February 6, 2016

Doolally decisions

It's been a week of mixed emotions. Some good news; some really bad and stupid. I would have to conclude I'm at the Mrs Bloody Angry of Balmoral end of the spectrum rather than the 'Hey, guys, we're making good progress'. And it's only the first week in Feb.

First up, on Tuesday, the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection granted Adani their Environmental Authority for the Carmichael Mine in the Galilee Basin. This was inevitable, because a state in big debt has to be seen to encourage wealth generation, even though the Indian company is far from securing finance for a project with much reduced estimates of jobs and royalties. The Minister for the Environment absolved himself of responsibility. On his Facebook page, Stephen Miles wrote: 'The decision to issue an Environmental Authority is not a political one. It is made by the environmental regulator in accordance with applicable legislative provisions. Under Queensland law I had no role in the decision-making process.'

Minister Miles is head honcho in his department, presumably, and could table new legislation if he saw fit. The approvals process is in dire need of reform*: hydrogeological and ecological research, for example, should not be left to those with vested interests. The fact that the EA comes with a raft of conditions, some of which in this case were handed down by the Land Court, brings little solace to environmental protectors who insist coal reserves must be left in the ground. Politicians always refer to lists of conditions in an attempt to mollify outrage. Conditions need to be followed through, and on many occasions previously monitoring and enforcement have been found wanting. The Department just doesn't have the resources to do the job properly. I have noticed in the Land Court proponents who are defending inadequate impact management plans try to divert attention with promises of how they'll rehabilitate enormous holes in 30 or 60 years' time. A century and a half's history of deficient, or even non-existent, mine rehabilitation in Australia doesn't instil confidence in those claims either.

There was great news from New South Wales, on the other hand. AGL Energy announced they were abandoning their controversial 330-well coal seam gas project in the stunningly beautiful Gloucester Valley, citing inadequate economic returns resulting from volatile commodity prices and long development lead times. The Groundswell Gloucester lobby group popped the champagne corks and basked in a tidal wave of relief. AGL are selling off a couple of their natural gas assets in Queensland, too.

Unbelievably, Mike Baird's response to AGL's announcement has been to offer new areas for gas exploration, in remote regions out west where opposition is likely to be less organised than in the east. He's also hoping to resurrect applications for gas exploration leases put in by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. Mining is a deeply divisive issue among Indigenous groups. While some see it as a means to greater financial independence, others consider it anathema to their role as custodians of country.

Then came the shocking news that CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) was laying off 350 researchers over the next two years, mainly from the departments observing and modelling climate change. According to chief executive Larry Marshall, a former venture capitalist in Silicon Valley appointed to the job last year, there's nothing to worry about: the question, is the climate changing?, has been answered, and now he wants to get on with 'putting the "I" back in CSIRO. Hmm.

Not everyone at CSIRO believes climate change research should be put on the back burner just yet, however, especially in the light of commitments Australia made at the Paris climate conference in December, to improve observations and investigate early warning systems. But a hundred of the jobs will go from units researching sea level rise, ocean temperature and acidification, and recording greenhouse gas levels. The last of these includes an air pollution monitoring station in remote northwest Tasmania, the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere, established in 1976 but now at risk. At Cape Grim on Tassie's tip, the air is as fresh as a daisy, having been blown across thousands of miles of ocean, and therefore a good candidate for 'average' air, for the study of its constituents.

The sky remains dark with chickens coming home to roost following the Abbott government's austerity budget measures in 2014.

It's reported that Malcolm Turnbull's cabinet has been working away at tax reform for this year's budget in May. I would love to think they've reviewed tax collection from international corporations and exceedingly wealthy individuals, but I doubt this was ever on their agenda. They could also sort out fuel tax anomalies that subsidise the resources and airline industries. More expensive flights might get the people thinking about inconvenient truths they'd rather ignore. They might even stop baying about cheaper electricity prices once increased tax revenues were diverted into the renewable energy industry. Now that would be good news all round.

* While attending the case brought against GVK Hancock's Kevin's Corner mine in the Land Court last October, I concluded: the existing approvals process is not sufficiently wide ranging in terms of scope, or sufficiently thorough – from baseline studies to impact management strategies – to adequately inform important decision makers; and decision makers who are already challenged in a transitional economy clinging to an obsolete free-for-all mentality, and on a continent at serious risk of climate change impacts and loss of biodiversity.

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