Extracting the Commons

Postad i: Uncategorized den 20 March, 2017 av Martin Fredriksson

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We are happy to present the first article from the commons and commodities project. It is entitle ‘Extracting the Commons’ and is part of a special issue of Cultural Studies focusing on the ‘Cultural Studies of Extraction’.

Apart from presenting the theoretical foundations of this project this article also discusses some of the fieldwork we did on the resistance against coal mining and Coal Seam Gas extraction in New South Wales in 2015 and 2016.

The article looks at how extraction is enacted through three distinct practices: prospecting, enclosure and unbundling, studied through three different cases. The cases involve resources that are material and immaterial, renewable as well as non-renewable, “natural” as well as man-made. Prospecting is exemplified by patenting of genetic resources and traditional knowledge, enclosure is exemplified by debates over copyright expansionism and information commons, and unbundling through conflicts over mining and gas extraction. The article draws on interviews and participant observation with protesters at contested mining sites in Australia and with digital rights activists from across the world who protest against how the expansion of copyright limits public access to culture and information.

The article departs from an understanding of “commons” not as an open-access resource, but as a resource shared by a group of people, often subjected to particular social norms that regulate how it can be used. Enclosure and extraction are both social processes, dependent on recognising some and downplaying or misrecognising other social relations when it comes to resources and processes of property creation. These processes are always, regardless of the particular resources at stake, cultural in the sense that the uses of the commons are regulated through cultural norms and contracts, but also that they carry profound cultural and social meanings for those who use them. Finally, the commonalities and heterogeneities of these protest movements are analysed as ‘working in common’, where the resistance to extraction in itself represents a process of commoning.

If you have a subscription you can find the final version at Cultural Studies, but you can also download a post-print version of the article for free here.


 


Radiant Pilliga

Postad i: CSG, Mining den 15 December, 2015 av Johanna Dahlin

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”I’ll pick you up six-six thirty” he said, but already half past five I see the white ute speed down the dusty road to Pilliga Pottery. I stay at the “Poet’s cottage”, a house and bush setting as romantic as the name promises. The reason for getting up early is not quite as poetic. I have invited myself for a tour to monitor Santos Coal Seam Gas (CSG) facilities in the Pilliga forest. “I’m sorry I’m early, but they want as much time in the forest as possible before Santos’ workers get there.” PB says as I open the door. A group of activists from Lismore has stayed on their way to Canberra, where they a few days later would take part in the “People’s Parliament” action related to the climate talks in Paris. This group of activists have, I was told the night before, an infrared camera for gas leak detection. This is just days after the latest Pilliga bushfire, which is now supposed to be under control, but as I’ve been repeatedly told “no-one puts out a fire in the Pilliga, only rain does that”. (And as I write this, another fire has hit the area.) Leaking gas in this very bushfire prone area might gain quite a bit of attention.

It’s not often I catch the sun rise, but it’s a glorious morning. The world is beautiful in the early morning light, the air crisp and cool. Since the weather forecast spoke of 37 degrees, beating the sun is another reason to be up early. It’s a short drive to the newly established camp, which since this morning have had the dust covered with wood chips and been equipped with among other things solar panels, water tanks, a toilet and showers. I have some white box trees pointed out. The white box eucalyptus was a key player in the controversies surrounding Whitehaven’s coal mine in nearby Leard State Forest, which is home to the largest White-Box Grassy Woodland left in NSW, a type of ecosystem that once covered most of eastern Australia but now is deemed critically endangered. (My first encounter with white box was the White Box Honey I bought at the Parramatta farmer’s market, and I must confess it took me some time to realise that White Box is a type of tree, and not, well, a white box.)

It takes before we actually get going, people are packing, drinking coffee and go into town for fuel. This is my second tour of Santos Pilliga gas field, which is not a full scaled gas field. Santos have an exploration permit and about 30 pilot wells in the area. As they don’t have a production license, the wells are not supposed to produce gas. In the few weeks that has passed since that first tour of the fields, the rain has dried up and Santos has intensified work on their wells. One week earlier they begun moving in trucks and workers to the gas field, and this is why the camp is being established. As Santos’ increases their activity, so does the local anti-CSG movement.

When we get into the forest, I realise there is no infrared camera. There is a Geiger counter. While equipment to monitor gas leak is pretty straight forward in a gas field, the Geiger counter puzzles me. Radioactive gas? Apparently, the radioactive substance caesium-137 is used in the drill fluid. Back in Sydney, I find relatively recent news items from SMH and ABC on this, after all, there are few things with such a bad ring to it as “radioactive”. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the US-based drilling company Halliburton is permitted to use cesium-137 in the drilling it does for Santos in the Pilliga.

Drillers deploy devices containing CS-137 to measure the composition of gas and water deep underground, with the isotope emitting gamma rays to operate like a miniature X-ray. Produced in nuclear reactors, the material is potentially deadly and among the main radiation concerns at failed power stations at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Only small amounts are used in coal seam gas drilling, and the NSW Environment Protection said the isotope was also sometimes used in mining and construction, and strict rules were in place about its use. Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/anticsg-groups-says-use-of-radioactive-materials-should-be-disclosed-20141123-11s5vp.html#ixzz3u6YnETMI

When the fire started last week Santos’ workers left the forest, but now they are back. The tour this morning is also part of the continuous monitoring the local anti-CSG activists do of Santos’ activities. We drive the red dirt roads, stopping at a water truck, gas wells, spill sites… The Geiger counter is counting, but the readings are not significant. “Not that I particularly would like to get a reading, but… it would serve some purposes” the counter handler LA says. This piece of equipment was donated to the movement, and they also have other crowdfunded equipment. Since this is very expensive equipment, and the infrared camera, present through is absence, even more so, it requires cooperation between different parts of this pretty diverse and spread out movement. (Lismore is a full day’s drive away.)

When we approach the first well, there is full activity. A guy in helmet and blue shirt approach the gate. “It’s cool, it’s Alex”, I’m told as PA walks up to talk to him. “Alex” is a hired security guy, and his instructions evidently includes filming us. Being filmed makes most of the company uneasy, but PA is calm: “He’s all right, just doing his job.” There’s even a bit of almost friendly chit-chat between them. Alex is filmed back. “He was at Gloucester too, right?” LA recognises him. “I guess Santos have a lot of footage of you?” I ask, and PA confirms with a grin.

Near the spill site, which years later still shows very little sign of life, there is a well with a giant flare. The cool of the morning is already replaced by a fierce sun and increasing heat. “Don’t tell me this is not a fire hazard” someone remarks. It is a huge open flame, and PA says it was even higher some nights before when it towered over the trees as they approached.

We drive through the area where the fire went through. In some parts, it does not appear to have burned so hot “looks like backburning” someone says, and PB concludes that this is actually a quite good fire from an ecological point of view. Fire was always a part of the Australian bush, and controlled burns a cornerstone Aboriginal land management practices. Many native species are remarkably well adapted to fire. As we get deeper into the burned area, the fire appears to have burned hotter and more destructively in some places. Here and there, smoke is still rising from the ground.

The fire and the flare, it turns out, is what is going to make the case. Not the radiation. Because while there actually is a significant reading at the last site we visit, the measurement must be done in a more controlled and legitimized way to have any impact. “This just shows us that there’s dangerous stuff, but we already know that” PA comments a few days later.

But the huge gas flare make the news. The footage PA took some nights before was incorporated in Independent Australia’s piece on it, and the Northern Daily Leader and The Land also ran stories on Santos flaring during a total fire ban. Mining operations are apparently exempt from the rules, and the NSW Rural Fire service does claim that the fire hazard from gas flares is minimal. But when a total fire ban means that harvest has to stop, or that there are strict regulations for lighting your backyard barbeque, allowing an open flame in the middle of a fire prone forest does seem a bit strange, to say the least. 20151130_42flame_IT


 


Breeza Harvest Festival

Postad i: Mining den 9 December, 2015 av Johanna Dahlin

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Workshop at Breeza Harvest Festival photo: David Torell www.vanpeltfoto.com

Workshop at Breeza Harvest Festival photo: David Torell www.vanpeltfoto.com

In early November 2015 a Harvest Festival was held on a farm outside Breeza in north western New South Wales, Australia. This is on the Liverpool plains, rich black-soil farmland which produces two crops every year, and on the fields around Breeza the winter crops of wheat are ripe and ready for harvest. However, the harvest is not the main theme of this festival, despite the name, instead, this gathering is a rally against plans for a coal mine in the area. Breeza farmer Andrew Pursehouse hosts the festival on one of his properties, the Ridge station, which is farmed by his son. Breeza Harvest Festival gathered a diverse crowd of farmers, environmentalists and indigenous groups. During the weekend, a number of workshops and plenary talks were held. The workshops focused on issues such as water, koalas and aboriginal heritage. And the invited speakers for the plenary sessions, (politicians, farmers, aboriginal elders) are all in agreement with one another. This is the wrong mine in the wrong place, as one of the weekend’s slogans went.

The festival was organised by the Liverpool Plains Alliance, an organiser as diverse as the crowd at the festival. Rallying around slogans such as “Dining not Mining”, the organisers are enthusiastic about the size of the crowd and keen to get the festival to “trend” in social media, promoting the hashtags #harfest #diningnotmining and testing the participants patience by endlessly retaking and rearranging photographs in blazing sunlight to get perfect exposure of the message. The festival did manage to attract some media attention, most notably from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which in their report from the event also managed to capture some of our project crew!

The Liverpool Plains are sometimes called “Australia’s food bowl”, and the rich farmland has produced rich farmers. The areas the farms and stations comprise are enormous. And many families own not one, but several stations. This is a well established and well connected group, and several people tell us they have been reluctant to side with “greenies, hippies and aboriginies”. But as the backstage lobbying has not yielded the desired results, they are seeking new allies. While the union largely seem happy, tensions does surface during the weekend. These are groups between which there has previously been quite a bit of animosity, and their coming together is an interesting moment for rural Australia.

The farms themselves can be said to be the result an enclosure process. (Others would call the land stolen.) They are fenced off and surrounded by a “no trespassing” ethos (quite alien for a Swede). But the threat of extraction the proposed coal mine entails, would be enclosure taken a step further.  Most importantly, it threatens another common that land enclosure didn’t: the water. And the answer to the threat of extraction is an appeal to the common. As a threat to the food produced by land, as a threat to the koalas living on the land, as a threat to the water – the ever present water (Australia is a pretty dry place). Important in this context is also the aboriginal heritage which is threatened by the mine. And even the traditional custodians of this heritage appeals to the commons,  “this is your heritage too” as it is put during one of the workshops.

So while the ‘no trespass’ ideology of farmers might be far from the commons ethos, the new alliances requires a shift to emphasizing the common resources at stake. The slogans of the Australian anti-coal and gas movement stresses alternative uses of the land. It sees it not as an extractive resource. They are not interested in the coal or the gas, but in what the extraction of these resource might destroy.


 


It’s about the stars too

Postad i: CSG, Light pollution, Mining den 18 November, 2015 av Johanna Dahlin

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DSC_0801

Arriving at Siding Spring Observatory this morning, we drove into a cloud of fog. The visitor centre was closed and we peered into the milky fog to see if there were any more houses anywhere. “Quiet please – astronomers sleeping” signs tell us as we walk up to a house-like shape. It’s not only a house, it’s staffed and we’re helped to get hold of Peter Small, whom we were here to see. Peter arrives in a big white ute (everyone here drives a big white ute), and takes us to the telescope. Here, we get a rundown of both the observatory, and the local movement against Coal Seam Gas mining.

The man quoted in my last post explained his resistance to coal seam gas as being “all about the water”, but it is about the stars too. Siding Spring was chosen as the location of the observatory – Australia’s largest – in the 1960s because of its dark sky. The Australian National University runs the facility, and as there were too much light pollution in Canberra, where the university is located, the hunt for darker skies began. Siding Spring, situated on the edge of the Warrumbungle National Park, also had the altitude, the (lack of) humidity and the high percentage of clear nights going for it.

It’s the 1,100 m altitude that also accounts for the cloud. It’s quite a view, we’re assured, should the cloud suddenly lift. The observatory is the largest employer in the nearby town of Coonabarabran, which calls itself the Astronomy Capital of Australia, and it began to assert its presence already south of Dunedoo – 150 km away – as we caught sight of a billboard sign featuring Pluto on our drive here. This was part of the Solar System Drive, a scale model of our solar system where the dome of the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) at the observatory acts as the sun. In town, the observatory is also present in the streetscape with murals, telescope stickers in shop windows and the Coonabarabran News Agent is “bringing news to the universe”.

The presence of the observatory also imposes restrictions on the town, which is not supposed to grow. “Coonabarabran is a pretty dark place, perhaps you noticed if you’ve been there at night” says Peter and talks about the regulations in place to protect the dark skies above the observatory. The basic principle is that the light should point down and not spill out upwards. Showing a picture of a street with lighting according to regulation next to a street where they’re not, it is obvious that the regulation lit street is not only darker above, but also much lighter on the ground. “So it’s better for everyone”, says Peter. There are light restrictions within 100 km of the observatory, and the efforts by the host town are evident in the comparative photographs from 1986 and 2014 respectively displayed in the viewing gallery of the AAT. In the recent picture, Coonabarabran is the only place that has not increased its light emissions compared to 1986. In the 2014 picture even Sydney, some 400 km southeast, is visible. And in more recent picture, there is a new bright dot: the Boggabri coalfields. This mine with its 300 workers creates more light pollution than the towns of Gunnedah and Narrabri combined. As being located 120 km away, the mine is outside the regulated zone. Nowadays the observatory tries to be more proactive and works with a proposed mine, which has agreed to design its facilities in accordance with the light regulations.

There is something of a loophole here, since mines or gas wells are not on the list over regulated structures. And the gas wells are a real concern. There are currently around 30 test wells in the Pilliga forest some 50 km from the observatory. They are not in production, Santos who owns them does not have a production license, and the excess gas needs to be either vented, or burnt. And this flare is a significant source of light pollution. It also has do to with the colour of the light. Red light creates more disturbance for the astronomers. The flares from a gas field might force the observatory to close.

Another mining-related issue is dust. In many areas people rely on rainwater which they store in water tanks. Dust covers the roofs and finds its way down to the water and pollutes it. But dust not only risks polluting water, dust also reflects light which causes additional light pollution. Astronomers also fear that corrosive airborne chemicals may harm the telescope mirror.

The telescope is essentially like a big bucket collecting light, Peter explains, and the larger the mirror the more light it can collect. And the darker the sky around it is, the more light from faint and distance light sources it can collect. To protect the night, the observatory supports a bid to have the Warrumbungle area recognized as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (I had no idea there is an International Dark-sky Association!).

Peter takes us for a drive on the winding roads around the observatory site which contains 45 telescopes of different sizes. We are especially pleased to see the telescope named after Martin’s long-time hometown Uppsala, which was used to scan for near objects such as comets that might threaten Earth, until its funding was cut last year that is. To wrap things up, we drive to the Skymapper telescope, which during a five-year survey will map the Southern Sky, imaging every section of it 36 times to create a detailed record of more than a billion stars and galaxies. This is also the spot where you would have a superb view of the Warrumbungle national park if it wasn’t for that cloud. As we are preparing to be content with Peter’s word for it, the cloud lifts a little bit, revealing glimpses of a stunning landscape basking in the sun.

20151102_27observatory-view_IT

 

 


 

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It’s all about the water

Postad i: CSG, Mining den 3 November, 2015 av Johanna Dahlin

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DSC_0797“I don’t like it.” Says the old man when he hears we’re interested in CSG. “Not one bit”. It’s about the water he explains. “We barely have enough to keep this place going”. After a long drive north west from Sydney, we’re in a stunningly beautiful region. But since we crossed the Hawkesbury, there has been very little water in the signposted creeks and rivers. This is not unusual,we’re told, they might be dry for months on end. This is no desert, on the contrary it’s productive farmland, but Australia is a pretty dry place. The driest continent. Water is an issue.

The last post was about mining. While mining and extraction might be of use metaphorically in this project, we are also dealing with some very concrete on the ground mining. I was about to say old-fashioned, but what distinguishes the cases investigated in this project is that they are “new-fashioned”. CSG is not about minerals, it is unconventional gas mining.

CSG is short for Coal Seam Gas. It is also called Coalbed Methane (CBM) or coal-mine methane (CMM). (Wherever you go, there’s acronyms…) This is a rather new thing, in Australia the first mines were opened in Queensland in 1996, less than 20 years ago. Since then, CSG has become a major political issue in eastern Australia as the industry has expanded.

CSG is called an unconventional gas because of the methods used extracting it. The methods include hydraulic fractioning, or fracking, which means that high pressure fluid (according to NSW government usually a mixture of water, sand and ‘minor additives’) is injected to the coal seam to open up fractures, which will release gas. The gas will be brought to the surface together with water, from which it will be separated at the surface. Fracking is a highly controversial method, not least because the risks of water contamination (among the other concerns it is also feared that it might trigger earthquakes). Horizontal drilling is also common in CSG extraction.

Historically, some coal beds have long been known to be “gassy”, and thus vented before mining. Boreholes were drilled into the seams to vent the gas. Together with the gas, water is extracted. This water is often contaminated, and therefore one of the major environmental issues with CSG.

There are no gas mines in this area. No yet. And we are here to talk to the people who intend to keep it that way.


 

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Commons and Commodities

Commons and Commodities
Commons and Commodities är ett forskningsprojekt som undersöker hur gemensamma resurser, allmänningar, avgränsas och inhägnas – och det motstånd sådana processer möter. Vi studerar hur olika typer av allmänningar – både materiella och immateriella – på olika sätt privatiseras och inhägnas och hur detta påverkar de som brukar dem. Vi som skriver här heter Johanna Dahlin och Martin Fredriksson.

Common and Commodities is a research project which asks if, and how, the commons are rearticulated and enclosed as property. It aims to provide new knowledge about how different kinds of common resources are enclosed and commodified as private property, and how this affects those who use and manage those commons. Johanna Dahlin and Martin Fredriksson are writing.

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