The CSG war: why are people so fired up?

Drive down the road flanked by some of Australia's most expensive rural real estate and you'll find yourself travelling through a war zone.

It's all very polite, legalistic and non-violent - very Southern Highlands - but it's a war nevertheless.

The fences and gates are lined with bright yellow placards telling the world this well-heeled community wants nothing to do with coal or coal seam gas.

MORE: CSG, mines power 'meets public expectations'

Halfway down Golden Vale Road, the signs multiply and - once you reach a small dirt road on your right - you'll see a caravan and a ute forming a chicane next to a gazebo outpost staffed by well-dressed retirees.

Welcome to the blockade.

For the past six months, members of the Southern Highlands Coal Action Group (known by its unwieldy acronym, SHCAG) have policed this private road, twice barring access to Hume Coal employees and their drilling machinery.

Multi-millionaire Michael Seay is one of those who, late in life, has found himself dragged into activism. He is not happy about it.

Speaking in an accent straight out of the American Deep South, where he grew up, he spits his contempt for the "communist style of law" that allows mine exploration on private land.

"Everyone along this road is very successful, mostly come from Sydney and we have invested a lot of money in our property," he said.

"It seems so unfair that in our twilight years, when we are trying to enjoy the fruits of our labour, that we are having this pulled out from under us."

Although the case for access is currently before the courts, Seay declares that he will never allow his land to become a coalmine.

"I will oppose the law, a fine, anything they put before me," he said.

"Either shoot me or put me in prison. I won't let them come on my land."

Travel down the escarpment to the northern Illawarra and you find a very different group of people. However they have a very similar passion in what has become - in just two years - the largest community action for decades.

Stop CSG Illawarra counts almost 4000 supporters on its books and has already organised three major events since its first meeting at Ryan's Hotel, Thirroul, in March 2011.

It took just two months to organise 3000 people to form a human banner on Austinmer Beach; five months later, the Seacliff Bridge was closed as protesters marched and shouted; then last October, about 3000 people crowded into Bulli Showground for another human sign.

Resource Minister Chris Hartcher has fought back, telling an industry conference "mining is at the very heart of the economy of this state".

He has also called into question the motives of some protesters.

"People have every right to question the agenda of public bodies and ought to be wary of organised political organisations masquerading as grassroots community groups," he said.

Perhaps he was thinking of Jess Moore, the public face and co-founder of Stop CSG Illawarra, and a member of the Socialist Alliance since 2006.

"The first thing for me is that people and planet should come before profit," she said.

"Decisions should be made based on human need.

"The Socialist Alliance is the organisation whose goal is not to be elected but to run campaigns.

"I think change happens because ordinary people get involved."

In person, it's hard not to be impressed with Moore.

After arriving from Sydney to study psychology (she later switched to philosophy and politics) at the University of Wollongong in 2005, she was soon involved in campaigns and became president of the student union.

Now she lives in the northern suburbs with her partner, Chris Williams (also a leading CSG campaigner), and earns a basic living from teaching, tutoring, lecturing and organising a migrant-led recycling program.

The rest of her time is devoted to stopping Apex Energy drilling for gas on water catchment land from Darkes Forest to the escarpment behind Coledale and Austinmer.

(The company believes the project could potentially supply 20 per cent of Sydney's gas for 20 years.)

"Sometimes it feels like everything I do is about this," she said.

"I could limit my time but I would find it incredibly hard. I can see that putting in time and energy makes a difference.

"I don't ever resent it because it's choices I have made, but I often wish I was working less."

While the campaign has forged strong friendships, it has also earned Moore a couple of written death threats she has passed to police.

She and Williams are considering buying a second dog, and wonder if it should be a large one.

"My personal security does worry me at times, but mostly not," she said.

While Moore is a seasoned, semi-professional campaigner, she is surrounded by people who never in their wildest dreams imagined themselves as activists.

Steve Whistler is a designer and entrepreneur who sold his business in Sydney but still works in it four days a week.

The father of two young boys, he moved to Thirroul a couple of years ago to be near his parents but has been concerned about energy use and the environment since reading a book about peak oil in 2007.

Like others, this campaign has sucked him in, demanding time he yearns to give to his family, who call his new friends "the triangle people" after the shape of the stickers and banners.

"I believe my kids' generation will look at my generation with absolute contempt in 20 years time," Whistler said.

"They will be saying, 'What were you thinking?'

"I want to be able to turn around and say - 'Remember the triangle people? - that's what I was doing'."

Peter Townsley has been a chief executive for 30 years, specialising in small to medium technology companies, and drives a BMW four-wheel-drive with a Stop CSG sticker.

He had not long moved to Helensburgh from Sydney's Eastern Suburbs when he heard about the inaugural meeting at Ryan's Hotel.

"I went along and sat at the back of the room thinking this was likely to be a bunch of tree-huggers trying to stir up trouble," he said.

"When they first started talking, my first reaction was that this could not be right."

So he went away and did his own research, eventually doing six months almost full time, becoming increasingly outraged at what he discovered.

"It is obviously wearing and yes, it gets you down," he said.

"But when I come to think about it, I become furious that we have been called upon to do this, for no personal gain or benefit.

"We have invested two years of our lives, sacrificed income and sleep, to do something that the government is charged to do on our behalf. What is that all about?"

Though all that work has so far achieved nothing except delay, Townsley believes the community - even a mining town like Helensburgh - is coming around.

"In the early days, I felt very exposed and would only put up signs early in the morning," he said.

"Now I would say that hostile resistance to the campaign is less than 3 per cent of the community."

Yet despite all the work, the regular meetings, the sense of community, purpose and friendship, Townsley barely hesitates when asked how two years of campaigning makes him feel.

"I feel powerlessness more than powerfulness. Absolutely." 

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