In the first week of May, word swept through our little town that the gas people were coming. Some of us knew that there was interest in an SPA that came within five kilometres of shore, a field that would be visible from beachfront homes. For others this news was sudden, a shocking intrusion into the sleepy inconsequence of coastal life. They can’t do that here. Nobody does stuff like that here.
The first week of May is a particular time around here. Nearby Warrnambool hosts its race week, an event big enough that we’ve swapped our Melbourne Cup public holiday for May Race Day. Civic pride, hypothermic girls dressed in raceday glamour in the chill winds of late autumn. The whole place stops and the streets are taken over by revellers and visiting punters in bomber jackets.
Coincidental, then, that Conoco Phillips, the gas proponent who’s been sniffing around that near-shore SPA, chose this week of all weeks to hold their community consultation here.
I stood in the queue outside the community centre, swatting at unseasonal mozzies, and a few things immediately became apparent. Conoco Phillips had booked a very small room. And a lot of people had turned up. I saw the guy who’s an expert consultant on recreational fishing, and his wife, a marine scientist who’s written a children’s book on ocean plastics. There were surfers, farmers, a bus driver, the guy who runs the surf school, an abalone diver and an abalone farmer. The local physio, a formidable woman who once walked alone down the main street of town with a sandwich board over her shoulders protesting the treatment of asylum seekers, to no applause at all. There were kids, old people. There was a young woman who stood silently at the front of the room holding up a banner that said NO SEISMIC SURVEY, until she fled the room in a surge of emotion.
An MC materialised from among the civilians, a small woman with a severe red bob and an alarming resemblance to Frau Farbissina. She was taking notes, taking names. She handed the kick-off over to an affable-looking big man who was a Doug or a Nick or something. Something unthreatening. You could sink a beer with this Doug, or Nick. "Gosh," he commented. "Didn’t think we’d see so many faces in Race Week." He half-laughed into the stony silence, then decided to push on. More people were coming in, necessitating a lot of chair shuffles.
Doug or Nick explained that he was the community liaison guy for Conoco Phillips. He had previously worked at the national regulator, NOPSEMA. This stunning admission of conflict landed in the room like a dead fish, but he seemed blissfully unaware. Perhaps it’s business as usual in fossil fuels that the umpires become players, and that the logical inverse – that players become umpires – also pertains. Who knows. He liked his job, that was clear.
Doug or Nick explained that this was just a consultation meeting, just a little something to help us understand what they were up to. Meet the team, try to the sandwiches up the back (they’re good). This was not the time to protest or to ask thorny questions about emissions if you don’t mind, guys. If you want to do that, you need to register as a Relevant Person. (Needless to say, later googling reveals there are no cetaceans, molluscs, crustaceans, fin-fish or seabirds registered as Relevant Persons.)
A surfer with zinc in his ears had positioned himself in the middle of the room with a laptop on his knee and a homemade badge on his shirt that said Relevant Person. He’d been to this rodeo before. If Doug or Nick noticed these ominous signs, he showed no indication.
The presentation ground on and a grim battle of attrition emerged. We’ll be taking a vote at the end of this meeting, the surfer announced. Doug or Nick gave him a big, friendly smile and explained that it wasn’t that sort of meeting – it was an information night. “That’s cool,” replied the surfer. “But if you frame this as neutral, just an information night, it becomes possible to interpret a big turnout as strong community interest in your project. And we can’t have that. So we’ll take a vote, thanks” – he nodded to Frau Farbissina – “and I’ll have a copy of those notes you’re taking, too.”
Every time Doug or Nick made an assertion about the essential harmlessness of everything proposed, the surfer would raise his hand to politely stop proceedings, then fire off a surgically sharp rebuttal; at one stage even swivelling the laptop above his head to show the entire room a chart that contradicted Doug or Nick’s reassurances.
An old guy up the front launched a series of long personal anecdotes that loosely resembled questions. He was having a great night out. A guy down the back involuntarily burst out laughing at one of Doug or Nick’s assertions; he immediately apologised. “It was just funny,” he pleaded.
There was jelly slice among the sandwiches and I thought about getting someone to pass me a block. I love jelly slice. But by now I didn’t want to take the enemy’s treats.
There were PowerPoints. The area to be blasted with sound, which stretches from Peterborough in the east to Yambuk in the west, is marked on the proponents’ maps with the happy title of “activity area,” like it’s somewhere you’d take your kids to push them on a plastic swing.
There are all sorts of spotters and PhDs on the survey vessel, apparently. It was good to hear that they’re all well paid, by Conoco Phillips. They look out for whales, and if there are whales they stop the booming until they’ve left. This very sensibly puts the onus on the whales to leave the area in an orderly fashion, and enough of your backchat about migratory routes and evolution.
Doug or Nick lost his voice and pleaded for a cup of water. There was empathy. He’d been trotting out this dog ‘n’ pony show all up and down the coast. People scrambled to clear the sink and pour the water: a strange moment of hospitality amid the hostility.
Doug or Nick handed over to the technical guy to explain the drilling. This guy was an engineer and he had no interest in charm, and apparently no interest in interest itself. He hammered his way through a series of pictures and diagrams, reluctantly pausing to allow the crowd to heckle him. We did the anchoring array (eight kilometres of heavy chain laid on the sea bed without any apparent ill-effect, which the room agreed is a marvellous feat); the drill rigs (one of them is self-jacking, which seemed an apt description of the presentation); and the blowout preventer (as seen on Deepwater Horizon if you know your films).
When the engineer petered out, the surfer made good on his threat to hold a vote (Against, 42. Undecided, 9. For, 1.). The undecideds seemed genuine – among them the abalone diver, who was pragmatic and had the room’s biggest connection to commercial fishing. He was there to listen, he said.