May 27, 2014

Environmentalists' impact statements

Environmental protectors the world over last week celebrated the success of the Bentley blockade as defined by the suspension of natural gas company Metgasco's licence to drill by the New South Wales government for failing to consult adequately with the local community (see The Bentley effect, May 2014). A day later came an announcement from Metgasco, that drilling of their Rosella well would 'not be proceeding in the near term' after they had learned that the police resources 'necessary to provide a safe and lawful environment for drilling to proceed' had been reallocated. They were cancelling the drilling rig and other service contracts 'to minimise costs'.

The NSW government had considered it necessary to use – reports varied but essentially – 800 regular police, possibly including riot units, to disperse potentially thousands of extremely well organised and absolutely non-violent protectors. An equally efficient social media back-up network would have broadcast to the world in minutes the kind of image that would not have improved Australia's already sullied global reputation. The ABC have an interesting take on the cancellation of Operation Stapler*.

Possibly the best news at the end of the week came from Deutsche Bank's AGM in Frankfurt. The bank will not be considering investment in port expansion at Abbot Point while there is no consensus between the Australian Federal Government and UNESCO about the risk of further development damaging the fragile ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef. Deutsche Bank's announcement followed intense lobbying by environmental groups and their supporters' networks worldwide.

The day after that, HSBC at its AGM, described the likelihood of its further financing of projects close to the GBR as 'extraordinarily unlikely'. Activists were less successful in persuading French Bank Société Générale not to get on board with Gina Rinehart and GVK, although Crédit Agricole preceded Deutsche Bank in announcing ESG (environmental, social and governance) risks in its investment management.

Queensland Resources Council** Chief Executive Michael Roche provided a rather churlish addendum to the jubilation at Deutsche Bank's decision.
The anti-mining activists seem to have a lot of money to travel the world to put lies and distortions in front of institutions. I would like to think the activist groups, with all this money to be swanning around Paris, Frankfurt and London... would put their member's [sic] hard-earned donations into proper research to eradicate the real threats to the Reef such as the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish.
Mr Roche's comments are typical of the increasingly knee-jerk and not-always-accurate reaction of mining companies, their lobbyists and investors as the writing on the wall for coal becomes ever more luminous.

In 2012, Crédit Suisse calculated that the resources industry was at the greatest risk from negative share price valuation on the ASX (Australian Securities Exchange) as a result of environmental, social and governance impacts. A new study involving the University of Queensland – and reported by Mining Australia† – has shown that 'company-community conflict' is now costing miners billions of dollars. Conflict can be translated into business costs and has become a major component of project costings. Dr Daniel Franks of UQ's Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining explains:
There is a popular misconception that local communities are powerless in the face of large corporations and governments. Our findings show that community mobilisation can be very effective at raising the costs to companies.
Delaying tactics are currently a powerful tool in the hands of environmental activists trying to stall the approvals of mega mines in the Galilee Basin, for example, or halt the start-up of projects already green-lit such as at Maules Creek. For a major mining project with a huge capital expenditure, the study shows that up to US$20 million a week may be lost.

This month, ABC Rural reported that the Minerals Council of Australia estimates 10,000 lost jobs in coal mining in the last two years, during which time prices for thermal and coking coal (used in steel manufacture) have fallen by between 50 and 70 per cent. In the meantime, the Queensland government has approved Adani's proposal for Australia's largest mine ever – Carmichael in the Galilee Basin. The stats are enough to make your eyes water: the mine will measure 25 kilometres by 12, or 28,000 hectares; it will produce 120 million tonnes of carbon every year, four times New Zealand's fossil fuel emissions; it will use 12 billion litres of water a year; and its development will put at risk 60 'at risk' species. Do investors in this monster really want to lose their shirts?

During the transition from a fossil-fueled, growth-obsessed economy to a sustainable, renewable-energy-powered, climate-focused action plan, there will be many different takes on what is happening and what should happen, depending on where the protagonist is standing. A research company working for the Minerals Council has just advised that professional investors are 'resistant to anti-coal rhetoric and still wedded to their standard data-based analysis of coal as an asset class'. They conclude that coal's current under-performance is not being influenced by the divestment campaign but is cyclical. Heard that before?

Their figures – reported in the Australian Financial Review – are open to different interpretations. Having surveyed 1000 Australians, the research company found 67 per cent were unaware of the divestment campaign; 13 per cent were aware but didn't plan any action; 17 might act in the future; and 4 per cent were planning to divest. Apart from the fact that the numbers don't add up to 100, they show that 21 per cent of interviewees are either divesting or considering it. Not a bad start to the campaign, you could argue, especially if you consider that the likes of Stanford University and Deutsche Bank have joined the 'anti-coal collective'.

Today would have been the 107th birthday of Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist and conservationist who, with the publication of her book Silent Spring, in 1962, inspired a global grassroots interest in environmentalism. Carson's impact was summed up two decades later by environmental engineer and academic H Patricia Hynes:
Silent Spring altered the balance of power in the world. No one since would be able to sell pollution as the necessary underside of progress so easily or uncritically.
** an NGO representing the interests of companies engaged in the exploration, mining and processing of minerals 

May 25, 2014

Penny's place

As I stole some precious time to wander around Penny's place alone with my camera, it was almost inconceivable that anyone could propose to excavate a pit, however lucrative, in place of the lush greenery and rural paraphernalia that caught my eye.


May 23, 2014

Galilee Road Trip: coal-free communities

It was hard to leave Bimblebox; for those who had made a pilgrimage; for those who had fully appreciated the price we are paying in the name of economic progress for Queensland. I wondered when on earth I would return.

Paola fortified us for the journey with delicious, comforting rice pudding. How could we thank her enough for the last two days? We also had to say goodbye to our friends from Mackay. Bus logistics meant I volunteered to ride in organiser Ellie's car instead: the convoy took a while to roll. Three brolgas took flight but I wasn't quick enough with the camera. The neighbour's cattle were just as bashful as those on Bimblebox, but the horses were bolder. We bade farewell to Alpha and hit the Capricorn Highway. I drove the Alpha-Emerald stint as we left the Desert Uplands behind us. The purply green Drummond Range was a beautiful contrast to red sandy plains, but I'll have to go back: a long day's drive precluded photo stops...
...Except beyond Emerald, where I became a 'coal tourist', according to one of my travelling companions. I have to confess to a sort of fascination with coal trains. I mean, they are unimaginably long: you can never see the beginning and the end at the same time; and they are usually described in terms of kilometre-length rather than number of wagons. They are so long they need locomotives in the middle. The wagons have arrows on them in case you can't work out which way they're going! In this case, east to Gladstone, full, or west to Blackwater and the Bowen Basin mines, empty. Whoever would have thought I'd become a train spotter. The driver tooted as I snapped.
Onwards and eastwards to Rockhampton, and then south on the Bruce Highway – with a brief stop at Mount Larcom for late-lunch potato wedges and fruit salad – then past Gladstone to Miriam Vale. Here we turned southeast down the Bundaberg-Lowmead Road to our final destination of the trip: Avondale, a small community on the Kolan River – but a coal mine and gasfield free community nonetheless. 

Not for the first time on this trip, I found it a bit daunting pitching up in a strange place in the dark, but there was the warmest welcome from the ladies waiting at Penny's place. The campers had a choice that night: their tent on a grassy sward close by Nunginungi homestead, or the Shed, a new construction a bit further away. The temperature was dropping and the air was damp, so it was not a difficult decision for me. 

The trippers and the locals congregated in the Shed before supper. We heard someone describe finding her 'home' in this beautiful, unspoilt part of the world north of Bundaberg, and about others' passion for the area's pristine water and fertile land. We learned of the first surreptitious signs in January 2013 of two coal companies making exploratory moves – just down the road from Penny's place and on a property down by the Kolan River – without so much as a by-your-leave. Beneath the lush farmland of Avondale lies the Maryborough Basin, and there was some excitement about 'a huge coal find'*.

We heard about residents' initial feelings – of disbelief, puzzlement, shock and distress. But the ladies who stood before us were smiling from ear to ear, confident about their decision to defend their community from unwanted development. Their positivity flowed from them and washed over us like a warm tropical wave.
In February last year, a handful of concerned Avondale locals organised a screening of Bimblebox and invited the indefatigable Annie Kia, Community Empowerment Coordinator for the Lock the Gate Alliance, to hold a workshop. Annie worked in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales to develop a strategy for communities threatened by invasive gas fields (or coal mines), and believes that communities can make a positive difference to future outcomes by means of grassroots participation.

And so gradually there took shape a plan for the residents to lock their gates to the coal companies' geologists or any other representatives, and, if a majority of residents so desired, to declare their streets coal mine and gas field free. In January this year, Avondale and Winfield (on Baffle Creek to the north) declared themselves coal and gas free communities**. Their next goal is to get their own baseline testing done to enable them to prove contamination in future should the need arise. Last weekend they held a major – and successful – fundraising event in support of this aim ($10,000 of $70,000 raised so far).

Now six action groups are part of Coal Free Wide Bay, Burnett and Beyond Inc.

On the way over to the homestead we came upon a sluggish Red-bellied Black Snake who needed to be someplace warmer. It confirmed that my decision to sleep in the Shed was the right one. 

First we had a delicious buffet meal supplied by our hosts. The produce was locally grown, and it showed. The potato salad was simply the best. And the flavour of the chicken reminded me of what chicken should taste like. We chatted... and we danced... and it was going on midnight by the time I crept around bodies in the Shed and crawled into my sleeping bag. 

I awoke at six to beautiful country that I hadn't been able to appreciate the previous evening. There wasn't as yet any running water in the Shed so I washed my face in the abundant dew. The backlit grasses were magnificent and the birdsong extraordinary. Unfortunately, my bird expert was in a tent down the way.
View from a dunny
After breakfast and packing-up we had our final debrief of the Galilee Road Trip, in the Shed. What a journey it had been. Now, there was so much more to do. We walked slowly, if not a little sadly, back to the bus... and headed back to Brisbane.
This post was last edited on 24 May 2014

May 16, 2014

The Bentley effect

Yesterday brought the best news. New South Wales Energy Minister, Anthony Roberts, suspended Metgasco's Petroleum Exploration Licence to drill for gas on farmland near Bentley in the Northern Rivers area on advice from the Office of Coal Seam Gas (OCSG) that the company had failed to adequately consult the community. He also referred the company to ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) 'following receipt of information concerning shareholdings and interests in Metgasco Limited'. Namely, a link between the company's largest shareholder and a relative of Eddie Obeid, the subject of current ICAC investigations.

There had been rumours for a week or more that up to 800 police (including riot police) were about to break up the protest by, at times, several thousand environmental protectors, some of whom have been encamped since January. I had, along with thousands of others, rung the offices of NSW Premier Mike Baird and the Minister for Police Stuart Ayres to seek reassurance that such a heavy-handed response would not happen. They couldn't give me that but they did report a large volume of calls. There was a buzz that thousands more supporters were travelling to New South Wales to swell Camp Liberty's numbers.

Metgasco has already drilled about 50 exploration wells in the area, but most of them are in coal seam deposits about 800 metres below the surface. At Bentley, however, the gas is in sandstone at least two kilometres down and would require fracking, with all its attendant woes.

The community's opposition to Megasco's plans for Bentley is based on a number of issues. Not wishing a beautiful valley with its mixed farming to be industrialised. Unease at the approval of the Rosella 'tight gas' well at Bentley prior to the final report of the New South Wales Safety Investigation Unit on an explosion last year at Metgasco's other unconventional gas well, Kingfisher. Having made plain their opposition to gas operations in the Northern Rivers since 2010 and then voted almost unanimously (87%) against CSG development in a Lismore Council commissioned poll in 2012, the people of Bentley felt their democratic rights were being trumped by the New South Wales government's commitment to mining.

Throughout the blockade and since the decision yesterday, the Bentley protectors received messages of support from all over Australia but also far beyond. Their peaceful, highly organised campaign has set an extraordinary example to all those engaged in similar struggles. The movement grew from face-to-face chats on doorsteps and over fences into an extensive collaborative network of people from many walks of life and different political persuasions who shared a common goal to protect their land, their health and their kids' future.

The Bentley community is now much more likely to unite with others to oppose CSG plans elsewhere in the Northern Rivers, for example at the aptly named Doubtful Creek near Kyogle, and in the state as a whole. And environmental protectors everywhere, as well as wearing grins as wide as Cheshire cats', got up this morning with a lot more hope and belief, and even perhaps a sneaky feeling that 15 May 2014 may well have been a turning point in the slow and steady march towards a more sustainable future for Australia.

Post script  On Friday the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) issued the following media release, under the headline Damaging precedent for NSW resource development. It made me cross, although not enough to dispel the warm glow established by the news from Bentley.
Today's decision by the NSW Government to suspend the right of a petroleum exploration and production company, Metgasco, to drill an exploration well in northern NSW just days before commencement of drilling activity is of significant concern to the industry and sets a damaging precedent for resource development in that state. Investors should be concerned about what constitutes 'genuine effective consultation' in NSW. The industry is concerned that the presence of protestors at an operations site should not mean that genuine consultation with the community has been ineffective...
Protest action at his site is part of a well-organised and well-resourced strategy to stop energy development across Australia and it has included both illegal and threatening behaviour, including the placement of booby traps. Companies willing to invest tens of millions of dollars in projects to bolster the state's gas supply now face an uncertain future courtesy of a campaign by The Greens and extreme environmental groups to stop the productions of traditional energy sources.
With thanks to a Bentley protector for the photo (top)
This post was last edited on 27 May 2014

May 15, 2014

Bimblebox: pause for thoughts

We humans have reinvented God a dozen times in the past 5000 years... Yet divinity is accessible, free and indisputable, all around for all time, every day for everyone – with just one simple law. Nature is sacred. Soil, water, air and all that lives within. Unnecessary disruption is sacrilege. And here, you will know why, for nature still speaks – kindly but clearly – come close, listen to my story, treat me with reverence, and you will live and die well.
It's alone in the wilderness you can find this essential truth, rising above the morass of a troubled humanity that in contrast seems so lost in a contortion of endless fleeting words, exaggerated images, mixed messages, and fickle impulses.
To sacrifice a place that offers so much timeless priceless insight for 30 years' worth of dirty old coal is to lose that last hope for all of us.
Ian Hoch, co-owner of Bimblebox Nature Refuge* 
In the Land Court last year, Paola Cassoni, co-owner of Bimblebox, finished her submission with these words.
Finally, my last word is a tribute to our water.
As a prerequisite of life, water is hardly an optional extra or a luxury of personal choice. Loss of water, or significantly degraded water quality, isn't an inconvenience, it's the end game for the Desert Upland rural communities.
We treat water with reverence and grace. We don't over-extract, and we marvel that even in a year of drought like this one, water still comes to us in our bores, and we know we will be able to survive this dry landscape once again. But for those who have never been short of water, they can't understand our anxiety. We will be living our next 30 years or more, knowing huge voids will be continuously draining our precious water supplies.
By nature's good fortune, we are able to keep the bulk of our water conveniently stored away in shallow, life-giving arteries. With a water supply protected from the drying atmosphere, the Desert Uplands is a gift to the world and to the few who make it their home. 

* from Bimblebox: A Nature Refuge Under Siege, edited by Maureen Cooper (for details, see