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Frack off: Dayne Pratzky's fight against coal seam gas

Story by Amanda Hooton

Dayne Pratzky doesn't look like a film star. He's too stocky, too sun damaged, too devoid of hair product. But he does look strong, like a man who'd be hard to wear down. Which is just as well, because when he picks me up from Toowoomba airport we're at the start of an epic, 14-hour, 500-kilometre day together. He opens the door of the rental car with a flourish. "Put the aircon on, or the radio, or whatever you like," he says, gesturing grandly. "It's our car!"

A decade ago, Dayne Pratzky was a 30-year-old, pig-shooting, diesel-driving construction worker who bought 100 hectares of scrubby land near Tara, in Queensland's Western Downs, hoping to improve it and sell it on. There was no power, sewerage or water, but in 2008 he dug a dam and started building a house from trees felled on his property. And then one day, a coal seam gas (CSG) company rolled down his driveway.

Pratzky's six-year battle to stop CSG mining on his land is now the subject of a new documentary, Frackman. The morning we meet, the trailer has just passed Russell Crowe's The Water Diviner in online hits. How does that feel, I ask, as we sweep through the Toowoomba roundabouts. "Well, bad for Russell, obviously," says Pratzky, grinning. "Poor old Rusty, lagging behind." Then he shrugs. "Who wants to wake up with a camera in your face? Not me, it's horrible. But it's part of it. When the gas company came, I didn't have a choice. I had no money, nowhere to go. I had a beat-up crappy car, my land, and a home I'd built with my bare hands. And I was going to be just wiped off the face of the earth. So I fought."

Almost 440 million hectares of Australia is covered by coal and gas licences or applications, an area 18 times the size of Great Britain. Of the 5000-odd wells operating in eastern Australia, the vast majority are in Queensland, where Frackman is set. According to Paul Fennelly, acting CEO of APPEA, the peak body representing Australia's oil and gas industry, "Frackman bears little resemblance to reality; nor any of the work done by numerous scientific and government bodies underpinning an industry that has been safely operating in Queensland for 20 years."

Voters in NSW and Victoria, however, seem oddly unconvinced by the Queensland experience: to date, both states have held back CSG development via a series of moratoriums. In Victoria (which has no wells at all), the freeze has been extended until a parliamentary inquiry is complete. But if the Baird government retains power following next weekend's NSW election, it will begin considering projects around the state including in Sydney's sensitive drinking water catchments - according to a new assessment framework.

Pratzky himself is a New South Welshman by birth, and you get the sense of a cocky, wild kid - "I was a total ratbag at school" - who realised early he could talk his way out of, or into, most things. He tried butchery and spray-painting as a teenager, then got himself hired as a commercial diver without so much as a single PADI lesson to his name. ("I fessed up on the first day, and the boys helped me out. It was a great job.") When he wanted a job on the Parramatta rail link project, he turned up at the site office at 5am for three weeks running. "The guy was like, 'You again! Are you serious?' But three weeks later he said, 'This employment company is waiting for you to call,' and I got the job."

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