As the Haselgrove-3 gas site has flared, so have tensions in the town of Penola.
A “flare” at a gas site refers to testing for a commercial gas field beneath the surface, which causes flames to be emitted from a pipe and a roaring that has been compared to the sound of a jet engine by local Angus Ralton.
Mr Ralton, who could see the flames and hear the noise from his house, reported that two neighbours thought the flare was a bushfire, and couldn’t find any information from relevant fire authorities about what was occurring. They left their property in accordance with their bushfire plan, and before they left, released their horses into the wild.
Other sources have reported that the flare was so bright that it could be seen within a 40km radius.
This latest incident is one of a number of reasons why Mr Ralton, the co-chair of the Limestone Protection Alliance, and Jon Ey, an Independent candidate against all forms of gas drilling, are adamant that the gas fields have no place in the South East.
“We have everything to lose, and they have everything to gain,” said Mr Ralton.
“I'm fighting for my investment, for my property here. I own a block, I own a house. This industry threatens that. It threatens my wealth, my way of life, and my livelihood. It also threatens my health.
"If something can threaten all those things at once it cannot be a good thing."
Both Mr Ralton and Mr Ey became anti-gas campaigners after the establishment of Jolly-1, a gas field 3km outside Penola that was not only established without any community consultation, but was also built and cased to be fracked.
Bungaloo-1, in the Coonawarra area, can also be fracked.
For Mr Ralton and Mr Ey, Haselgrove-3 is a “Trojan Horse” – while it is not built to be fracked itself, it would only be one well out of possibly hundreds in the future that could be fracked.
“I think people are a little bit apathetic about it,” said Mr Ey.
“They look at that well and they think, 'oh it's only a well, why are they kicking up so much of a fuss?' but what people don't realise is that over the coming years, there's going to be hundreds of them. And if you saw the flaring from the other night, and you times that by a hundred, that's when you really should start to get worried."
"It was after Jolly-1 got set up, and I used to live just out past it. And that's when I started looking into it a bit more, and decided that we don't want these things here, absolutely not."
Mr Ralton also believes that this is only the start of something.
“This is only the start. When they came down last time, Jolly-1 was built to be fracked, and it was cased to be fracked. So was Bungaloo-1. Jolly-1 was capped because it wasn't a good production well, so they just walked away from it, as far as our information goes.
“But Bungaloo-1 is ready to go, and can be fracked at any time.
“So last time they got a bit of a bloody nose from coming down and saying, 'We're going to frack the South East!' So now they're coming down and saying they're only going to do conventional wells.
"So the well at Haselgrove-3 was drilled and cased to be a conventional well only.”
“And that's where they play with words a little bit as they have no plans to frack that well,” added Mr Ey.
“They're trying to convince us that they have no plans to frack, and that's a lie. They just don't have plans to frack that one (Haselgrove-3).”
But the Minister for Mineral Resources and Energy, Tom Koutsantonis, stands by his pro-gas extraction stance:
“Gas development in the South East is nothing new – gas has been extracted in the region for decades,” he said.
“Gas extraction, including from fracture stimulation, has also taken place in South Australia safely for 50 years, with no negative environmental impacts.
“The gas locked up underground in this state belongs to all South Australians, and is critical if we are going to address the national gas shortage and put downward pressure on power prices for households and businesses.
“High power prices also makes local industry in the South East less viable, such as Kimberley Clark, hurting local jobs.
“Communities should rightly share in the wealth generated through these projects, which is why the state government will deliver royalties to landowners who have gas extracted from beneath their land.
“Importantly, however, projects will only progress if they are proved to be safe by the independent scientific experts through the regulatory process.”
For Mr Ey and Mr Ralton, these arguments simply don’t ring true.
“It’s a lie,” Mr Ey said bluntly in regards to the gas fields creating local jobs.
“There's 30 or so workers out there, or there was. They fly in from Mount Gambier, they go out to the wells, they stay in the camps, and then they go back to the airport and fly back to where they came from. They don't spend any money in the town.”
And for Mr Ralton, as well as environmental issues that come solely from fracking itself, there are concerns about residents having to pay for gas companies’ water.
“The amount of water they use, that we have to pay for and they don't. Everybody else is meted, and they are not. They can use as much as they want and it doesn't matter.
“And then they've got to dispose of the produced water, which is also a hazard. You can't just put that anywhere and have your stock feed on it. Because then you've got to sign declaration documents to say that your stock hasn't been contaminated by anything when it clearly has, by pasture that has been irrigated by produced water.”
Mr Ey and Mr Ralton explained that more wells would also mean more roads and more infrastructure – the Riddoch Highway would become more congested with traffic, and there would also be new access roads cutting through farmland.
All the wells need to be connected, and this would likely be done through pipes, with above ground pipes being the cheaper option.
If something was to go wrong, there’s no information on whether gas companies such as Beach Energy are insured, and how badly the environment would be affected.
And for Mr Ralton, the idea that more wells means that gas will be cheaper is an economic argument that “just doesn’t stack up”.
“There will be no jobs, no gas. They're not going to pipe gas into Penola. And the gas will not be cheaper. There are people who think that we need to get it (gas) because gas prices are going up, and if we get it here it's going to be cheaper - they're delusional."
"They (gas companies) are beholden to their stockholders to get the best results possible. That's company law. So to get the best result out of their wells that they can, they're in it to make money. They're a public company, they're not in it as a charity. So cheap gas is gone. It's not coming back to Australia, ever. So just to have it here is not going to make any difference to the price.”
The fact that the community was not consulted about the gas wells, instead receiving “briefings” once they’d been established, has further angered Mr Ey and Mr Ralton.
And as well as Penola, they’re cautious of other communities being drilled for gas wells.
"If you look at the exploration licences, they cover a lot of places - Robe, Kingston. It covers the entire South East,” said Mr Ey.
“That's one thing that I've been most verbal about (in my campaign) - the damage to our reputation. We are a clean, green agricultural region. It's going to put that reputation in jeopardy, having fracking and gas wells all over the place.
“Not to mention the damage that it's going to have on our tourism - the Naracoorte Caves, the Coonawarra region. Nobody sits in Adelaide and says to themselves, 'let's go visit the gas wells.’”
The Limestone Coast Protection Alliance will be hosting a free political forum in the Naracoorte Town Hall on March 6, with all of the MacKillop candidates invited. The public are strongly encouraged to attend.