May 5, 2014

Lessons for the Galilee

It wasn't likely that a visit to the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland would change my mind about the vast coal deposits there; that they should never see the light of day. You have to take a pragmatic approach when it comes to discussing what to do about existing coal mines, but on so many levels the opening up of a brand new coal field is the proverbial no-brainer.

The mega mines proposed in the Galilee would export coal to China or India rather than supply Australia's domestic market. They would displace farmland not only in the Galilee Basin itself but also in the 480-km-long rail corridor linking the mines to coal-exporting terminals on the Queensland coast. Unique remnant ecosystems would be trashed and biodiversity sacrificed. Groundwater supplies in this semi-arid region could be severely compromised. The economic viability of the mines is by no means assured as global commodity prices yo-yo and renewable energy sources become an ever more feasible option. And then there are the carbon emissions that would be added to this country's already shameful tally given its relatively small population.

If you remain to be convinced, talk to graziers whose families have been on the same property for generations and compare that history with 30 years of resources-based greed. Or stand in silent wonder in a nature refuge in the Desert Uplands and then try to imagine the brush grubbers moving in.

This morning I read King Coal: 10 years on* by Greg Ray in the Newcastle Herald. It's a story about the Hunter Valley, once beautiful and prosperous and known for its wines and horse breeding rather than super pits. It wasn't easy reading, certainly not having just returned from a region where similar decisions and desecration may play out over the next few years just as they did in New South Wales. They almost certainly will, if the current Queensland and Federal governments have their way.

It's at least two years since Sharyn Munro published Rich Land, Wasteland: how coal is killing Australia. The book is a catalogue of communities – many of them in the Hunter – riven by harsh mining economics, disinterested and/or powerless local government, local factionalism, isolation and ill-health. I lent my copy to a couple of friends who had to keep taking breaks from reading what amounts to a harrowing experience. But you should read it.

Some small towns in Central Queensland are already feeling the strain. They are in economic and population decline. Landowners and shopkeepers are divided about the mines, whose companies capitalise by attaching confidentiality clauses to make-good agreements.

Individuals and communities in the mining firing line need support. The difference between the Hunter then and the Galilee now is that there is a lot more readily accessible information out there, and numerous networks exist to provide guidance and assistance based on previous experience. Social media can be used to publicise and inspire action. Slowly but surely there is a gathering momentum for change.

* The survey in the piece is now closed but when I voted this morning a clear majority had voted that no, the development of the Hunter Valley had not been worth the price paid

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