February 10, 2013

Bimblebox 7: 2013 prospects

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke has just rejected the Australian Heritage Council's recommendation that 493,000 hectares of the Tarkine region in Tasmania's northwest be included on the National Heritage List. Instead, a mere 21,000 hectares of coastal strip will be added, for its Aboriginal cultural heritage. Mr Burke claims that this was one of the toughest decisions of his career*, but he couldn't agree to the Heritage Council's request at the expense of jobs in a region where unemployment is considered a big problem.

Several mining projects, including tin and magnetite mines, are planned for this area of temperate forest wilderness (above), with its Tasmanian Devils that have not yet been decimated by facial tumour disease and – who knows? – maybe even a Tasmanian Tiger. Interestingly, I have just read that in Cornwall (UK), once a famous tin-mining region, there are plans to dredge sand just off the county's north coast in search of remnant traces of tin**. Cornwall's north coast is a surfing mecca – yes, it really is, should Aussie surfies of the Gold and Surf coasts doubt it – and has a massive tourism industry based on spectacular beaches. 'Tis a brave council that threatens surfers' favourite waves.

Mr Burke's decision making is disappointing, and I have little faith in him to resist the mining plans still on his desk. His position is complicated by Julia Gillard's recent announcement of the date of the next Federal election. Given that the majority of political pundits give Labor a slim chance of re-election on 14 September, does Tony Burke grab a brief yet noble window of opportunity to protect this continent's biodiversity and tackle its carbon emissions problem? He could reject weak Environmental Impact Statements (EISes) that
pay lip service to environmental protection and glibly cite unproven offsetting schemes. Or does he approve mines and power stations and rail corridors and port facilities in the hope that his government can use resource taxes and export revenues to bolster its forecasts of a budget surplus?

The data concerning the destruction of Bimblebox Nature Refuge by an opencast coal mine proposed as part of Waratah Coal's China First project sits in Mr Burke's pending folder. It awaits further information, in the form of a supplementary EIS. It is several weeks since environmental scientists in the employ of Waratah last visited Bimblebox to spuriously list fauna and flora for offsetting purposes. Any ecologist worth his or her qualification must know that they are attempting the impossible: you cannot offset a unique ecosystem. Or, at least, not without years of R&D and many more of growth and establishment.

I firmly believe that the fate of Bimblebox is subject to the whims of the international market for coal. There are many rumours coming out of China, not only concerning the health of its economy but also the desire of China's leaders to generate power from clean energy sources given the current risks to the health of its citizens. Beijing spent much of January blanketed in acrid smog, air quality falling short of World Health Organisation safe limits every day of the month. According to the World Bank, China has 16 of the world's most polluted cities. Decreasing numbers of blue sky days prelude chronic illness, intellectual impairment and behavioural problems later in life for today's children.

In Australia, the transition from coal to renewables is much more a question of cost than the desire to reduce the nation's massive carbon footprint. The Sydney Morning Herald's 'carbon economy editor', Tom Holland, writing in the paper only a few days ago†, doesn't believe any more coal-fired power stations are likely to be built. Given reduced demand for energy and falling costs of wind and solar power generation, big banks see fossil fuels as an increasingly risky investment.

There is, however, a plan†† to build a 'clean' coal-fired power station between Alpha and Bimblebox to supply energy to mines in the Galilee Basin. The proponent is a subsidiary of Waratah Coal. Please note that submissions are still open (until 22 February).

Submissions close tomorrow for yet another Galilee Basin mega mine. The Carmichael Coal Mine and Rail Project, 160 km northwest of Clermont, would be the largest mine in Queensland, extending for at least 40 km and, like Waratah's China First, obliterating remnant desert upland, cattle stations and a nature refuge. The proponent is Adani Mining Pty, a subsidiary of the Indian Adani Group, which intends most of the coal for export. Adani face corruption charges in India, allegedly failing to pay sufficient tax on its iron ore exports, while its record of compliance with environmental regulatory procedure is poorª.

There is little doubt that an LNP federal government, together with resource-rich, like-minded state governments will make violation of the Australian landscape easier. They will do away with carbon pricing, thus encouraging fossil fuel-based energy generation, and hand over greater environmental control to the states. May all your gods help Queensland, and especially Bimblebox, should that day dawn in September.

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