August 30, 2012

A little bird

As I sat in my apartment last Friday, minding my own business, a small parrot-like bird* crash-landed on the balcony. It flew into a big patio window with a thud, making me jump. I saw a feather floating and then spotted the tiny thing sitting on the floor behind a plant pot. It looked stunned, and then a bit twitchy, but it wasn't moving much. For about half an hour it seemed to be checking if its wings were working; it hopped on and off an ornamental seagull – and then tried to fly, straight into the glass again. A few minutes later, it finally took off, careening into the balustrade a couple of times. I don't know if it could have survived: when I downloaded my photographs, I realised its face was bloodied and its beak scrunched. It had been a trying week.

First there was the harrowing Four Corners on the demise of the koala. I have since spoken to several people who watched the programme and they were all angry and/or upset. OK, so now you have to lobby those who have a mandate to stop the developers' dozers. If you didn't see the programme, watch it here and be very very concerned – http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/
2012/08/16/3569231.htm.

The next morning, Tuesday, we learned that escaping methane had been burning in the western Downs near Dalby since Saturday. It was suggested over subsequent days that this must be related to Arrow Energy's extraction of water to release coal-seam gas in their nearby Daandine gas field. Engineer and geologist Dr Gavin Mudd of Monash University explained that,
'By pumping out all the water, the ground water pressure drops allowing gas to start flowing in places it never flowed in the past. It could surface anywhere including from old coal wells. It beggars belief that companies fiddling with methane are trying to pretend there is no risk of gas leaks.'
Head-in-the-sand Queensland Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection Andrew Powell denied that his advisors had briefed him that there might be such a connection. Drew Hutton, head of Lock the Gate, argued that any advisors worth having must at least have warned him of the likelihood, even if none of them wanted to believe it.

Since March, Queensland has had a Gasfields Commissioner. A former president of Agforce, the 'unifying voice of Queensland's beef, sheep and grain producers since 1999', John Cotter should be the right person to address farmers' concerns about the encroachment of CSG development on prime agricultural land and the increased risk of fire, especially in the upcoming bushfire season. Total transparency on the part of the gas companies and proper regulation of their practices by government will be what landowners expect Mr Cotter to help deliver. He backed calls for an investigation of the causes of the fire. But did we ever get a full explanation of why the Condamine River was bubbling 'like a spa bath' (Drew Hutton) a few months back?

On Thursday came the news that Tony Burke, Federal Environment Minister, had approved, with 19 conditions, the Alpha Mine in the Galilee Basin and the associated rail corridor to Abbot Point coal-exporting port. The Minister has emphasised the protection of the Great Barrier Reef and the Caley Valley Wetlands, but his conditions also include a management plan to protect threatened fauna listed by the EPBC (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation). And, of particular interest to those of us waiting to see whether the China First Coal project also gets approval, there is another condition: that the Alpha Mine developer, Hancock-GVK, must set up a trust, with initial funding of $2 million, to conduct research on the Black-throated Finch and the Squatter Pigeon, 'with provision for a more strategic approach to protect all key species in the Galilee Basin in the event that any further mines are approved in the basin'.

Another condition of approval is 'significant and comprehensive land offsets to protect listed threatened ecological communities and species'. Those who have read my Bimblebox updates may recall that I promised to tackle the subject of offsets at least a couple of months ago. My reluctance stems from deep misgivings about how offsetting can possibly work in the case of, for example, an isolated remnant ecosystem. Just as I never quite understood how planting a few trees could offset my carbon footprint from flying across Europe on holiday, I can't imagine how you can replicate a unique area, of desert upland for example, elsewhere in the eastern bio region. There are no matching pieces of land, with the same soil profile for instance, which is established over time and supports plant and animal species that thrive in that particular ecosystem alone.

A land-based offset management plan must meet a number of criteria. The most interesting of these is a demonstration of ecological equivalence, which is defined by 'ecological condition' (such as whether or not there's a tree canopy or large amounts of organic litter) and 'special features' (such as whether an area is a strategic ecological corridor or contains a large variety of species). Each category has 14 ecological equivalence indicators. I have so far been unable to find out if certain indicators have been earmarked by the Department of the Environment as relating specifically to the survival of species seriously threatened by the Alpha coal project, or if it is up to the developer to identify the significant characteristics of an ecosystem as they create an offset management plan. For a complete list of equivalence indicators, see http://www.ehp.qld.gov.au/
management/environmental-offsets/measuring-ecological-
equivalence.html.

Minister's Burke's Alpha approval didn't quite satisfy Mr Newman's deputy, Jeff Seeney, however. He complained that Mr Burke's decision was overdue and, moreover, he has many other projects on his desk awaiting approval. The Federal Minister denied this was the case, and so the spat that began a few weeks ago when Queensland's Co-ordinator General approved this project was rekindled. On 26 July Minister Burke sent Premier Newman and open letter, which means it was a media release as well. In it he said:
'Let me be clear, if what you want is for me to give approvals without conducting checks, then I will stand in your way. If you want the Government to let you trash the Great Barrier Reef, we will stand in your way. If you want to clear fell every acre of koala habitat in south east Queensland, we will stand in your way. This Government will continue to work with industry, we will continue to get good environmental outcomes and good employment outcomes for Queensland, but no matter how many times you ask, if you want to indulge in environmental corner cutting, shambolic process and environmental vandalism, we will have none of it.' 
Strong stuff, eh, from Mr Burke?

There is currently much talk of Australia's mining boom being over, or half over, or still as strong as it ever was. Federal Government ministers talked at cross purposes last week – who's talking about an investment boom and who's talking about commodity prices? – while BHP Billiton shelved their expansion plans for Olympic Dam, a large mining centre (copper, uranium, gold and silver) and processing plant in South Australia. Of course, Tony Abbott, leader of Federal Opposition, blamed BHP's decision on the carbon tax even though the company cited commodity prices. The day Abbott utters sound-bites that don't include churlish connections to the 'carbon tax' will indeed be newsworthy.

* It was, in fact, a Budgerigar, and a domestic one, my friend thought, going off its colouring. (I can never understand why people must keep birds in cages here, when there is such a rich variety of birdlife right outside their front doors.)
This post was last edited on 2 October 2012



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