Over 200 trade unionists and supporters joined a “rally and road trip” in the Pilliga in north-west NSW on 12 August, supporting Gomeroi in their fight against Santos’ Pilliga-Narrabri gas project. Local Gomeroi people including Suellyn Tighe in Coonabarabran and Karra Kinchela in Narrabri helped to lead rallies in their towns and there was also a demonstration and info session in the forest.
Santos wants to build 850 coal seam gas wells in the Pilliga forest and surrounds. The project would threaten Gomeroi country and culture; pose significant health risks; and contribute to runaway climate change. The 70 exploration wells that Santos have drilled already show the dangers, with multiple toxic spills killing wildlife and contaminating aquifers with uranium and heavy metals.
Unions NSW supported the mobilisation, with members and officials from the Nurses’ union, the Teachers’ Federation, the NTEU, ASU, IEU, RAFFWU, MUA and the ETU travelling from Sydney, the central coast, Boggabri, Muswellbrook, Grafton, and Dalby, QLD.
This campaign against Santos is the first time that Unions NSW has opposed a fossil fuel project, having organised a smaller delegation to learn about the significance of the forest to Gomeroi people in November 2022.
ASU member and Wadi Wadi man Matthew Jeffreys explained “I came on the trip because it’s union business to fight land struggles… it’s union business to fight for living conditions. That includes wages and homes and energy, but it also includes breathable air and enough water. It includes a rich environment.”
One unionist had travelled from Dalby, QLD, where a fire had broken out in the gas fields. At the info session in the Pilliga, participants heard from local volunteer firefighters about the threat of catastrophe in this fire prone area. Santos has been warned that the gas wells will make it too dangerous to send in crews to fight fires. The company say that their plan is simply to let it burn.
The protest coincided with a Gomeroi Federal Court appeal against the destruction of Native Title rights to facilitate the gas-field. Matty Shields, a Gomeroi man from Walgett and a nurses’ union member, spoke outside Santos office in Narrabri: “Why do mining companies have more rights in Australia than my people? The Gomeroi people voted overwhelmingly against Santos’ plan. Why aren’t they being heard?”
With a delegation of over 20 nurses standing with him, Matty explained that: “As nurses and midwives, we care for all aspects of a person’s life—emotional, spiritual, psycho-social, physical, and mental. For the Gomeroi people, the Pilliga forest for eons has been a spiritual homeland, and is intrinsically connected to the health and well-being of my people … we as the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association are standing with the Gomeroi people in their struggle for self-determination. It’s time for this country to respect First Nations people when they say NO.”
Santos has been digging its claws in for years to try to win over the community in Narrabri. Local nurses told the gathering that Santos had bought the hospital’s MRI machine, as well as funding sports teams and infrastructure. The company logo is painted on the floodlights in the local park where we gathered.
In Coonabarabran, local activist Kim Ellis spoke of the “moral and family dilemmas” local people faced—when mining jobs are sometimes “the first time out of poverty”. Kim insisted that working class solidarity with First Nations struggles was absolutely necessary to win a just transition as an alternative. “All our struggles are connected. People are poor because of Santos and corporate dealings… We’re not supposed to know much, us poor people, but we do understand.”
Santos still faces obstacles in the Native Title system and there is still not approval for a lateral pipeline to bring the gas to market. Both the Minns Labor government in NSW and Albanese federally could stop the project, but both have instead taken the disastrous position that gas is “part of the energy mix of the future”. Minns has refused to follow the steps of Dan Andrews in Victoria, where gas connections to new housing have been banned.
But the fight against Santos in the Pilliga is growing in strength. On 14 September a major rally backed by Unions NSW will bring hundreds of Gomeroi, farmers and community members from the Pilliga region to rally with supporters outside NSW Parliament. Climate activists and unionists from across Sydney need to join them—and help build the pressure on NSW Labor to stop Santos.
By Alex McInnis