May 29, 2015

Watch on weather: early Morning Glory

Astronomy Picture of the Day
In Spring or early Summer most years, a cloud phenomenon occurs in the Gulf of Carpentaria in far north Queensland that is truly remarkable. It is capricious, large-scale and a thing of beauty. I have never seen it, but it is on my list. The best way to view it, however, requires nerves of steel.

It occurs at the end of the dry season, as the land heats up, and is the product of the convergence of southeast trade winds and sea breezes. The configuration of land and sea makes this a more regular weather feature than roll clouds elsewhere in the world. There are three categories of Morning Glory Cloud, each defined according to its direction of origin. You can learn far more than I can explain at, a website compiled
by meteorologists after years of Glory chasing.

This year a Morning Glory rolled in on the 20th of May, http://www. That's three months ahead of schedule. Why?

I asked BOM whether there was a precedent. I had found no records online of a Morning Glory earlier than late August, with the overwhelming majority from September to November. I received an unsatisfactory answer from a media person. BOM doesn't routinely monitor this cloud phenomenon and therefore has no historical data for comparison. They don't know whether or not it has occurred in May, and they offered no explanation as to why it might have happened then. But they did add an interesting comment: 'It is however unlikely that something as broad scale as El Niño would play a role in the production of something as localised as Morning Glory clouds.' I hadn't mentioned El Niño in my email request, but I had wondered about larger climatic effects. I may have to do more digging.

By the way, the best way to view Morning Glory is from a glider. That would be more of a challenge for me than predicting the date of its arrival.
These are not roll clouds

May 23, 2015

They who dare

One of many beneficial consequences of The Guardian's arrival in Oz has been increased exposure to the thoughts of George Monbiot. He writes about the environment, social injustice and other things that make him angry. Sometimes that's politics. He tackles subjects that most people are only too glad to brush under carpets: ones in the 'too difficult' box; those that require you to take a long hard look at the way you live. On occasion, you need to be strong of heart and mind to read Monbiot. 

Yesterday, stupidly, I read this just before going to bed. I felt extremely depressed. Australia used to have megafauna, you know?

Then this morning I read this:
commentisfree/2015/may/19/chicken-welfare-human-health-meat. Now I feel I should give up chicken. In the UK I could avoid the obvious burns on the flesh of factory farmed offerings by buying organic, but in Australia organic chicken isn't easy to find. Butchers look blank when I ask for it. It's available in larger Woolworths, but can you be sure of its origin? I only buy eggs off companies that offer me webcam footage of happy chooks in paddocks.

There are lots of food products my friend and I reject. I have never knowingly bought Nestlé products since my youngest daughter came home from school more than a decade ago and asked me not to after she'd learned about the baby milk scandal*. I'd loved KitKat since childhood but I haven't eaten one since. The company still ranks high on the morally indefensible ladder. Recently they admitted they would happily bottle more water in seriously drought-ridden California if permitted**.

In the UK, I never bought Israeli food produce, and often had to forgo citrus fruits, sweet peppers and other veggies for weeks in winter when they weren't available in Europe. But we survived without any of these things, having put our minds to it.

These days, we won't eat fish unless we know it is on our list of sustainably fished varieties. Five and a half years ago when we moved here, and asked at the fish counter of an upmarket deli in New Farm if they knew where their fish was sourced, they told us we were the first to have asked that question. The best-value prawns ever – from a farmers' market in the same suburb – were sacrificed as soon as we learned they were bottom-trawled in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

George makes you rethink all sorts of things you may have condoned for years without question: eating meat, overfishing, eating chicken, nature conservation methods, spoiling soil, consuming more stuff, subsidising large landowners, subsidising fossil fuels, offsetting biodiversity, climate change delaying tactics, tolerating bank scams, overpopulating, building more roads, using plastic bags, over-packaging, fracking ignorance, sitting idly by…

This week we learned that some frickin' idiot shooter from Texas paid $350,000 to 'hunt' and kill a black rhino in Namibia, as part of a supposed conservation fundraiser. Disbelief and despair combined in the imagined joy of shooting Corey Knowlton, the perpetrator of this unspeakable crime. I feel as if the-world's-gone-mad moments are becoming much more frequent than they used to be. Is that a symptom of getting older? Or a natural fearful reaction as we hurtle, seemingly powerless, towards the inevitable devastation of the planet?

Increasingly I have to conclude that politicians are not going to do what is necessary until a large-scale catastrophe hits their voters. We must take our heads out from beneath the pillow and change things, starting with our lifestyle, before setting more ambitious targets.

I leave you, naturally, with George's words:
It's not blind spots we suffer from. We have vision spots, tiny illuminated patches of perception, around which everything else is blanked out. How often have I seen environmentalists gather to bemoan the state of the world, then repair to a restaurant in which they gorge on beef or salmon? The Guardian and Observer urge us to go green, then publish recipes for fish whose capture rips apart the life of the sea.
It's so hard to get it right. So much to learn, in so little time. But so many places you can start.

May 21, 2015

Watch on weather: season of mists

The city's over there somewhere
So much discussion about the weather; so little action on climate change. To ease my frustration, I have decided to monitor unusual conditions, either reported anecdotally or in my experience, which I acknowledge is limited.

Last summer went on and on and on; heat and humidity, seemingly endless. March was slightly cooler briefly, but April-into-May was over-warm. Even now, after the duvet came out a couple of weeks ago when night-time temps dropped to single figures, it's been put away again. It reached 27 degrees yesterday, and last night went no lower than 17. In a few days' time it will officially be winter*. It is unquestionably too warm. And too humid. Ninety-two per cent this misty morning; and temps 2 degrees above average at 20 by 9 am (felt like 23 degrees, BOM said).

Three weeks ago we had a severe rain storm in South East Queensland that was claimed to be a one-in-two-thousand-year event in Caboolture, where there was 277mm in three hours. Ten days ago, an intense low-pressure system sweeping across from Tasmania brought blizzards to the hills north of Melbourne.

Is your weather weird for the time of year? Leave details in the comment section below.

This happened a couple of days ago, when the showers were distinctly Aprilly; northern hemisphere Aprilly, that is.

* Australia follows the US on this: new seasons begin on the 1st of the relevant month, rather than on the Equinox or Solstice

May 20, 2015

Not the end of the matter

And so we returned to Court for the final submissions of Adani Mining and Land Services of Coast and Country. The press were waiting for someone, but I wasn't sure who. After five weeks of evidence, these were the last statements of each party before Carmel MacDonald, President of the Land Court of Queensland, retired to read all the evidence and make her recommendations.

I expected Adani's lawyer to kick off, but Saul Holt QC, for Coast and Country, rose first. He began by listing the key points in the case:
• The Carmichael mine would be Australia's largest, and its sheer size would mean a correspondingly great environmental harm
• The mine site is in an environmentally sensitive area, one that includes springs of exceptionally high ecological value and at least two threatened species
• Large quantities of coal will be exported through an already vulnerable and degraded Great Barrier Reef, and the mine's contribution to global carbon emissions and hence climate change (and ocean acidification) will exacerbate damage to the Reef
• Since Adani submitted its EIS and SEIS, and the Co-ordinator General, Queensland Department of Environment and Commonwealth Minister for the Environment considered the proposal, the information provided has been found to be both deficient and inaccurate, with particular significance for groundwater, the Black-throated Finch and the Waxy Cabbage Palm  
• Increased uncertainties created by new evidence about the above make this case the epitome of one in which the precautionary principle* requires that approval of the mine be refused
• The 'aspirational conditions' in the Draft Environmental Authority do not inspire confidence that the mine's impacts will be managed sufficiently to overcome the risk to threatened species. The Draft EA lacks adequate baseline studies and effective modelling that predicts impacts with any degree of certainty, and employs 'adaptive management' techniques that are not transparent in their design, implementation or post-approval processes
• The seaborne thermal coal market has changed considerably since the mine was first proposed such that the economic benefits to Queensland can no longer be assumed
• Adani overestimated the number of jobs and the royalties that would be generated by the mine
• Even Adani's economics expert accepted that the Carmichael mine 'is an extremely risky project'
• The Court is far better informed than any previous decision makers appraising the mine's approval process
• Such are the conditions associated with the mine's approval that they must be approached with extreme caution.

Mr Holt's summing up took all morning and half the afternoon session. Mr Ambrose, for Adani, didn't have much time but made it clear he wanted to finish that afternoon. He employed a far different method. He began by criticising Coast and Country's witnesses' 'personal attacks' on the Applicant's (Adani's) witnesses. He accused them of criticising the Applicant's standards while not providing their own standards by which justify their opinions. (This was inaccurate: both Coast and Country ecologists suggested improved methodologies for assessing habitat.) By merely citing the support of their academic peers, they diminished the weight of their own opinions. Ambrose began to argue rather simplistically, I thought: he gave the impression of being short of time and clutching randomly at his complaints. He argued Adani's groundwater model had been criticised for not including the Doongmabulla Springs, but it was a groundwater model, not a springs model, and should have been judged only on whether it was fit for purpose. Pedantry was the order of his summing up.

Dr Webb's faulting hypothesis was censured, predictably. Ambrose accused Webb of creating an illusion of science that didn't support his hypothesis of a 'mysterious conduit', of which there was no evidence. The lawyer implied collusion by citing far too much detail of what he construed to be inconsistencies in the evidence of Drs Webb and Fensham concerning hydrological sampling. He claimed the 'dressing up' of the Waxie's and BTF's predicaments as a matter of extinction was clearly inappropriate as there were populations elsewhere. He insisted no other cost/benefit analysis other than an input/output model had been required. But Ambrose reserved most condemnation for financial analyst Tim Buckley, who, he claimed, had a 'philosophical aversion to fossil fuels', and had gone on 'a bus trip to Alpha to witness the death of the mines'. I know the trip he was talking about: it included no mines, but rather landowners and communities impact by mining proposals. This did not make Mr Ambrose appear very learned. He overused the verb 'opine' and made it sound rather distasteful; he described witnesses 'trotting out' or even 'concealing' information; he coined 'Buckley's bias' and recalled Morton's Fork**. Finally, in response to Tim Buckley's count of banks that have so far withheld investment, he resorted to, 'It's just untrue'.

Having criticised witnesses for their alleged personal attacks, Mr Ambrose himself proceeded to diminish their integrity and belittle their qualifications.

Mr Ambrose concluded that no good reason had been demonstrated why the mine should not go ahead. Adani has already invested $1 billion and 'deserves' the chance to develop the mine as a long-term investment. The company has demonstrated capability within the environmental considerations.

Throughout the proceedings a third party had been present in Court; the Statutory Party, namely the Chief Executive of the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. As I understand it, they have to be present, but they contributed little, asking a couple of questions of the odd witness here and there. They are entitled to sum up, however, just like the other parties. I remember at the end of the Alpha case being bitterly disappointed by the final – in fact, the only – statement of the Statutory Party, which towed the government line. It was a different political party in charge then, but, in true civil servant tradition, it was no different this time. Rigorous assessment had been conducted by their Department, the Co-ordinator General and the Commonwealth, as required, in respect of the Mining Lease Application. They were therefore of the opinion that the Court should recommend that the Environmental Authority be granted.

Her Honour has an impossible task. I am not talking about the vast amount of evidence, electronic and on paper, that she must plough through; but what she must do with her superior knowledge. She is only entitled to make recommendations to the ministers responsible for mining approval and Environmental Authority: she is required to make a judgement according to the rules of law. Those laws have been found wanting but not in a way that enables her to throw this case out. The brief for an Environmental Impact Statement and subsequent versions is both too narrow in range and not rigorous enough in depth. Biodiversity Offset Management procedures do not stipulate adequate research and monitoring; they lack realistic time frames and do not provide security of tenure. Approval processes need drastic overhaul and laws need amending. That task is enormous. Imagine how long it will take to convince one politician to lobby for one area of correction? Mines will have been excavated and threatened species long gone extinct. But challenge these deficiencies we must.

* if an action might cause harm to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. 'If there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation': definition from the New South Wales Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991 
** specious reasoning in which contradictory arguments lead to the same unpleasant conclusion

May 14, 2015

Another green attack out of the blue

Australia's Treasurer, Joe Hockey, presented his second budget on Tuesday evening. I can't tell you what was in it because at the time I was listening to Geoffrey Robertson at QPAC. I relied on First Dog on the Moon* for my analysis the next day. Hockey knew he had to do better than last year. Again he's been criticised, not for harshness, but for providing sweeteners to small business and families in case there's an early election.

I'm pretty sure the budget contained few surprises: a lot of details had already been drip-fed. Most likely it was same old, same old: robbing Peta to pay Pauli. There was a big omission, however: the 'budget emergency' seems to have gone AWOL. And the budget surplus is but a futuristic figment of Joe's imagination. He blamed iron ore prices. I don't know if he banged on some more about inheriting 'Labor mess'.

In politics, surprises are more likely to be created by the electorate. In Queensland at the end of January, voters delivered a result not believed possible prior to polling day – bye-bye Campbell Newman et al.

A much nastier surprise was waiting in the cold early hours of last Friday morning for the people of the UK. Despite pollsters indicating a hung Parliament, much the same as five years ago, they were all wrong, and Posh Boy David Cameron was elected with a majority, dispensing with the need for sad Liberal-Democrats, who had climbed into bed with him previously and were annihilated for it by voters. The United Kingdom now faces a referendum to take it out of Europe; even more punitive austerity measures; and the repeal of the Human Rights Act. A grim day, indeed.

Political surprises are more often than not of the unpleasant variety. One thing the Newman government will be remembered for is the Mineral and Energy Resources (Common Provisions) Bill 2014. Innocuous as the name may have sounded, late-night fiddling with the legislation just before the vote – more specifically, the removal of an amendment – deprived landowners' right of appeal against big mining projects unless they are directly affected. So, a property abutting a mine lease area cannot object to the potential risk of drawdown impacting on its bores once the Co-ordinator General has decided environmental protection is adequate. The CG's say now prevents investigation of the most high-impact mining proposals (so-called co-ordinated projects) in the Land Court prior to the issue of an Environmental Authority.

The Newman government was furthering its intention to speed up approvals of mining development and hobble the efforts of environmental protectors to improve scrutiny of the most potentially damaging of those projects. This policy was no surprise, but the undermining of Parliamentary process and democracy – there had been many submissions made about the bill – was outrageous.

There is little doubt that the current Federal government's environmental record is deplorable. It has been joked that Enviro Minister Greg Hunt plays solitaire all day. Unexpectedly, however, has come a House of Reps Enquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations. These are groups that have tax-deductable status. If you support organisations such as WWF or the Australian Marine Conservation Society, the idea is you will no longer be able to claim tax relief on your donations, thus potentially depriving the groups of essential funds. It'll be OK if they just work 'on the ground'; but advocacy and lobbying will be prohibited.

I'd love to give you more detail, but I'm just off to the Land Court to hear the final submissions in the case against Adani's Carmichael mine. If one such group of environmental protectors, Coast and Country, had not been able to bring this case, important new research (in the form of expert witness reports) about the ecology of the Desert Uplands would not have come to pass, and, more significantly, huge doubts about the financial viability of this enormous mine would not have been admitted by Adani's own economists or received such exposure.

The Enquiry needs to know what the public wants: for environmental groups to carry on enabling a more rounded discussion about key threats to this nation's landscape and biodiversity, or be restricted to planting trees and litter-picking beaches. You can read a lot more at which includes instructions on how to make a submission.

I implore you to let the government know your views. This is an unprecedented attack on people whose motivation is transparent and genuine. I wish the same could be said of the resources industry and their mates in Canberra.

May 9, 2015

A financial folly

The pièce de résistance in Adani vs Land Services of Coast and Country in the Land Court was the financial viability of the Carmichael mine. There had already been a couple of days devoted to economics-related topics, but I had made my excuses – blogging, resting, ironing – to stay away. I got my just desserts, missing a pure-gold piece of evidence from Adani Mining's financial controller, Rajesh Gupta: that the Carmichael mine was not going to create anywhere near the number of jobs it had originally estimated; 1464 as opposed to 10,000.

Overstatement of the economic benefits of the mine continued to be exposed during the final days of the case. Adani's economic modeller, Dr Jerome Fahrer, revealed in his report that revenues initially predicted to be $22 billion were more likely to be in the order of $7.8 billion. Much of Dr Fahrer's evidence was of a rather theoretical nature: how to value a negative externality such as the loss of an endangered species; the failings of input-output modelling as opposed to computable general equilibrium modelling; and the standard assumptions made in mining modelling.

Over the weeks, we had heard so much about the assumptions upon which models are based. In this instance, in the project case scenario (as opposed to the base case), there were several key contentious assumptions: that there will be an increase in world demand for coal; that there will be a shift in the preference of that demand for Carmichael coal; and that putting all that extra coal into the market won't affect supply and demand. Economist Dr Richard Denniss, for Coast and Country, only further undermined economic modelling for me by asserting that a model is a simplification (of a highly complex situation) and can alter the focus of attention by varying the data chosen and how the assumptions interact to achieve a desired outcome.

Dr Denniss had not been previously aware of Dr Fahrer's 'pocket of demand' claim about Carmichael coal. He cheekily enquired of the Court whether the coal has some special properties that no one else knew about. He explained that this compromises the underlying assumption of ceteris paribus (other things being equal) behind scientific enquiry in which perturbing factors are screened out while a series of independent variables is examined in order to determine the most likely outcome. 'Bundling assumptions' is unconventional: I misheard this at first as bungling assumptions.

I have heard it claimed before that attempting to put a price on environmental impacts is in the 'too hard' box. That may lead to inputting inconsistencies that devalue conclusions. If you take a guess at other unknowns then you have to do that for all potential costs and benefits. So, as a model inputter, if you say, 'I don't know what the price of coal is going to be in a decade but I have guesstimated this figure. Similarly, I don't know to what extent improved carbon capture technology will affect demand for coal, so I've guesstimated this figure.' Then you say, 'I can't possibly know the "value" of an endangered Black-throated Finch, so I've put zero', you're not comparing apples with apples, even approximately.

Adani's counsel questioned Dr Denniss's impartiality – he works for The Australia Institute in Canberra which is sometimes ascribed with left-wing bias. He neatly summarised his opinion in relation to mining companies' over-inflated claims about revenue and job opportunities.
I'm not anti-mining. I'm anti people putting nonsense into public debate.
Financial analyst Tim Buckley was the last day's witness. Based in Sydney, he is Director of Energy Finance Studies, Australasia, for the (American) Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), an independent organisation that 'conducts research and analyses on financial and economic issues related to energy and the environment'. He is also consultant to Carbon Tracker, a UK-based organisation that evaluates carbon risk and its implications for financial markets. A more able number cruncher you never did see.

He described his own long-term modelling of coal markets and electricity markets with particular implications for the Asia-Pacific thermal coal market. He talked about the peak for thermal coal; the point of inflection on the curve of a graph that up until now has shown the growth and more growth of the coal business. There can be little doubt about an inevitable downturn, being brought about by an unprecedented rate of transition in the policies of the energy-needy giants of Asia. The largest coal-producer in the Western world, Peabody Energy in the US, had seen its share value drop 90 per cent in four years. Australia's five largest coal companies have lost 90+ per cent of their share value in the last five years.

Adani's economics expert, Jon Standford, believes the peak will happen perhaps by 2030, certainly within the life of the Carmichael mine. Tim Buckley thinks it has already occurred, in 2013. Both described it as an existential moment for coal.

In China in 2014 coal imports declined by 9 per cent; coal consumption declined by 3 per cent. China wants to protect its energy industry and has made significant strategic decisions. It has made a decade-long investment in hydroelectricity; and implemented a huge roll-out of both wind and solar power last year. This amounts to an aggressive and efficient expansion of alternative energy. Buckley went so far as to say, 'there is war on coal in China'.

Last year also saw a decoupling of GDP and energy growth in China, and that decoupling has accelerated in the first quarter of 2015: there was an 0.8 per cent growth in energy while GDP grew by 7 per cent. Thermal coal plants have seen a 9 per cent decline in their utilisation rate; and the country's largest coal company, Shenhua, saw production decrease by 10 per cent last year and is forecasting another 10 per cent this year.

India's energy industry is similarly in transition. Since Narendra Modi came to power almost a year ago, scarcely an announcement of Power Minister Goyal goes by without an upgrade of transformational targets: 100 GW of solar by 2020; 60 GW of wind by 2022. A dramatic rate of change is accompanied by increased energy efficiency targets and emissions controls. According to Mr Buckley, there is already an over-supply of thermal coal, and the thermal seaborne market is in decline. When asked if India would be the saviour of the Australian thermal export market, he replied, 'Absurd'.

When asked to comment on Adani's claim that adding 40-60 million tonnes of coal to the market will not affect supply and demand, his response again was, 'Absurd'.

(That would also be a suitable ripost to Adani's repeated argument that the Carmichael output would not increase global emissions because if they didn't produce the coal, somebody else would.)

The price impact of Carmichael's coal would be the same as that on supply, about 3-4 per cent. One flow-on consequence would be that not all the coal would be used.

The question of economic viability of the mine, and Tim Buckley's prediction that Adani would make a loss, came down once again to the realism of figures used in modelling. Without going into details of the Newcastle benchmark (ash content and the relative energy values of coal deposits), the costs of extraction, rail and port costs, post-discount pricing, depreciation, the cost of debt, and probably a whole host of other factors, the conclusion had to be reached that, combined with assumptions of market conditions, coal prices and discounts, this 'extremely risky project' would not make a profit, and therefore Adani would not pay any corporate tax to the Queensland government.

Mr Buckley went on to describe how Adani's recent company restructuring might impact on the finances of the project here. There appeared to be some less-than-transparent matters relating to ownership of certain offshoot companies, and the impact of the redistribution of shares in what is no longer a vertically integrated group.

Just as the subject of Carmichael's viability started to get even more interesting, Adani's counsel appealed financial confidentiality to the judge, and the rest of that day in Court, as they say, is history; secret history. (See also, Would members of the public please leave the Court, May 2015.)

Is Adani's Carmichael mine a stranded asset before it even gets into the ground? Despite mounting evidence to that effect, should you choose to examine it, neither the Federal or State governments are yet at the stage when they will make bold decisions about environmental concerns, and that includes Australia's carbon emissions as well as Waxy Cabbage Palms. Even if market conditions evolve rapidly, it is more likely than not that grubbers will move into the mine site long before anyone admits financial folly. By then the Black-throated Finch will have been added to the count of species extinctions and Australia will be the sorrier for it.

May 1, 2015

Would members of the public please leave the Court

I've just been banished from the Land Court. Not just me, you understand. I haven't been evicted for squeaking in horror and disbelief at the argument that Adani's Carmichael Mine would be better for the survival of the Black-throated Finch than if the bird were left to its own devices where it's hanging out currently. Or crying out in frustration at the claim that adding 40 million tonnes of Galilee Basin coal to the seaborne thermal coal market in Asia Pacific will not increase demand for coal.

No, just before lunch Adani requested the Court be closed for part of financial analyst Tim Buckley's evidence due to its commercially sensitive nature. They did the same thing a week ago apparently, when Adani Mining's financial controller was in the witness box: I wasn't there that day.

I immediately concluded that I had been rumbled. The public, with environmental protectors in their midst, were being evicted because I had been 'live tweeting' some of the exchanges during Mr Buckley's evidence, such as,
'What do you think of the idea that India will be the saviour of the Australian thermal [coal] export market?

Adani's lawyers didn't have the correct paperwork to hand; the judge thought it highly irregular that the request be granted therefore; but Coast and Country's legals did not protest. I think all parties wanted the evidence finished today: Mr Buckley was the last witness. No one wanted a delay as a result of a procedural blip.

I must say, however, that when such issues are at stake – and I mean the go-ahead of a potentially unviable mega-mine at the expense of ecologically valuable vegetation remnants and endangered bird species – not to mention the Great Barrier Reef – then I believe all procedures should be followed to the letter. And that should have included a formal request to the public – and there is a significant interest in the Adani case – to leave the Court. As it was, information percolated through confused observers, and then we all slunk away into the torrential rain. I was advised that there was nothing to be gained from returning to Courtroom 17 at resumption, just to be told I couldn't stay.

What an anticlimax to five weeks' attendance. How disappointing. It goes against the grain for the people to be ejected from the Land Court. It just ain't right.