If you have ever visited Gloucester, you will know it as a delightful farming community in the foothills of the Barrington Tops world heritage area. It is an area best known for rich dairy herds, fine produce, and the dramatic Gloucester Tops range that rises abruptly from the valley floor. But now it is increasingly known as a coal mine – and a gas field.

The residents of this idyllic valley are facing the same questions facing so many other communities that are on the frontline of the fossil fuel boom – “How can we stop our most beautiful and productive farmlands becoming an industrial wasteland at the hands of the mining industry?”

The answer depends on whether you want to play by the rules or not. Playing by the rules, when it comes to trying to stop a coal mine or a coal seam gas development, means losing. The rules exist to encourage mining – not to stop it. Some rural communities know this so well that they don’t even bother fighting. But an increasing number are saying to hell with the rules – with surprising results.

In little more than a year, the term ‘lock the gate’ has become the catch cry of a movement that has taken politicians and energy companies by storm. It is both conservative and radical at its core. Conservative because it speaks to the defense of private property in order to protect the status quo. Radical because it actively promotes civil disobedience.

When Santos moved to begin drilling for coal seam gas at Spring Ridge on the Liverpool Plains a few weeks ago, farmers there decided to lock the gate to protect their groundwater. After a week-long blockade, Santos agreed to suspend drilling until a water study had been completed. Of course, Santos could have just called in the police, had the farmers removed and drilled their wells anyhow. But while they had the legal authority, they lacked the moral authority. Indeed the entire coal seam gas industry lacks a social license to operate. That is why Santos, even without a retail brand to speak of, backed down.

What is playing out today in Gloucester is the next battleground in the people’s movement against the destruction of the Australian landscape and water resources by mining. In the middle of the afternoon yesterday, landowners from the Gloucester valley began peacefully blockading AGL and their plans to drill four more coal seam gas wells just south of the township.

AGL plan to drill over a hundred wells in the valley that would, along with the coal mine expansions, transform the Gloucester valley into an industrial zone. Many residents and landowners have just had enough. “AGL – Go to Hell” no doubt isn’t a refrain that AGL senior managers want broadcast across the airwaves any more than it already has been – but they are facing that risk.

So far, most of community heat over coal seam gas has been felt by companies that don’t have a retail presence but it is AGL and Origin who have the most to lose as the campaign escalates. These big energy retailers sell regulated commodities – gas and electricity – so their main way of differentiating themselves from their competitors is through their brand – hence the millions spent on green advertising. But this brand sensitivity makes them vulnerable to the kind of community backlash that AGL’s Gloucester project has provoked. Depending on how things play out, AGL could very easily find themselves becoming the whipping boy for the entire coal seam gas industry.

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