16 January 2014
The battle erupting this week over the Maules Creek coal project and the Leard State Forest is the focal point for major conflicts and questions facing Australia as the age of coal comes to an end, and the age of climate change comes upon us.
Maules Creek is a large new open-cut coal mine project, approved but not yet built, in north-west NSW. The proponent is Australia’s biggest local coal miner, Whitehaven Coal, for whom Maules Creek is a make or break project.
For over three years, local farmers and environmentalists have campaigned against the project. It is expected to create significant dust problems for the nearby Maules Creek community, to drawdown local groundwater, and thousands of hectares of remnant woodland is slated for clearfelling. Much of this forest is listed as critically endangered under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) and harbours a rich diversity of endangered and threatened wildlife, including many birds and bats, and the iconic Koala.
The Maules Creek project should have been rejected by the NSW and federal governments on the basis of its environmental impacts alone, but Australian governments are notoriously loathe to ever say no to coal mining projects. Increasingly, the project is the focal point for a much bigger quandary for Australia – the role of our coal export industry in driving up global greenhouse gas emissions.
There are signs internationally that the age of coal is coming to an end. Production and consumption of thermal coal by the world’s biggest producers is falling: China’s production is down 3.7 percent and US production was down 4 percent in the first sixth months of 2013.
Coal use by China’s electricity sector dropped in 2012 and total US coal consumption has also dropped. Demand in Japan has plateaued and in South Korea and Taiwan has decreased. Whether or not this change will accelerate quickly enough to avert the worst excesses of global warming and climate change is unclear. What we know is that the world is currently headed decisively for 4 degrees celsius of warming.
That level of warming means the end of the Great Barrier Reef, and catastrophic interruption to weather, ecology, agriculture and ocean systems worldwide. Coal burning is, globally, the biggest single driver of increased greenhouse pollution and Australia is the world’s second biggest exporter of it. Last year, the 300 million tonnes of coal Australia exported was responsible for 720 million tonnes of carbon dioxide pollution: our emissions at home were less than 600 million tonnes.
When Australian politicians and business people talk about the need for other countries to be part of global action to reduce greenhouse emissions before Australia does, they’re talking about countries that buy and burn the coal we mine and sell from the Hunter Valley and the Bowen Basin.
To have a 50:50 chance of preventing global warming going above two degrees above pre-industrial levels, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has previously estimated that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2015.
According to the International Energy Agency, in a scenario where the world acts to meet the goal of limiting warming to below two degrees, “Global demand for coal peaks around 2016 and then declines by 2.7 percent per year on average” (see page 212).
Last year, Greenpeace released a report mapping 91 new coal mining projects in NSW and Queensland, including Maules Creek. If these projects go ahead, they would produce enough coal to add an additional 1.5Gt of carbon dioxide annually to the atmosphere, nearly three times the amount of greenhouse gases Australia currently emits every year.
With so much at stake, and in the face of craven failure of the Australian political system to grapple with our biggest contribution to climate change, the conflict can only escalate over the Maules Creek mine. It’s the largest new coal mine currently under construction in Australia, and the campaign against it has brought together environmentalists with local farmers, traditional owners and climate change activists.
In the last couple of years, protest action at Leard State Forest has been ramping up, with dozens of protest drawing a growing number of people to the forest. In December, 120 people took part in a large protest against the project, including 74-year-old Raymond McLaren from Tamworth. This week, five people have so far been arrested blockading to stop the forest from being cleared and the battle is intensifying.
In the immediate future, there are two decisions and opportunities pending that could provide a reprieve for Leard State Forest.
Gomeroi traditional owners have submitted requests for interim and permanent protection orders for their cultural heritage sites, including burial sites. They are bitterly upset with their treatment by Whitehaven, and are looking to federal Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt to agree to the stop work order so they can care for their sites.
The Northern Inland Council for the Environment are waiting for the release of a review of the biodiversity offsets that formed part of the conditions for the Maules Creek approval. If it’s found that the offsets committed to by Whitehaven are not what they had claimed, Hunt is within his power to suspend or revoke approval of this project, but will he?
In the bigger picture, though, Australia is sowing the seeds of cataclysmic upheaval into the future by failing to begin the process of winding back its coal export industry. The blockading protestors at Leard State Forest have this week been experiencing, like most of south-eastern Australia, severe heatwave conditions, which are intensifying across our continent as climate change worsens.
What is happening out here in Leard State Forest is a microcosm of this country’s greatest economic and social challenge, and it doesn’t look like it will be easily resolved.