September 30, 2013

The big issue: biodiversity

Biodiversity simply means a diversity of plant and animal life. In most bioregions diversity is wide-ranging; in many it is vulnerable and in need of protection, all the more so following the recent election of climate-change deniers and 'green-tape' cutters to Canberra. In the Land Court in Brisbane last week, the discussion was quite specific: how the development of the Alpha coal mine would impact not only on the landscape that will be destroyed during its creation but also on neighbouring properties that include Bimblebox Nature Reserve.
BNR was created more than a decade ago with the intention of protecting an area of high conservation value, including a remnant desert upland ecosystem. A nature refuge is established under a voluntary agreement between the Queensland government and a landowner*, enabling that landowner to maintain a living from sustainable use of the land while conserving its features of value. The Nature Refuges Program outlines clearly that such an agreement is:
perpetual, registrable on title and binds successive owners or lessees of the land. A nature refuge is the best way landholders can ensure the good land management practices and conservation works they have initiated will be continued when future generations or new owners take over.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines perpetual as 'lasting or destined to last for ever; eternal'.

The co-owners of Bimblebox bought the cattle station to save it from being cleared – there was a clearing permit attached to the sale of the property. The Queensland government contributed $300,000 towards the purchase. Between $10,000 and $40,000 a year is required to maintain the environmental management plan – clearing exotic plant species, controlling feral animals, and mitigating bush fires. Cattle help to trample down invasive buffel grass so it won't be fuel for the fires: cows are part of the plan.

Bimblebox includes six vegetation zones, more than 150 different species of birds, an abundance of reptiles and diverse flora. The birds include – sometimes – the Black-throated Finch, which has gained notoriety since mega mines were proposed for the Galilee Basin and landowners and conservation groups drew attention to fauna and flora that are likely to be lost as a result. The Finches used to range from well up in Queensland's Pointy Bit down to northeastern New South Wales. They are more common in the north but the birds' most southerly sighting in recent times was at Rockhampton in 2004, and then 15 were spotted at Bimblebox in May 2011. It is estimated that the Finch's range has contracted by between 53 and 80 per cent.

With extensive clearing of the region, a sizeable area of remaining woodland such as Bimblebox becomes even more valuable as it is ecologically and genetically more resilient than small patches whose connectivity has been lost. This is even more significant when it comes to the efficacy of biodiversity offsetting. The Nature Refuge increases the options of food sources for species during drought conditions, for example. Some species such as the Black-throated Finch are unable to migrate very far without water or food. It is currently classed as endangered, as is the Northern Quoll, a marsupial. Bimblebox is home to other at-risk species and ecological communities: threatened (Brigalow); near-threatened (Black-chinned Honeyeater); vulnerable (Squatter Pigeon, below); and regionally significant (Australian Bustard, bottom of page). The Refuge is also the location of important research, for example how the bioregion responds to fire.
In court last week it was revealed that targeted surveys of the Black-throated Finch were not carried out in the preparation of Alpha's EIS even though the Federal government's Significant Impact Guidelines for that particular species were already in place at the time. There were no fauna transects, whereby a species is counted and recorded along a fixed path and then the probability of it being present calculated across a wider area. However, in determining biodiversity values for the Alpha mining lease area, whether or not the Finch was actually spotted was not a reference point for impact assessment; rather it was the potential of that particular habitat for the bird to be present. Habitat modelling identifies certain landscape features with the potential for providing suitable habitat for a species. Hancock's expert witness – an ecology manager from a firm of environmental consultants – thought it unlikely that the Black-throated Finch was in fact present on the Alpha mine site.

The discussion in Court moved on to the likelihood of the regional extinction of a species with the impact of the mine. Again, it was not the actual percentage of suitable habitat that was going to be removed but a theoretical percentage of an area with the potential to house the habitat. Biodiversity and extinction are complex subjects, and the conceptualisation of modelling parameters has already challenged the Court. Extinction is not only about habitat loss or fragmentation but also factors such as the management of weeds and pests and land use practices.

State and Federal approval of a mine on the scale of Alpha comes with conditions attached, including management plans to protect the area's biodiversity values. If a landscape is to be decimated then biodiversity offsetting comes into play. And therein lies another rather convoluted concept.

September 26, 2013

The big issue: groundwater

By the time I got to the Land Court on Monday there was a buzz about Lock the Gate's report on groundwater guzzling by the proposed mega coal mines of the Galiliee Basin. Groundwater is a very big issue there: it is the bottom line of viability for graziers in Central Queensland.

The six-month study, in consultation with a former Queensland government water planning manager, Tom Crowthers, found that the majority of water bores in the mine lease areas would be unworkable by the time the mines are operational. The coal seams lie beneath important aquifers that would have to be drained (dewatered) in order to access the coal. In addition, vast quantities of water would be needed to wash the coal and suppress dust. The study used information from the Environmental Impact Statements of five of the proposed mines to extrapolate figures for the other four. 

Draining the Life-blood: Groundwater Impacts of Coal Mining in the Galilee Basin* predicts that 1,345 billion litres of water would have to be drained from the Basin by all nine mines** before they can extract the coal. This is the equivalent of two and a half Syd Harbours. (We know how much people here like to compare extremely large quantities of water with the volume of Australia's most celebrated harbour, although I would imagine few people have any idea just how much water that is.) Another 50-70 billion litres a year would be used by the Galilee mines for washing and other purposes.

The importance of the Galilee's groundwater for its towns and pastoralists cannot be overstated. A number of aquifers are at risk according to Lock the Gate. Surface water will not escape impact: water courses will be diverted, for example, for additional mining purposes. The Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development, established by the Federal government in 2012 in an amendment to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, have gone further, and suggested that the dewatering of the Galilee Basin will have an impact on the aquifers of the Great Artesian Basin. They also expressed concern about the inadequacy of hydrogeological data provided for groundwater modelling parameters by Hancock Coal for their Alpha mine, the first of the megas to obtain Federal approval. The IESC and many experts believe that cumulative impact studies are essential before mining can proceed.

In the Land Court over the last few days, two groundwater experts have taken the stand and referenced groundwater modelling by consultants, audits by other consultants, and joint expert conferences and reports. There appeared to me to be a distinct lack of consensus, however, about the parameters for the modelling in question, and a degree of uncertainty about predictions that at times bordered on lack of confidence.

As one of the graziers opposing the Alpha mine approval pointed out to me: if Hancock Coal is so sure of its claim that bores on stations adjoining the mine lease area will not be affected by drawdown, why won't they sign make-good agreements that give the farmers firm assurances of their commitment to the maintenance of water supplies. Those agreements have stalled.

And is the so-called water trigger amendment to the EPBC Act safe in Tony Abbott's hands? Now it's my turn to lack confidence.
**  the nine mine proposals include more than 34 opencast pits and 15 underground mines along a 270-kilometre north south strike and will produce more than 300 million tonnes of coal a year when they are all fully operational

September 24, 2013

Farmers vs Big Coal 3

Outside the Primary Industries Building in Ann Street in Brisbane's CBD is a white sculpture, The Drovers. This was part of a series of streetscapes depicting the essence of Australian life during Expo '88. Stockmen gather around a fire waiting for the billy to boil. I noticed this again the other day on my way to the Land Court, where a group of graziers are seeking to protect their water supply which they perceive to be at risk from a huge coal mine near Alpha once it is operational.

Cattle farming is, of course, a primary industry. But not as primary as mining, it seems. Very little can stop mining companies exploiting Australia's mineral riches. Except, perhaps, a serious global economic downturn. And climate change. After all, a badly flooded opencast mine can't function, can it?

Cattle farmers in Central Queensland may already be feeling the effects of global warming. Last summer's wet didn't really happen for them, and many are already drought declared. Temperatures are high for early spring: I've heard a hot summer predicted by several Queenslanders 'reading' August's weather signs. One of the graziers petitioning the Land Court last week reported that five of his eight bores are already dry.

Friday in Court was particularly interesting. First up was Professor Roger Jones from the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies at Victoria University in Melbourne. Trained as an earth scientist, he worked at CSIRO for 13 years, and brings science, economics and policy together to create methodologies for developing mitigation strategies to manage the risks of climate change. He has been a contributor to the IPCC as well as the Australian Climate Change Adaptation Strategy*. Scenario analysis is his specialist subject.

Hancock's chief cross-examining lawyer asked the professor about the uncertainties of predicting the impact of climate change; those countries bound by the Kyoto Protocol and those that had made non-binding pledges; Australia's emissions policy before and since the Federal election; the social costs of carbon; and the parameters of emissions scenarios. It gradually dawned on me how the lawyer was working his way towards absolving Hancock Coal of responsibility for its emissions, the social costs of which are not quantified at project level. Neither can specific damage as a result of climate change, such as coral bleaching, be identified with particular emissions.

The clever manoeuvrings of lawyers was further exemplified during the afternoon session when counsel for Coast and Country engaged in highly detailed questioning of the third-party reviewer about his preferred conceptualisation model for groundwater studies. The line of questioning began with the absence of a geological basis for the western boundary of the model and progressed to how much data – and hydrogeological data in particular – is required for such complex conceptualisation. There was a definite inference by the end of the afternoon session that more field data – permeability testing, for example – could have been better integrated into the modelling.

Fascinating as these sessions in the Land Court were today, they both illustrated the difficulties of unrepresented parties in getting to grips not only with legal procedures but with the style and intensity of verbal sparring. You can imagine how valuable daily transcripts are to participants? Unfortunately the outsourcing of court transcript services as part of the Newman government's cost-cutting measures has added to the already considerable financial burden of plaintiffs.

In my mind I keep coming back to an individual's rights and the great Australian concept of a fair go.
* within the new LNP government there is no department of Climate Change so presumably there is no longer any Federal adaptation strategy either

September 20, 2013

Farmers vs Big Coal 2

Having heard much about the methods employed by big companies in addressing the concerns and rights of ordinary people trying to preserve their livelihoods in the face of large-scale resource development projects, I witnessed them first-hand yesterday. The landowners from the Galilee Basin came up against Hancock Coal's smooth operators in the form of Corporate Counsel with responsibility for negotiating make-good agreements and the company's lawyers in court.

I didn't get to the Land Court until after midday, and between then and the adjournment for lunch I didn't hear a single question of cross-examination by the landowners that wasn't objected to by Hancock's legal team. Most objections were sustained, of course, because the Galilee's graziers are not skilled at formal questioning without unintentional implication, and Hancock's men are adept at obstruction and obfuscation. It was soul-destroying to listen to the landowners struggling to make any headway with the negotiator in the witness box. He stated that their failure to reach a make-good agreement was because their demands 'exceeded the normal scope of the agreement'.

The inference that those who failed to reach agreement were being unreasonable was raised again. The grazier asked if those landowners who had reached make-good agreement with Hancock had signed confidentiality clauses, since information about those agreements might be helpful in resolving his own issues. I'm sure you can imagine how quickly the coal company's lawyer was on his feet with an objection to that one.

After lunch Hancock's hydrogeologist took the stand to discuss groundwater, this time in terms of numerical (computer) modelling*, especially in connection with the cumulative impact of several mines on water supply, and the continual monitoring of any drawdown**. Reference was made to different models, and several expert audit-reviews of those models, and the Joint Expert Conference that had produced the final hydrogeological report. The expert witness confirmed that the different models had not been combined. Adequate baseline data, and the generation of such data over time and relevant land area was again an issue. Federal approval of the Alpha mine is conditional upon the cumulative effects on groundwater of other mines being monitored, but there are four planned in this part of the Galilee Basin by different proponents using different modelling and at different stages of the approval process.

Hancock's expert witness expressed his confidence in the coal company's continual monitoring of bores once mining commences, another condition of approval. (My question is: who will monitor the monitoring?) He also outlined how water supply to the landowners would be made good should it be adversely affected by mining activity. New bores would draw on a deeper aquifer. He was confident there would be a deeper aquifer to tap.

As they say, the case continues...
* designed to predict what the affects of coal mining will be on groundwater
** the lowering of the level of an aquifer, in this case as a result of mining activity

September 19, 2013

Farmers vs Big Coal 1

Yesterday I attended the Land Court in Brisbane. It was day 3 of an action brought by a group of Central Queensland landowners and the community group Coast and Country Association Queensland, who challenge the approval of Hancock Coal's (and GVK's) Alpha mine on the basis of the threat it poses to water supplies; the irreversible damage to the environment by opencast mining (and don't forget the rail corridor); the threat to the Great Barrier Reef of port dredging and bulk carrier channels; and the project's contribution to global carbon emissions, and hence climate change.

Supporters of the graziers' cause were asked to attend the Court today because individual landowners were going to be taking the stand. Gathered outside before proceedings began at 10 were representatives of a number of lobby groups, including Lock the Gate Alliance, Protect the Bush Alliance and wildlife organisations, as well as many individuals who believe that farmers' rights and protection of the environment should be defended more vigorously under the law.

The court resumed with the landowners' cross-examination of a groundwater expert, and was principally concerned with the potential groundwater impact of the mine on properties adjoining rather than within the mining lease application area. Of surprise to me was the lack of a regional groundwater model based on the impacts of all four proposed mines in the Alpha area. The landowners argued that baseline data used in groundwater modelling by the mining companies should have been carried out over a longer period so that water level fluctuations following particularly wet or dry seasons are fully understood.

I noted wryly that water-level-monitoring devices on bore holes are solar-powered.

None of the landowners can afford a barrister so are representing themselves in court. Not only do they each have to grapple with the science of hydrogeology but also legal speak and procedure. The judge was looking out for them, however. He told them to take time whenever they got flustered; he carefully explained the procedural subtleties of their submissions when they were challenged by Hancock's highly polished barrister; and expressed his pervading concern about the landowners' belief that they are not getting a fair go in their dealings with the mining company to obtain 'make-good agreements'. These are intended to reduce uncertainty about the landowners' future economic viability by securing an assurance from Hancock that they will replace water lost as a result of mining activity.

During the evidence of the first landowner to take the stand, a grazier from near Jericho, the court became bogged in a technicality: whether a certain disclosure by the witness was consistent with the maintenance of confidentiality preserved by 'without prejudice'* correspondence between the parties. This matter consumed a great deal of the rest of the day's session, and taxed my brain enormously. The workings of the court are fascinating and extremely demanding.

But I'll be back.

Below: Paola Cassoni of Bimblebox Nature Refuge is interviewed by the ABC's Leonie Mellor; enthusiastic supporters of the landowners; the Queensland police keep their eye on us
* without any loss or waiver of rights or privileges

September 15, 2013

Post-electoral depression

I am reminded of British headlines in November 2004 following
the re-election of George W Bush. The front page of The Guardian's G2 section was all black with two small words in the middle. 'Oh, God', it said. I still have a copy in my loft back home: it reflected exactly how I felt. The Daily Mirror was less subtle: 'How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?', it screamed. Inside, it summed up Dubya's platform simply for its readers: 'Mr Bush opposes abortion and gay marriage, doesn't give a stuff about the environment, is against gun control and believes troops should stay in Iraq for as long as it takes.'

We Europeans were staggered that Bush could have been elected for a second term. A friend in Boston, prior to the election, had expressed his intention to move to Canada if this came to pass. (He didn't.) Before last week's election in Australia, a friend in Victoria half-joked about upping sticks if Tony Abbott became the next prime minister. I hope she's still here, but I'd understand completely if she'd left. I fancy New Zealand myself. Last Sunday I couldn't do online news, television or radio. Oh, god, indeed.

It's been a funny old week.

I have never really understood the concept of floating voting. The idea that you would give the other guys a fair go, just for a change. Surely if you truly believe in a set of core values, it can't be OK if a different set is used as the basis for policy-making for a few years, can it? Especially if the impact is of global significance, not just backyard.

The PM-elect has yet to hold a proper press conference. The LNP seem to be taking up the reigns of power without blabbering to the media. This has been interpreted by their mates at News Corp as an attempt to calm the political brouhaha. Presumably so they can claim to have brought peace following the turmoil of Labor's last gasp.

There are some pretty weird, even disturbing results around the country, but I take heart from the unlikely survival of Sophie Mirabella, one of the least personable members of Abbott's Opposition Cabinet. My opinion is not based upon her notorious apparent reluctance to help a fellow panelist on Q&A when he became ill, but her unpleasantly dogmatic demeanour when presenting the LNP's policies. And I welcome the trouncing of the extraordinarily inept western Sydney candidate Jaymes Diaz who failed to articulate even one measure in his party's six-point-plan to stop the boats. His electorate bucked the national trend, with a 3%+ swing to Labor.

(I must digress to wonder why parents burden their offspring with variations on a theme that condemn them to a lifetime of having to spell their name – Ashleigh, Janeice, Michel, Jakob etc.)

From now on self-publicist Clive Palmer is bound to call even more press conferences than he did before being (nearly*) elected to the House of Reps to represent Fairfax on the Sunshine Coast. This is where he has his dinosaur park and his golf resort and other institutions immodestly bearing his name. He picked up 5.56 per cent of the lower house votes nationwide and 11.31 per cent in Queensland. This is too many for me to be able to persuade myself that his large number of employees were voting for him, especially those at his nickel refinery who each received a Mercedes or a Fijian holiday in 2010. No, I have to conclude that there are even more stupid/floating/protest voters out there than I previously thought possible.

Just about the only things that amuse me about Clive Palmer are his ridiculous statements. He has accused Greenpeace of working with the CIA to destroy the Australian coal industry; declared Campbell Newman unfit to govern Queensland because he is bipolar; and denounced Rupert Murdoch's ex-wife as a spy for China.

Proportional representation in the Senate means that numerous 'micro' parties may frustrate Tony Abbott's attempts to pass controversial legislation through the upper house. In theory, this should be a good thing, but some of those parties only have one policy, and are waiting to know for sure whether they will claim a seat before formulating their views on run-of-the-mill issues such as health, education and the budget deficit. Some of them polled an extremely small proportion of the primary vote – less than a quarter of a per cent in one case. Welcome to Canberra the Australian Sports Party, the Motoring Enthusiasts Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and Family First, as well as Palmer United and Katter's Australian Party.

This was made possible by a new phenomenon in Federal elections, the 'preference whisperer' as The Guardian has nicknamed political consultant Glenn Druery. He advised the minor parties how to make preference deals to maximise their chances of bagging a Senate seat.

And finally a word about Bob Katter, whom I wrote about, perhaps a little unkindly, three years ago. Since then I have grown quite fond of The Man in the Hat. A bit eccentric he certainly is; and you may not agree with many of his policies; but I believe you cannot doubt for one minute his absolute dedication to the constituents of Kennedy (in remote Far North Queensland) which covers more than twice the area of the United Kingdom and is an awful long way away from either the state or national capital. I was saddened when it looked as if Katter was about to lose his seat, having suffered a swing against him of 16 per cent. Now it's thought he will survive, after preferences. He is pure Queensland, and I realise Parliament is a better place for people just like him.

That wouldn't make me a floating voter, however, should I eventually get the chance to participate in an Australian election.
* by the end of 17 September, the result in Fairfax has still not been called. Palmer leads by only 64 votes, which makes a recount inevitable. He is alleging vote rigging
This post was last updated on 17 September 2013

September 7, 2013

Cows are eating Australia

There are 28.5 million cows in Australia, as opposed to 23 million people. Each Australian eats 43.5 kg of beef a year, on average, the third highest beef consumption in the world*. According to Meat & Livestock Australia, this country is one of the world's most efficient producers of cattle and the largest beef exporter. There are more than 79,300 properties with cattle on them; and the beef industry accounts for 58 per cent of all farms engaged in agricultural activity. (Which other activities would farms be engaged in?)

In southern Australia, cows graze on pasture planted and maintained by a farmer who looks after the cattle on a day-to-day basis. This is intensive farming. Each cow needs about 10 hectares of pasture. In northern Australia (northern WA and Queensland, Northern Territory and remote areas of South Australia) rain is less frequent and less reliable and cattle graze on native grasses rather than grass planted specially. They roam over huge areas – called stations, not farms – and each animal requires about 50 hectares: this is extensive farming. In the dry season the cattle are rounded up, or mustered, and taken to cattle yards where they are sorted and prepared to go to market. They're transported around the station and to market in huge road train trucks.
Grass in dry regions is not as nutritious as in cultivated pasture. In the dry season cows may exhaust the supply of native grasses such as Mitchell Grass and Spinifex and have to supplement their diet with
Tea Tree or Mulga scrub (top). As a result, the landscape looks denuded and scrappy. In the Outback you get used to this, until you enter a national park and see tufty clumps of healthy grass and bushes rather than dusty earth and dead-looking twigs, and then you appreciate what the country would look like if the cows weren't eating it. You also (sort of) get used to endless cattle grids along unsealed roads.
In certain national parks in Far North Queensland, cows have been allowed in to graze, temporarily we are assured. (See Cows and national parks, May 2013.) The failure of monsoonal rains last summer meant cows were going hungry because their normal range was parched. The National Parks Association of Queensland claims to have evidence, however, of this temporary arrangement morphing into a permanent one**. The case for a few months can be argued; permanence would be unwise.

Cows popped up everywhere on our Outback travels. I didn't expect to see our old favourites, the Belties, who looked particularly striking against the red earth. It wasn't a surprise to see Brahmans and Brahman crosses since they are much better adapted to hotter climates.
Sometimes we only just saw cows. Other times, we didn't see them but the evidence of them having been there earlier, as in sand dunes west of Windorah.
The importance of cattle to the local economy was evident in Quilpie and Longreach.
By the way, sheep are also eating Australia. And goats. Goats seem to be particularly good at it.

* Argentina tops the chart, followed by Luxembourg. Source UNFAO/The Economist
This post was last updated on 16 September 2013

September 6, 2013

Censorship but not as we know it

I promised myself I wouldn't write any more about the disappointing and potentially disastrous Federal election here in a couple of days' time.

But I cannot keep quiet in the light of the 'banning' from commercial airways of a short video produced by GetUp Australia. It criticises the News Corporation Australia's political bias being presented as news. The film takes as an example the Courier Mail's front page (above) following a leaders' debate, during which Tony Abbott interrupted one of Kevin Rudd's responses with ' Does this guy ever shut up?'

GetUp used money donated by supporters to fund the film. Especially during this election campaign, many people – political commentators, talkback radio listeners, lobby groups and fringe media journos – have bemoaned the fact that a media group that dominates the market to the extent that Murdoch's does, and so blatantly supports one political party while dissing the other, reduces the options and saps the confidence of others to dissent. Democracy is thus diminished.

Brisbane's Channel Nine aired the video but then dropped it; Channels Seven and Ten refused from the outset to run the ad. Excuses ranged from not wishing to criticise another media organisations to technical glitches to the potential for offence to viewers – the actor in the video uses the Courier Mail to pick up his dog's doo-doos off his lawn. I find that last one particularly hard to believe, given the huge numbers of Australians who own at least two dogs.

Of course, no one was allowed to screen it after midnight on Wednesday when a blanket ban on election advertising came into force. In theory, the ban may be a good thing, yet Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was still releasing major policy information the following day. The electorate have been waiting all year to know how the LNP will fund their election promises and balance the national budget, and between two and three million have already voted, without knowledge of these crucial figures. Which doesn't seem right to me.

A year or so ago, a series of ads was shown in my local cinema before the main feature. One showed young, politically correctly chosen people carrying out valuable environmental projects, such as constructing and maintaining protective compounds for endangered species. Only at the end were you aware that the ads were produced by Australian Mining. The series was called This is our story, a hugely deceptive title since the films showed an extremely small and unrepresentative part of the industry's story. Unfortunately, I'd paid to see a different film and couldn't reach for the remote and the mute or off button. I felt trapped; as if I was being force-fed propaganda; it was not a nice feeling.

I feel similarly disturbed this week. I posted a link to GetUp's video on Facebook in the hope that some of those people denied their rights by certain tv channels might take a look. A few of my friends reported difficulty accessing it. If you weren't able to see it, here it is.