Going Beyond Coal: A People-Powered Movement

By Kari McGregor

Coal, Australia’s #1 export and much-touted bringer of economic growth, is at the centre of controversy in Australia’s rural heartland, and the movement to take on Big Coal is gathering steam.

The Galilee Basin, sprawled across inland central Queensland, is home to one of the world’s largest coal deposits, and Queensland, according to state premier Campbell Newman, “is in the coal business”. Open season has been declared. Where the climate movement sees a time-bomb threatening to blow a 5% chunk out of our optimistically-termed global ‘carbon budget’, mining magnates see the opportunity to turn their millions into billions.

Nine mega-mining projects are slated for the Galilee, five of which will dwarf all currently operational Australian mines. Australia, a country whose electricity grid is 85% coal-powered, currently ships 54% of its coal overseas to feed the furnaces of economic growth. The Galilee mines are set to double Australia’s already gargantuan coal export capacity and pump 700 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, making the Galilee Basin the world’s seventh largest emitter when ranked against top-emitting nations. The prospects look rosy for already grotesquely wealthy mining magnates, but less so for Australia’s landscape and groundwater, and the planet’s delicate climatic balance.

With the battle against Big Coal practically on my doorstep, I took to the road with a team of climate activists to investigate.

Cattle and coal country

Glencore Xstrata’s Rolleston mine, proud producer of 14 million tons of thermal coal per annum, sits inconveniently nestled between Albinia national park and the tranquil beauty of Springwood station. Springwood has been home to the same family since 1895, and now faces the loss of 3,000 hectares of land to the expansion of the open-cut pit. Although Springwood is not for sale, the mining giant aims to acquire the land from under the family living on it. There is plenty to fear when the precedent has already been set by the company’s compulsory acquisition of Springwood’s neighbouring property.

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Speculation Station sprawls across arid red earth in the desert uplands, a quintessentially Australian landscape of termite mounds and exotic birdlife fluttering between the gum trees. Speculation’s adversary is GVK Hancock, the partnership of Indian-owned coal lightweight GVK, and Gina Rinehart’s Hancock coal. Like Springwood, Speculation is not for sale, a status mining companies have treated as negotiable in their numerous attempts to sweet-talk the landholder family into selling out to the 6.4 billion dollar Alpha mine project.

Livelihoods are under attack, but this is not all the landholders are out to protect. Far from the NIMBY stereotype, the Galilee landholders are fighting for the safety and security of the region’s groundwater, and they are deeply concerned for their state’s future food security should agriculture be usurped by mining in the region.

From cattle station to courtroom

Landholders of the Galilee have taken their fighting spirit to Queensland’s courtrooms. GVK Hancock’s Alpha mine threat to Speculation Station has not yet been defeated, but it has had the wind knocked out of its sails for the time being. Speculation’s fate is now up to the Queensland government, who must either accept or reject the land court’s ruling: GVK Hancock must meet extra conditions if their applications for an environmental authority and mining lease are to be granted, or face rejection. These extra conditions include negotiating “make good” deals with three landholders in the Galilee Basin, deals intended to protect the landholders from any potential damage to their water supplies.

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But not all of the proposed mega-mines have been challenged, and the Queensland government has just approved the fourth of the nine mines slated for the Galilee Basin: Indian mining magnate Adani’s Carmichael mine. The Carmichael mine is set to be Australia’s biggest, to the tune to 60 billion tons of thermal coal per annum. Federal approval is Adani’s next hurdle, and the bar is set low. Only twelve mining projects in Australia have ever been rejected on the basis of their environmental impact statements.

Mining a nature refuge

Of all the places in the Galilee Basin that coal mining threatens to destroy, none beggars belief quite as much as the Bimblebox Nature Refuge. Bimblebox, 8,000 hectares of quintessential Desert Upland bush, covering six distinct ecosystems, boasts an impressive array of wildlife for an oasis of nature surrounded by cattle country. Even threatened species like the black-throated finch make the aptly-titled Refuge their home.

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After a workshop on invasive weeds – which consisted mainly of ripping up said weeds – I was treated to a dusty tour of the Bimblebox Refuge balanced on the back of a truck. One cannot help but note the stark contrast between the dense vegetation of Bimblebox and the razed fields of the neighbouring properties. A smattering of bustards demonstrate their indifference toward us as they proudly strut their stuff, and we take in the landscape under the long shadows of the late-afternoon sun, giving way to a soft golden sunset. Bimblebox after hours features falling stars and dismissive kangaroos munching dew-softened greenery, seemingly oblivious to the transient invaders of their territory.

It is a cruel twist of fate indeed that a patch of land supposedly protected forever just happens to sit atop a large coal deposit eyed by mining magnate Clive Palmer, whose inappropriately-named “China First” mine hints at a foreign workforce temporarily ‘insourced’ at below-industry standard pay rates, rendering claims of Big Coal’s benefit to the local economy spurious at best.

From frontline to backstop

It has taken time to build resistance to mining in the Galilee since Bimblebox first took up the challenge from Palmer’s Waratah Coal. But now that coal mining threatens the land and livelihoods of many more of the region’s families a frontline of resistance is forming. Of course, there are many who dig deep but cannot find the energy to fight; justice is something that is hard-won when up against Big Coal. For those who do fight, one thing after another is dropped from their lives as they struggle to keep up with the endless legal paperwork, days in court, and bureaucratic nightmares that steal precious time away from their livelihoods and families. There is work to do, homesteads to run, kids to raise, long distances to travel, and simply not enough hours in the day for many families to get involved.

To help fight coal in the Galilee will take support of a far more humble kind than a mass-movement of city-based youth with catchy social media slogans, can-do rhetoric, and divestment days. It will take practical support – the willingness to get out to the land and pitch in with some manual labour, to sift through legalese and explain it in plainspeak, and lend a hand at homesteads. Taking work off the hands of directly affected stakeholders frees them up to face their days in court, and they’re in this for the long haul so consistency is needed.

The conservation volunteers at Bimblebox and the grassroots organizers whose practical support has etched out a picket line in Queensland’s courts are the heart and soul of the transition beyond coal. These forgotten heroes hold the fort for a movement whose kudos is so often dished out to figureheads who rarely connect with the families on the frontline. These are the people whose hard yards make the rest possible.

Clearing the way for coal      

Carbon emissions and groundwater issues are the well-understood impacts of coal mining, but the sheer devastation caused by the land-clearing required to make way for mines is little reported on. Land-clearing is such an innocuous term for such an insidious operation. Bulldozers crush all that lies in their path, ripping out mighty trees by the roots, sending the few winged creatures that survive screaming from their nests, their homes, in an incomplete exodus – no time to account for loved ones, no warning given, no move-on order or forced ‘resettlement’. Nature is razed to the ground, all that once thrived is annihilated, and the source of so much life is laid to waste. After the holocaust is a dead calm, a land now devoid of voices, littered with the lifeless and mangled bodies of the precious individuals whose work maintaining the balance in their corner of the world is decimated in one fell swoop. Usurped for white man’s self-interest, lives unaccounted in our stock-take.

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Bimblebox was one place where such crimes against nature were never going to be allowed, and the Refuge designated a safe haven forever. But forever is a long time, and time is money. And the almighty dollar always seems to have the final word. As long as we want hot showers and cold beers, powered by coal, this is the way it’s going to be.

We need to quit coal and then some. We are going to have to change not only how we power the lives we want, but what the lives we want consist of, if we are to bring an end to this ecocide we call ‘compromise’.

Where is there hope?

Hope now lies in the hands of the average Aussie, and ordinary Australians are no longer taking for granted the notion that the government has their best interests at heart. The beginning of discontent is the beginning of a movement for change, and it’s better late than never.

Avondale, the final stop on our trip, is a community united by crisis that has declared itself coal and gasfield free. Strong and sensuous women, Earth Mothers and Daughters, front the Avondale campaign against coal, and we are treated to a glimpse of how a community can truly come together over hardship. It wasn’t until their community was threatened by coal mining that Avondale found strength in numbers. Fears for the safety of their groundwater rippled through the community, and Coal Free Wide Bay, Burnett & Beyond was born, an alliance of community groups working together to protect the region’s land, water and future from coal mines and gasfields.

Feeling re-invigorated by the strength of the Avondale community, I wash away my weariness under a cool hose in a field of starlight, and join the crew for a knees-up in celebration of our solidarity against Big Coal. As if to remind me of the precariousness of nature, I almost stumble upon a red-bellied black snake weaving its way across the grass as I approach the homestead that is the scene of our evening’s festivities. And festive it is; we are treated to a feast, sampling dishes from each of the local guests, eating, drinking, and getting merry. This community united by crisis shows that solidarity should be fun – that if we are to unite in the face of adversity then we should not only fight side by side, but also celebrate side by side.

Going beyond coal

The Australian Beyond Coal Alliance is gaining in strength while financial support for Big Coal seems to be waning. The pressure is on at the supply end of the chain with legal challenges and the global credit crunch squeezing financial resources, aided in part by a hefty divestment campaign. But the profitability of Big Coal must also be removed if we are to avert the ignition of a carbon time-bomb. There is work to be done at the demand end of the chain where we can all exercise responsibility, and delay tactics are vital.

To move beyond coal we are going to have to transition to a different way of life. We cannot afford to wait for the promise of large-scale centralized renewables to kick King Coal off the grid, consuming coal-powered electricity all the while. We literally must stop using coal if we are to end its production and usher in an era of distributed small-scale renewable energy systems, an endeavour that will require political pressure as well as individual action. We will likely have to get used to using energy more conservatively through transition, and localize our horizons. Perhaps ironically for Big Coal, the localized economies a smaller scale of energy consumption implies provide security for communities in a way that short-term coal prospects feeding an export market cannot.

In the meantime, talk of delay tactics that recently drove fracking company Metgasco out of the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales has begun to enter the Beyond Coal dialogue. The recent victory of the Bentley Blockade boils down to a solidarity forged from community connection and mutual support. It is a timely reminder of the power we all possess, inspiring a new fighting spirit in the Galilee, and fuelling the transition beyond coal with an ardent people-power.

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