don’t farm, aren’t farmers or don’t own farmland.Murphy. Senior National admits farmers are not party’s core constituency. Farmonline 5 July 2021
This kind of attitude led to the leader of the Victorian Nationals attempting to split the State party away from the Federal party. He failed but the splits and legitimacy problems are showing.
Furthermore, with the gradual erosion of the welfare state and attacks on unemployed people, like robodebt, there is little other way for ‘ordinary people’ to survive unless it be hanging on to corporate ‘prosperity’.
Changes in Cosmology?
However, the context of this cosmology may be shifting, as argued in a previous blog, the Business Council of Australia, after a long period of complete climate-action denial, has moved into issuing plans for emissions targets and reductions in emissions. The plan is a little ambiguous about coal and gas exports, and it seems significantly motivated by fear of others acting on climate and lessening trade with Australia as a result, but it could change the context significantly and suggest that fossil fuels are not the only, or necessary, way to go.
Protestors can also use the ‘economic reality’ argument:
“Financial institutions around the world are increasingly unwilling to back polluting fossil fuel projects like what Santos proposes at Narrabri.”MacDonald-Smith NSW court rejects challenge to Santos Narrabri gas. AFR 18 October
Coal seam gas drilling has bought a harsh boom bust cycle to other towns, especially in Queensland, leaving the towns with little but damage and rusting well sites. This surprisingly, has little effect on the prosperity framing for many. It appears local business knows the risks, thinks it is smart enough not to be caught out by the damage that has happened in other towns, and that this intelligence helps support the legitimacy of the operation. They want it to succeed, or need it to succeed, without cost, so it must. To some extent this is doing what other people have done with the hope it has different consequences. However, the realisation of damage elsewhere is a challenge to cosmologies of prosperity.
Another challenge to prosperity through fossil fuels is the idea of prosperity through renewables. An ISF report suggested as one option the rather unlikely figures of “2,840 [local] ongoing maintenance and operation jobs by 2030” if Narrabri started going (corporate) renewable, whereas Santos only promises “up to 200 ongoing positions” , . The problem seems to be that the ISF figures seem exceptionally high for solar, and so unpersuasive. People have another experience with solar farms in NSW – they require very little maintenance – mainly cleaning (with the expectation of water use).
Finally while the Gas mining has been justified by NSW need for local gas, a report conducted for the Climate Council suggests that NSW is likely to:
reduce its annual gas demand by the same amount that the Narrabri Gas Project is forecast to produce, as soon as 2030.
This report effectively renders the Narrabri Gas Project redundant. We already know that this project will drive up greenhouse gas emissions, worsen climate change and do nothing to reduce power prices. Now we also know the project is completely unnecessary when it comes to meeting the state’s energy needs,Climate Council Narrabri, Narrabye: First ever plan for a gas free NSW unveiled. Climate Council Media Releases 30 September 2021
Power relations – Fossil fuel companies and the State
In corporate capitalism, in general, corporations have more bases for power than community groups. The have wealth, contacts, prestige, ability to put out information, buy politicians and think tanks, even gain violence from police or from outsiders (there is no suggestion that companies in the region have done this, but it is certainly possible in general) etc. The power relations are not equal, and many people may think siding with the corporations could grant them benefits, while opposing them could make their situation worse.
Fossil fuels and fossil fuel companies, have State support which can override any local objection that does not command the allegiance of a vast majority of local people, and this potential for power when allied with at least some at the local level, not only gives fossil fuels support or indifference, but makes them easier and cheaper to mine. For example it has been alleged that the State government neglected to implement most of its Chief Scientists recommendations to make gas drilling safe ,  .
One person in Narrabri insisted that
the government had not implemented 14 of 16 recommendations to limit the risk of coal seam gas made nearly six years ago by the then NSW chief scientist, now Independent Planning Commission chair, Mary O’Kane. “Our government has betrayed us,” Murray said.Morton. Santos $3.6bn Narrabri gas project formally backed by NSW government The Guardian 12 June 2020
The Federal minister apparently approved the gas wells before the company explained which parts of the Pilliga forest would be cleared, it finished investigating effects on local groundwater, or developed a biodiversity plan, important given local koala habitats and declines in koala populations not to mention other endangered animals. Later on the project was boosted by the Federal Government’s ‘gas-led recovery‘ (“Cheaper, more abundant gas is the second pillar of our energy plan for COVID recovery. We’ve got to get the gas.” “this [Narrabri project] is 1,300 jobs, $12 billion worth of investment and it is absolutely critical“) and that government’s agreement with the NSW state Government to fund gas , , , . One comment was:
The state government has committed to injecting an additional 70 petajoules (PJ) of gas per annum into the east coast market in return for $3 billion from the Commonwealth government.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian flagged two possibilities to supply the gas; import it or source it from the yet-to-be-approved Santos Narrabri Gas Project, which will create 70 PJ a year….
[The local MP said:] “They have absolutely corroded the independent process,…
“Regardless of the good intentions and the upstanding integrity of the Independent Planning Commission, if the project is approved, the perception will always be they dangled $3 billion in front of them to get the approval.”Murphy $3 billion gas deal labelled a ‘bribe’ to approve Narrabri gasfield. Northern Daily Leader, 31 January 2020
It seems that in July 2020 the NSW Government was worried that Federal support for the Narrabri project was too overt and that:
any impression that the outcome of the IPC [the NSW Independent Planning Commission] process is pre-determined could undermine public trust in the process.Post-COVID economic recovery riddled with secrecy. Australian Conservation Foundation, 26 October 2021
They apparently realised that enforcing the case could undermine legitimacy. However, the project was listed as one of 15 major projects to gain a reduction in their “assessment and decision timeframes.” This received remarkably little publicity at the time. There are frequent references to a PM’s announcement, but the announcements I’ve found did not include all the projects, or mention the Narrabri project.
Fighting against large fossil fuel companies is also a difficult process in Australia, as if you win, it seems possible the State will change (or appeal) the law so you lose, or the Company will try again in a marginally different manner, or that they will successfully claim a new mine is an expansion of an old mine. For example, after the Rocky Hill coal mine was refused on the grounds of the emissions production overseas when the coal was burnt, the NSW government legislated to to prevent “the regulation of overseas, or scope-three, greenhouse gas emissions” in mining approvals to give certainty to miners  .
The new expansion of the local (near Boggabri) coal mine is one of a series of coal expansions in NSW made after the Federal court said the relevant “Minister has a duty to take reasonable care to avoid causing personal injury to the Children [from climate change] when deciding, to approve or not approve the Extension Project“. The Federal minister’s response to the court decision is that the coal makes no difference to climate, as someone else would sell it if NSW did not, and they will appeal the duty of care , ,[18 paywall], . The appeal is currently happening, and the additions to the case include arguments that Judges should not interfere with the law, and that the emissions are a concern for the purchasers not Australia because of the Paris agreement counting emissions in the country of burning.
Fighting against fossil fuels is fighting against both the State and Fossil Fuel companies and unlikely to succeed in terms of power relations and money.
The State is not supporting development of any LOCAL processes in the Narrabri region (that have been mentioned to me) which could provide prosperity or increase survival opportunities, which do not depend on fossil fuels. This makes it harder to challenge fossil fuel legitimacy. However, the NSW state government, has recently managed to gain emissions targets for 2030, and it does support corporate renewables elsewhere, through Renewable Energy Zones, which seem to be geared to supplying the big city and industrial areas on the Coast. But it is not clear that the state or federal governments do much to support local energy supplies via renewables or community renewables, or will oppose fossil fuels directly. Both Parties in Australia have made it clear they are in favour of mining fossil fuels, establishing new fossil fuel mines, and selling the products overseas.
Opposition resources spokeswoman Madeleine King has said Labor will not stand in the way of new mines and believes Australia will export coal beyond 2050…
For so long as international markets want to buy Australian coal, which is high quality, then they will be able to.” Ms King said Labor was “absolutely not supportive one bit” of a push by Malcolm Turnbull for a moratorium on new coalminesLabor drops hostility to Coal. The Australian [from Proquest, link given to website] 19 April 2021
One framing which allows them to claim this is compatible with climate action is the convention that emissions only occur in record of the country burning the fuel, and likewise should not apply to the company profiting from the emissions (as they are outside its control). If the measures were changed this claim of legitimacy might fall.
In a somewhat contradictory policy regime the NSW Government made declared the only active petroleum/gas exploration licences to remain in action were to be those supporting Santos’s Narrabri coal seam gas project, due to concerns from other regional communities .
So again we have the power differential and the assumption that fossil fuel profits are good, but changing the law like this also draws attention to the way the law is a political tool used to benefit particular groups.
Current regulation which is based on previous habits, limits connecting energy sources, and energy sources with users, without using the grid, especially if they cross property boundaries. These regulations are largely a matter of custom, and do not reflect the new situation, but there is inertia, because the new situation is easy to ignore, if we keep established power relations going.
Connecting these household sources might provide some kind of new paradigm or framing once it is established, or perhaps during the establishing.
Recent proposals for a feed in tariff suggests that household players could end up paying for export, further discouraging action.
These regulations shape the economy to favour existing players, deliberately or not.
There is little sign that the Australian State will change its pro-fossil fuel status, so while it may be useful to try and take back the State, it is also useful to move outside the State, perhaps through local level activity, to try and overwhelm the legitimacy of fossil fuels in general – but the question is whether working outside the State removes legitimacy.
Local Power relations and desires
Local action rarely has state backing when in opposition to mining.
Surveys and polls
There is repeated self selecting survey and other evidence to suggest that most to a large percentage of people in the region do not support the gas fields. For example 64 per cent of the local submissions to the Environmental Impact Statement Inquiry in 2018, were opposed – non local submissions were even greater in their opposition. A Lock the Gate survey of 840 people found 97% of people were in favour of renewables to provide long-term jobs, 52%, of people surveyed were opposed to the gasfield, 28% of people said they were in favour of the gas, and and 20% were unsure. “55% of the people surveyed said they were very or somewhat concerned about the gasfield and only 24% said they were not concerned”. Never the less, the implication is that a reasonable number of people could accept both gas and renewables. A Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (a collaborative research institute with members such as Australia Pacific LNG, QGC, Santos, Origin Energy and CSIRO) survey found that that 30.5% of residents ‘reject’ the gas, 41.7% of residents would ‘tolerate’ (27%) or be ‘ok with it’ (15%) (which suggests at least some of these would be accepting or indifferent), while 27.8% of residents would ‘approve’ (13%) or ‘embrace’ (15%) CSG development (pp.5, 22). It again seems clear that lack of enthusiasm, overwhelms support – but suggests that perhaps it would be difficult to organise opposition against corporation, state and law.
As implied earlier was the case, it appears to the GISERA survey that “Residents who lived out of town held significantly more negative views towards CSG development than those who lived in town”, and that:
Potential impacts on water quality and quantity were the top two concerns (M = 3.75 and M = 3.74 respectively), followed by community division over CSG development (M = 3.63) and the disposal of salts and brine (M = 3.63)(ibid: 24)
An Informal survey conducted by UTS students in the streets of Narrabri town, presents some further clues as to what might be happening. Out of “four priorities” for the town 59% selected ‘more employment’ again showing possible survival anxiety dominates, 29 per cent selected ‘improved government services’, 9 per cent ‘stronger community life’, and only 7 per cent selected ‘more sustainable environment’ as their highest priority. Asked to identify the biggest threat to the Region out of five choices, 31% chose drought and climate change, 29% chose loss of local businesses, 20% chose drift of population to larger towns or cities. Asked to choose multiple options for the future, 69% chose local farming and food culture, 43% chose community-owned renewable energy, 31% chose large scale renewable energy, and 29% chose large scale coal and gas. Again the suggestion from this multiple factored informal survey is that mining has fairly low committed support, on par with community renewables, and possibly flows from anxiety about survival.
A click through survey on the Land website, when checked on 23/10/21, gave the results to the question ‘Do you want CSG production at Narrabri?’ as 76% No and 24% yes, but I see no mechanism to stop people voting more than once.
Lack of State support for alternative development in the area, reinforces the apparent ‘need’ for gas and the prosperity/survival it promises but may not deliver locally. This can be seen as part of the connection between State and Fossil fuels. However, local contracting and other businesses which can possibly benefit from mining, take these power relations into the local area, not only through individual businesses, but sometimes through the Local Council (which has to look after local business as it is a major source of local income for people) and through the Chamber of Commerce.
Local Power relations and fragmentation
In the debate about the gas, hostility has been marked, and become pretty polarised. Anecdotes of painful events were common, such as stories of break up of long standing friendships and groups over the gas issue, stories about public rudeness, public ridicule, unfair division of time or access to Council, and so on. People seemed extremely wary of anything that might start an argument.
Both sides, to some extent, blame external forces for the fraction. Many of those we spoke to who were in favour of gas, claimed that people from Lock the Gate were not locals, but city folk – trying to imply the protestors were not from the area, and thus delegitimate them through social categorisation.
These lot just rock into town and tell us what we should be doing with our land. I mean we’ve been here our whole lives.
Interestingly no mention that the mining companies are also from out of town, which indicates the effectiveness of the “we are one of you” categorisation game played by the mining company. However, the objection to protestors goes through conservative politics and there are still ongoing attempts by pro-fossil fuel groups to strip LTG of its charitable status, and reduce its funding.
This indicates a legitimacy struggle over fossil fuels, but it also shows the local cost in a relatively small community.
Framings and power
These framings interact and appear to magnify each other in terms of granting legitimacy (support and acceptance) for fossil fuel mining. Social order, customs and habits is largely built on fossil fuels, and survival is reduced to what is good for business, which is reinforced by alliances between miners and the State, and regulations which are based on the needs of established industry and which inhibit competition. Laws reinforce the survival threats against protestors, which have the probable intention of making delegitimation reluctance or rejection visible. Even the divisions in town seem to be based on external forces, and the hopes or despair begin cultivated, and it implies that there is some way in which people are being treated as extreme or the differences cannot be ignored. It could easily be alleged that local resistance is overwhelmed by outside input, and local fears about survival.
These are largely external contexts which are provided to the region and which shape possible action in the region. The main sign of what is happening locally is the social fragmentation, which seems to be encouraged by these external factors as much as by internal factors.
However, there are some signs that these contexts could be changing (the NSW targets, the BCA, the visibility of ‘cheating’ in the courts), and there is the possibility that changes in complex systems can accelerate quickly. Further signs shall be discussed below.
Delegitimating Fossil Fuels
Reframing 1: fossil fuel damage
The proposal for the gas suggests there will be around 850 gas wells over 425 well-pad sites, so the project will have significant impacts on local appearance. People are assured that no serious ecological damage, or damage to the town economy, will arise from fossil fuel mining, which is perhaps contradicted by this number of wells. This reassurance is impossible to guarantee, but neoliberalism seems happy to ignore damage that helps profits of large companies. However, this complacency is a possible breaker of legitimacy, as admitting that a process could damage the ecology, town and farming seriously, could reframe that process. Not admitting the possibility of damage (when it is reasonably well documented elsewhere) also adds to the perception that those who won’t admit the possibility are lying – the new frame is in play. So we have prosperity and damage framings being brought in.
The possibility of water damage has to be defended against, or else they cannot proceed. The company denies possible serious damage to the water table (the famous Great Artesian basin), which is above the gas tables. The gas comes through the water. Even if they seal the drill holes well enough to not have produce damage immediately, they probably cannot guarantee these seals will not fail in hundreds of years, and when you are dealing with ecology you are dealing in thousands of years at least… There is also water in the gas tables, and that is toxic, and there are signs that leakage has already occurred.
Bringing in the question of environmental damage, and possible poisoning of basic necessities such as air and water, challenges the prosperity frame’s coherence.
There have been protests against gas mining in the region, since it was first proposed, with national community activist organisations such as Lock the Gate and People for the Plains, having a large presence in the area. For example on its current website Lock the Gate attempt to reframe gas in terms of damage, ecological and economic.
When every fracked gas well needs 30 million litres of fresh water and 18 tonnes of chemicals, and when gas already contributes 19% to our greenhouse emissions, it’s actually a recipe for disaster…
For every 10 jobs created in coal seam gas (CSG), 18 jobs are lost in agricultureGas: The cost is already too high. LTG. Downloaded 21/10/2021
Over 120 farm water bores in Queensland have already run dry because of coal seam gas
Direct loss of farmland for CSG results in farmers losing up to 10% in economic returns
More than $2 billion in public funds have been allocated to the gas industry in the last financial year
The threat of environmental damage is now so ‘obvious,’ that it can be used to draw the ire of neighbouring farmers, as when Lock the Gate suggested it was likely that the Gas Company would extend its mining operations into neighbouring areas of the Northwest such as Namoi Valley and Liverpool Plains, as such creeping expansion has happened elsewhere and the State Government’s moratorium on further gas exploration did not cover that area. The local MP stated:
I think it is highly hypocritical to suggest that one electorate in regional NSW should have these things and another shouldn’t…
I would like to see all of these PELs [Petrol Exploration Licences – which include gas] totally extinguished because most coal seam gas (CSG) and gas reserves that are based in the coal bed interact with water aquifers and to get to the seams you have to punch holes through the aquifers.
We have just been through the worst drought in living memory which showed us just how important groundwater is and our regional communities know how important groundwater is.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in the Tamworth, Barwon or Northern Tablelands electorates, it’s important in each and every one of them.”Jupp. Slay the zombie PELs: Barwon MP Roy Butler slams calls for zombie PELs to be canned in some electorates but not others. The Land 21 July 2021
Emily Simpson, NSW Farmers Association Policy Advisor had previously also pointed out that while farmers did not oppose gas in principle,
the location of the Narrabri Gas Project creates an unacceptable risk to the precious water resources of northern NSW.
The many conditions attached to the project are designed to minimise this risk, however do not recognise a simple reality: water sources that are damaged cannot be replenished or replaced. The possible harm to water resources has been confirmed by the NSW Government’s own Independent Water Expert Panel.Simpson Gas project not a risk worth taking. The Land 10 October 2020
Reframing 2: Climate Change
Bringing climate change in as a frame, suggests that while fossil fuels can bring prosperity and order they are gradually bringing in chaos and disorder which may be so great as to undermine the existence of the shire itself. It is not clear how effective this framing is in Narrabri itself yet, although it is clear from reading the Federal court judgement in the duty of care case, referred to above, that evidence about climate change was extremely significant to the judge – and people did talk about drought and climate change.
The International Energy Agency has argued that there can be no new gas, coal or oil projects if people wish to avoid catastrophic climate change. The IPCC agrees in its latest report. Thus support of new coal could be seen as completely destructive, a position perhaps harder to take as climate change becomes more obvious…
The gas company makes a few half hearted suggestions that it is green. After taking over another gas company, the managing director said:
the combined group would be better-equipped to seize opportunities to expand into clean-energy technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and zero-emissions hydrogen. “Size and scale have never been more important as we look to fund the energy transition to net-zero emissions,”Toscano Santos gas sales reach record high amid global energy crunch. Sydney Morning Herald 21 October 2021
This implies that rather than cease emissions they hope to remove them, which is not a successful technology at the scale required.
As a number of my colleagues have suggested, there is some evidence to suggest that knowledge of climate change, has made external organisations more interested in offering support to local people opposed to the mines, perhaps providing support, or perhaps increasing the local friction.
Climate change itself is also starting to increase destabilisers of legitimacy, through increased droughts, fires and storms. Through observing the consequences, farmers are starting to ally with environmentalists, and possibly indigenous people, to protect their land from ill effects of ‘development.’ Recently in Australia the National Farmers Federation has cautiously announced support for an emissions target in discussions with the National Party who reject the idea:
Far from creating uncertainty, a target actually creates certainty in an industry where much is uncertain…. the one thing that is certain is that if we set targets we can work towards those targetsMartin & Murphy Lack of support for emissions reduction target will ‘punish farmers’, NFF tells Nationals. The Guardian 20 October 2021
This again is a small change but it fits in with other changes, in moving the legitimacy of emissions.
Reframing 3: Cheap energy with local benefits
Renewable energy, especially solar is cheap and modular. It can be built up, part at a time, in small clusters. It does not require the large amounts of capital that fossil fuel energy requires to generate community level low polluting power. It may not be as profitable as fossil fuels but while that is important for corporations, that may not always matter that much for community groups. But it sets up possibilities.
Over 60% of dwellings in the 2390 postcode which includes Narrabri have rooftop solar, so solar is popular, but rooftop is not communal – its about individual virtue, concern or money saving. It is possible to have solar panels and still support fossil fuels.
There is a relatively new organisation called Geni Energy which is exploring the possibility of community renewables being used to generate cheap energy for activities which could lead to prosperity in the region (‘the Northwest’) beyond coal and gas. The idea is to bring plentiful energy into the region, which keeps money in the region, as opposed to the profit centres being outside the region (as with the coal and gas). As previously explained regulations make this project difficult, but not impossible. However, the issue is how quickly the community projects can get up, and how much support they can gain in terms of the framings contexts of customs and becoming habitual, prosperity, external power relations, regulation, and enforcement. That requires several breakthroughs, their ability to build community and extra-community networks – which they are trying to do – and their ability to shift people into enthusiastic support and acceptance.
Reframing 4: Corporate Solar
The company currently establishing a commercial solar farm ,  does not seem well connected to the community, does not seem to provide many continuing jobs, and the connections to take power out of the region are not particularly good, and there is no sign the State government, or anyone else, will improve this. Commercial renewables will be unlikely to supplant fossil fuels, or bring similar prosperity to the Region, (few jobs after construction and money leaves the town) and if they do, that does not remove the link between fossil fuels and prosperity in made in Narrabri.
There are some other corporate solar farms in the air, but some people have said these are ambit claims primarily to lock others out. In any case they have no significant involvement in the region, or apparent connection with people. They are all pretty vague.
Corporate solar is not necessarily helpful in raising support for renewables or delegitimating fossil fuels.
Court cases and appeals against Environmental approvals have been the most effective. While they have not stopped the mining, they have delayed its onset, which (if the State could be persuaded to take export and other emissions seriously) would possibly eventually stop the permissions give to mine.
The contexts and framings for legitimating renewables and the delegitimating fossil fuels do not appear (at this moment) to provide the level of mutual reinforcement that the pro-fossil fuel contexts provide.
The prosperity / devlopment /growth format more or less engenders the State fossil fuel company alliance, and the commonsense that life requires fossil fuels. Habits and customs mean that people in the developed world use (actively or passively) for transport, food transport, computing, delivery, exports, imports, plastics and other components all the time. Without fossil fuels these habits would have to change, and that produces a degree of fear. New habits, and other cosmologies have not yet developed, although they are developing.
Professing support for fossil fuels does not have to involve an active campaign against renewables, they can rely on habit, regulation, power that is external to site, and hardening social categories to get the support to get them through. While the State government is changing, it does not seem to be wanting to stop fossil fuels, or lower them that much. The gas company is in the position where it is likely it has a time limit and would like to get the gas out as soon as possible.
There is no reason to assume that maps of legitimacy for fossil fuels and renewables would overlap in terms of the positions of various groups on the grid – while I can make good guesses as to where groups might appear, there is as yet no hard data which would allow the plotting.
However groups in Narrabri seem to be fractured and histories of past pain possibly leads to low levels of discussion and difficulties in developing cross group policies or actions. The history benefits those who would stay with gas and coal mining. There is also no way to enforce renewables, but the law enforces fossil fuels and restricts protests.
However, it seems possible that the legitimacy of fossil fuels is largely supported by indifference, acceptance, or the sense of there being no alternative. This could change, if there was an alternative, or there was more reach out by activists (which may be hard given an audience avoiding pain).
The main hope is that the context framing of the legitimacy systems for fossil fuels are starting to show cracks, becoming precarious and coming to their end, and that like the electoral legitimacy of the US government, they will collapse rapidly, and in this case in time for action to have some mitigating effect.
There is the possibility of trying to avoid the state and function outside it, circumventing regulation rather than following regulation. This requires the formation of a local movement, perhaps in community energy, through social enterprises like Geni. In Western Australia there seems to be a formal movement to do something like this with proposals to help towns get off the grid, and be put in charge of their own energy through disconnected microgrids.
That solar energy, is cheap and modular, means that community groups can build their own energy supplies over time, buying (or gifting) panels as they can afford to, and if the regulations change, connecting them up.. They don’t have to have huge building projects, projects can be manageable and use local labour.
Courts seem incapable of enforcing strictures against Fossil Fuels, but they make the artificial and political nature of the current set-up clearer. If the laws are changed or ignored, then the laws supporting the fossil fuel system seem more arbitrary and less legitimate – it also engenders delay which, if the context, changed, might make a significant difference.
Complexity suggests that small regular changes can make large differences to the whole system; the question becomes what are those changes?
So there is hope, amidst the difficulties, but it will not be easy.
All I can do is suggest that legitimacy is complicated and that the data indicate that is so. Part of what research can sometimes indicate is the inadequacy of data, and stimulate new questions.