Welcome to this blog, the story of a great big Australian adventure. It documents my travels, life in Australia, and a subject close to my heart – environmental conservation. 

Bimblebox 3: May update

Bimblebox 3: May update

Bimblebox, courtesy of National Parks Association of Queensland

On Friday evening 11 May I was sitting watching the ABC News at 7 when it was announced that Waratah Coal's China First Project no longer had part of its financing in place ($40 billion to supply a Swiss energy trading company with coal, to be exact). Waratah chairman Clive Palmer later claimed this would have no impact on the project since it still has a $60 billion commitment from China Power International. 

In subsequent days there was much speculation in the press about Palmer, his money and the future for coal in Australia. The Age was not the only media outlet to highlight the disparity between Palmer's tendency for bold statements and what he actually achieves. For potential investors in the mines proposed for the Galilee Basin, it can't have made reassuring reading. Rather than me paraphrasing, it's better if you read for yourselves: here and here.

The man who loves to litigate threatened to sue the Sydney Morning Herald for their initial reporting of the deal's demise which he claimed was 'false and misleading'. Yet this is just how I would describe his summary of Bimblebox Nature Refuge (BNF) in an interview with ABC Brisbane's Steve Austin on 1 May (see It's a mad mad mad mad week, environmentally, May 2012). Palmer's lawyers are going to be busy since he's also taking Queensland Rail to court for misleading him over the planned rail link from the Galilee Basin to coal-exporting facilities on the central Queensland coast.

Of course, even if Waratah Coal don't develop mines that will devastate BNF, there are other companies that might. They will need deep pockets, however, as Premier 'Can-do' (but won't do) Newman's austerity measures mean that this week the new Queensland government announced they were abandoning plans to expand the Abbot Point coal-exporting port. According to Queensland Resources Council* CEO Michael Roche, plans for six new terminals represented a 'big bang' approach to growing the multi-cargo facility rather than incremental expansion as it was needed. The feedback from the industry was that big bangs don't work: increasing the port's capacity from 50 million tonnes to 385 million tonnes was unrealistic. (Rio Tinto recently pulled out of the project.) Will the three terminals currently in operation at Abbot Point be able to cope with output from the Galilee's new mines? There are other coal ports near Mackay, but other mines in development are competing for tonnage, and China First had been planning to use the new terminals at Abbot Point. Some of its competitors in the region, such as Hancock Coal's Alpha project, have already bagged port capacity.

Meanwhile, a Hong Kong bulk carrier narrowly escaped running aground on Shark Reef northeast of Cairns after losing power.

Recent figures out of China over the last couple of months, showing economic growth slowing, have made investors jittery. The Washington Post today even talks of 'China's economic crisis'. A growth rate of at least nine per cent per annum was maintained for three decades, but has been slowing since 2010, largely as a result of fewer exports to a post-GFC world in which there is less demand, and tighter lending and investments curbs intended to take heat out of the Chinese economy and slow inflation.

The Guardian, reporting today on the delay of (Chinese) Hanlong Mining's takeover of (Australian) Sundance Resources, describes China's increasing reluctance to fund 'risky resources projects' offshore. And The Washington Post predicts trouble ahead for those countries that have been buoyed by the boom in China as demand for raw materials now drops.

Amid events in economic markets and speculation in the financial press, what of Bimblebox this month? If you visit the Queensland Co-ordinator General's website, you will see, under Current EIS projects/China First Coal Project, Environmental impact statement (EIS) process, Date, that is says 'Pending'; and Activity, 'Co-ordinator-General's report on EIS'.

Then look on the same website under Current EIS projects, Completed EIS projects/China First Coal, EIS current status, and you will see 'Supplementary EIS being prepared by proponent'. See here.

These 'statuses' are not at odds either with each other or with what I was told last month by the CG's office (see Bimblebox 2: April update). If you want to know what happens next in the process, go to: here and here.

The China First EIS process is being conducted under a bilateral agreement between the Queensland State and Federal governments. What this means is that the Queensland government does the work of processing the EIS while informing the Federal government. Should the Co-ordinator General approve China First, a 'significant project', the final go-head has to be given by the Minister for Environment in Canberra. In the light of the processes outlined above, therefore, it is imperative that all those concerned for the survival of Bimblebox Nature Reserve lobby environment ministers at both State and Federal levels so that neither can be in any doubt about public opinion.

Having completed a report, the Co-ordinator General can recommend a project is approved, denied or approved with conditions. Federal ministers have been known to overturn 'approved' decisions, as in the case of the Traveston Crossing Dam in 2009. This project south of Gympie would have involved the damming of the Mary River and threatened many vulnerable or endangered species. 

A key issue in decision making in this case is going to be that of biodiversity offsets. Under Queensland's biodiversity offsets policyª, a mining company has obligations when clearing vegetation of significant environmental value. Offsetting is a contentious issue, and a complex one. I have never been convinced by offsetting. When booking your holiday flights, paying money for trees to be planted in no way lets you off the hook in terms of augmenting your carbon emissions. How can a remnant ecosystem be replicated just down the road from the mine that destroyed it, by definition? I have many questions about biodiversity offset policy in Queensland and intend to address this issue in the next Bimblebox update.

A few weeks ago, the National Parks Association of Queensland spent two days at Bimblebox Nature Refuge doing a survey of flora. They found at least 220 different plant species; rich tree (Ironbark, top of page), shrub and understorey layers; and a thick grass layer. Ninety-five per cent of the 8000-hectare property is covered with vegetation described as a picture of health. NPAQ concluded that Bimblebox is a superb example of grazing for conversation. Its destruction would send a disheartening message to the stewardship efforts of private landowners and graziers, whose role is seen as increasingly important in a state where only 4.78 per cent of land is protected in National Parks (compared with 16 per cent of Victoria and 20 per cent of South Australia) and 74 per cent is subject to mining permits.

*QRC is a 'not-for-profit peak industry association representing the commercial developers of Queensland's mineral and energy resources'

ªThis morning the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection confirmed that the new LNP government has no plans as yet to amend this policy

Off road: Fraser for a day

Off road: Fraser for a day

Off road: Mt Superbus and the source of the Condamine

Off road: Mt Superbus and the source of the Condamine