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Sunshine is the new coalmine: open cut mines and coal ports are one option for the Great Barrier Reef, or we can look up and see the light.

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Bright flashes of neon orange and yellow are a familiar sight in the Galilee Basin these days, though they are not the markings of the Yellow-throated Miner, a honeyeater native to Queensland, or the Rainbow Bee-eater, another long-time resident of the area. These neon-crested visitors--more commonly known as prospectors, foreign investors, and coal and gas geologists--sing a different tune.

They walk roads and cross paddocks worn in by decades of interested parties, including Australian mining royalty Hancock Prospecting Ltd, who have pitched the value of excavating western Queensland's "buried sunshine" to all and sundry over the years, including Swedish buyers and at one stage during the 1970s, Romania's last communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Some of the highly visible flocks scouring the 250,000 square km area have coal seam and shale gas exploration licenses burning a hole in their pockets, while the luckier ones have state and federal approval for open-cut and extraction mines.

A massive series of developments are currently in the pipeline for Galilee. The recently approved Alpha Coal project includes open-cut and underground mines along with a raft of related infrastructure-coal-fired power stations, extensive railway construction and the expansion of international shipping ports. The project will envelope large swathes of western Queensland, including Kevin's Corner, with a 500 km railway etching its way to seaborne export stations around the Great Barrier Reef.

The perceived wealth of the thermal coal that rests below the ground of this Permian geological basin (the last period of the Paleozoic Era) are what GVK-Hancock, a joint venture between Gina Rinehart's Hancock Coal and Indian conglomerate GVK, Clive Palmer's Waratah, and the inexperienced Indian-based Adani Group, are determined to unearth.

Not if John Hepburn, executive director of The Sunrise Project, has anything to do with it. As Hepburn sees it, "the biggest threat to climate globally is the ongoing use and expansion of coal. As I see it the aim of the people concerned about a living planet is to delay those investments. We need to stop that misallocation of capital happening over the next few years".

For a man determined to put the brakes on Australia's largest coal-mining endeavour, a venture that enjoys firm support from the mining sector, as well as federal and state environment ministers, major commercial banks, and international investors, Hepburn has his work cut out for him. A situation he idly dismisses as irritating, but not insurmountable, as effortlessly as one would dispatch a bloated mosquito "it's entirely possible and it's not something we have to endure, it's something we have to drive".

The Sunrise Project exists to champion a future fuelled by renewable energy, "where a healthy democracy means that local communities make their own development decisions guided by a concern for community health, and an ethic of stewardship for the earth".

It's a tremendously appropriate ambition, especially from a citizen of a nation with a schizophrenic approach to climate policy and a prehistoric approach to energy generation. But Hepburn has done his homework, he holds a degree in both business and engineering, and has studied community-driven environment programs in the US and Europe and worked as an engineer across the oil, gas and coal industries.

Independent economic analysis of the Galilee Coal proposal highlights the disconcerting absence of a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, an uncomfortable (yet seemingly frequent) habit of the mining industry. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis labeled Alpha an "unacceptable risk" with director of Economists at Large Rod Campbell asserting that any thorough financial assessment would see the lion's share of benefits moving offshore to overseas shareholders. Hepburn's conclusion is similar: "Their net contribution to the Australian community is negative. And if you actually factor in externalities, like environmental impacts they wouldn't be approved".

Coal is a high cost product in a low priced market with an uncertain future--one of the reasons the Queensland government is considering subsidising Galilee coal developments. It's hardly a vote of confidence.

"In Europe over the last five years, shareholders have seen half a trillion of value destroyed from the continent's top 20 energy utilities--a loss directly attributable to changes in climate policy," says Hepburn. Here at home, AGL essentially wrote off the contentious CSG project in the Hunter Valley with a value of $340 million after the popular community coordinated Alliance Lock the Gate's targeted anti-CSG campaign. International divestment programs are spreading like wildfire--merchant banks and superannuation funds feeling the furious heat of customers determined to dispose unethical investment.

The upshot? If you do invest in fossil fuels, then expect to lose. This is fundamental to kicking the coal habit. "It's important to engage in a robust way in the regulatory process, while building public opposition and putting pressure on the finance sector--the banks and super funds that are financing these projects. If that happened they wouldn't go ahead," says Hepburn.

As those on the scene know very well, holding mining giants accountable, making them comply with the extant regulatory process, isn't exactly a cakewalk.

The existing laws and regulations in place have a bit of the Rorschach in them. What does that mean? It means that while the federal environment minister is the official watchdog on national matters of environmental significance, it's possible he could conclude he technically isn't legally obliged to make himself aware of all potential environmental impacts. Further, it is open to the minister to privilege the socio-economic benefits for a community over the environmental deficits--a weakness often exploited by powerful industry lobbyists.

Many in the fossil fuel business cheerfully and unironically boast the environmental sustainability of intensive resource extraction, land clearing, and groundwater contamination. Few however, provide thorough cost-benefit analyses, nor credible ecological impact assessments. The political contraception the Commonwealth has put in place to streamline environmental consent, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act), is incredibly vulnerable to politicisation.

The CSIRO recommends water quality, energy use, greenhouse gas emission, and social and economic implications are quantitatively assessed to give an accurate picture of the true burden of major developments like Galilee. After they've been given the go ahead, even if, fantastically, all of these elements survive scrutiny, commercial culpability and responsibility for addressing and mitigating the environmental impacts is difficult to monitor. Those it does appear as a gross abuse of euphemism in most Environmental Management Plans (EMP), as intentions to "address the relevant risks associated with the construction, operation and decommissioning phases of the project".

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Statements like these are the natural habitat of weasel words and not much else. In the case above, an extract from the EMP for Galilee, it's hard to discern that the relevant risks include destruction of rare biodiversity hotspots, habitats of vulnerable and threatened species, the (unfeasible) rehabilitation of complex ecosystems, contamination of the Great Artesian Basin. Residential and livestock properties draw water from the Basin, which is flagged for greater state government care already. The mine would slurp up phenomenally massive volumes to service its many operations.

From these sparse EMPs, you'd be clever to glean that the Bimblebox Refuge, a modest 7632 hectares of heritage-protected remnant native wood and bush land, is within the proposed 60,000 hectare mine sites. The refuge is exactly that, a high conservation value habitat of the Grey-crowned Babbler, Hooded Robin, Speckled warbler, Spectacled hare-wallaby, Inland forest Bat, koalas, Horsfield's Bronze-cuckoo, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, Yellow-throated Miner, Tree Martin, and the Rainbow Bee-eater. And then there's the vulnerable or endangered: Squatter Pigeon, Eastern and Southern Star Finch, Black-throated Finch, and the Australian Painted Snipe.

Fret not, as G V Sanjay Reddy, GVK Vice-Chairman enthuses "following the best practices in operations and environmental sustainability, we will create jobs, contribute to the economic development of the region and improve quality of life, thus contribute our bit, to the society".

Janeice Anderson's livelihood--she and her husband run the 25,000 ha Eureka cattle station-depends on ground aquifers. "In drought times, like now, water is liquid gold," says Anderson. Her property is close to what will become a thirsty 30km-long, 5km-wide pit, the reason the self-taught bush lawyer has taken GVK and Hancock Mining to court. Another example of the weakness of federal environment oversight--the EPBC Act does not make it mandatory for developers to establish continued consultation with affected communities.

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Water supply pipelines would tear through Epping Forest National Park--the only remaining native habitat of the endangered Northern Hairy Nose Wombat. Land clearing would be its end game. Railway lines would fracture the Black Mountain Nature Refuge, Mount Pleasant Nature Refuge (crucial habitat for Squatter Pigeons and Black-chinned Honeyeaters) and Aberdeen Nature Refuge (an important wildlife corridor) among others.

The mines will also bleed into Ramsar wetlands, Commonwealth marine areas, and clock up greater instances of ocean acidification and coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This is what Hepburn is convinced will provoke resistance from the Australian community. "There's only so much the Queensland government can do in relation to the Great Barrier Reef. These projects will have a profound impact on the reef, a natural icon that has captured the imagination of not only Queenslanders but the world too."

The EPBC Act neglects to truly account for the impacts of climate change, or the contribution that domestic exports will make to global warming. Bit of an oversight, you'd think. Consequences aren't optional, like cause and effect they follow action--direct or indirect as that action may be.

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Pollution, or carbon pollution emissions, doesn't just spurt from a smoke stack. Increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations bubble up from the intensive clearing of pasturelands and intact woodlands, and the loss of carbon-uptake potential from the areas that would be cleared of trees and vegetation.

This is Hepburn's motivation for halting new coal-power stations and mines. "The fact is if those don't get butt in the next few years they don't get built at all, because the market is shifting towards renewable. Coal exports are a bigger contributor to climate change than domestic emissions."

The exploitation of mineral resources is in our blood. It's literally the foundation of our society. But we can't afford to remain stuck in this antiquated mindset. Abigail Jabines, ACF's climate change campaigner explains it this way, "there's a general understanding in the industry and in politics that mining is the backbone of the Australian economy. Whether or not that is the case, that's how they believe it is. That needs to be broken".

All this makes for a volatile political environment, and with such uncertainty in the energy sector--despite a (working) price on pollution and a decline in the demand for fossil fuels--the hesitancy for the renewables industry to throw their weight in the ring is understandable. Which sees incumbent industries dig their heels, and shovels further in. Especially when the checks and balances in place shine in their direction.

One of the best methods to hurry up a clean energy future is by hindering the development of new mines--through investment in clean energy technology, through divestment in fossil fuels, and through public demand for systemic upheaval. Hepburn sums it up eloquently. "We're in an energy revolution that is happening faster than most people would have predicted even a few years ago, it's quite staggering, the pace of change. That transition is well and truly under way and it's an unstoppable force of history."
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Author:Borrelle, Jessie
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUQU
Date:Jan 1, 2014
Words:1886
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