Aerial view of the Leard State Forest and the Boggabri mine, which is being expanded. Image used under the Creative Commons licence with thanks to Leard State Forest. (Flickr.com)
“Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world.”
Australia’s then Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaking at the opening of the new A$3.9 billion7 Caval Ridge coal mine in central Queensland, October 2014
Australia’s addiction to coal began more than 35 years ago, when Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal government sought to reduce the country’s dependence on oil, because of soaring global prices and political instability in the Middle East. On both security and energy grounds, coal was the chosen alternative.
Today, despite a slump in coal prices, the addiction is as chronic as ever.
The legacy of Fraser’s 1979 government’s decision is evident in Australia’s rank as the world’s fifth biggest coal producer and second biggest exporter, and in the Australian government’s support for huge new coal mines, including the A$16.5 billion8 Carmichael project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, home to one of the world’s biggest untapped thermal coal deposits.9
But however great Australia’s appetite for coal may be - and in 2014 production increased by almost five per cent - opposition to it is powerful and growing.
None, however, have attracted the world-wide attention of Leard State Forest, a rugged landscape surrounded by mountains, in Gunnedah Basin, New South Wales.
The development of three open-cut coal mines here will mean that 40 – 50 per cent of the Leard State Forest - more than 5,000 hectares - is flattened10, including some of Australia’s last unbroken remnants of critically endangered Box-Gum Woodland.11 As well as depleting groundwater levels and threatening rare species, if all three mining proposals proceed, according to a study by Professor Ian Lowe, one of Australia’s most eminent environmental scientists: “the total greenhouse gas impact… would rank above all but 50 entire nations: more than countries such as Sweden, Hungary, Finland, Portugal and Norway… So the proposals really are of global significance.”
Rick Laird, a local cattle and wheat farmer whose family have been in the area for five generations, and who the Leard State Forest is named after12, has been at the heart of the protests against the mines. Two of Laird’s five children attend school four kilometres away from Maules Creek, one of the three developments and Australia’s largest coal mine under construction.13
Australian rugby star David Pocock and local farmer Rick Laird chained to a coal digger in a direct action protest against the Maules Creek mine. Photo courtesy of Rick Laird
"People saw that this is one of Australia’s dirtiest ever projects and they started coming here of their own volition"
“We started a protest camp inside the forest to see what would happen, people saw it on the news and it just snowballed,” he says. Over time, thousands have been drawn here, and local farmers have supported them with food and fuel.14
“People saw that this is one of Australia’s dirtiest ever projects and they started coming here of their own volition,” he says.
Those who have come have been remarkably diverse, and include: elders from the indigenous Gomeroi people, who say that the mine clearing is destroying their sacred burial and heritage sites; Professor Colin Butler, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) author, who was arrested at Maules Creek in November 2014 during a non-violent direct action, and who says that civil disobedience is now necessary to stop climate change15; and Bill Ryan, a 92-year-old World War Two veteran, arrested for trespassing at a protest in Maules Creek in the same year, and who says, “I’ve only got a few years left, but I feel in my conscience that I have to take this stand”.
Interview with Bill Ryan, 92-year-old World War Two veteran arrested during a protest at Maules Creek mine. By Front Line Action on Coal.
When an environmental activist issued a fake press release saying that the bank making a $1.2 billion loan facility to Whitehaven Coal,16 the company behind the mines, had withdrawn its funding on ethical and environmental grounds - thereby causing Whitehaven’s share price to briefly plunge - the campaign against the mines captured international attention.17 The activist, Jonathan Moylan, was convicted of disseminating false market information, but avoided going to jail.
In November 2014, Pocock and Rick Laird were arrested after chaining themselves to a coal digger at Maules Creek for 10 hours, as part of a direct action protest.
“Together we were a pretty potent force in being able to put out the message that this is not just about climate change, or divesting [from coal projects], but about farmers being directly impacted by lack of water and dust pollution,” says Laird.
They both pleaded guilty to a charge of hindering, although no criminal convictions were recorded.
All the protesting and all the publicity however, has not been enough to stop the mines.
Laird says: “Each month they [Whitehaven] bring in more diggers. They are already putting out about seven or eight million tonnes of coal a year collectively and they want to achieve 23 million tonnes between the three mines. They are clearing and blasting and doing all sorts of things to achieve it, so we’re getting more trucks, more machines, more dust, more noise.”
7 A$3.9 billion is €2.65 billion at the current exchange rate.
8 A$16.5 billion is €11.21 at the current exchange rate.
9 The Carmichael Coal Mine and Rail Project has been the target of huge public protests, with the threat posed to the Great Barrier Reef among the many objections. By Greenpeace’s estimate, burning the coal the Galilee Basin’s mines are expected to produce will result in 128.4 million tonnes of CO2 a year – roughly the same as Belgium’s current emissions.
10 This is Greenpeace’s calculation. The NGO also points out that “The 2011 Maules Creek Environmental Assessment in fact predicted a greater impact than 40 per cent over the next two or three decades: ‘Based upon current proposals within the Leard State Forest, the combined impacts of mining could remove 3,081 ha of the 5,053 ha of forest and woodland, a total of 60 per cent. This would include removal of 1,217 ha of 2,153 ha of Box Gum Woodland and Derived Native Grassland, equating to 57 per cent of the CEEC within the forest.’”
11 The New South Wales Department of Premier and cabinet described the Leard State Forest as having “irreplaceable, ecologically unique values”. NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, 2011, Proposed Maules Creek Project (10_0138) – Review of Publicly Exhibited Environmental Assessment Report, pg 11. See: Whitehaven Coal: No Future, Greenpeace, October 2014.
12 Leard was the Lairds original family name.
14 Rick Laird interview with Fern, 8.10.15.
15 After his arrest, Professor Butler said: "It's getting worse. The evidence for climate change is getting stronger and yet instead of moving away from coal exports [Australia] is just advocating it. It's the moral equivalent of selling heroin and saying, 'It's not my fault I'm selling heroin, it's the people who use it'. We profit from selling something we know poisons the future." Read article >
16 Whitehaven Coal’s analysis of the ecological impact of the mines and their proposed mitigation for it can be seen here.
17 In July 2014 Jonathan Moylan was sentenced to a year and eight months in jail for disseminating false information to the market, but released immediately, with the judge noting that he had done so not for financial gain, but with motives that were “sincerely held”. Read article >