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 and the price of coal

Bimblebox and the price of coal

Last night I revisited Bimblebox, at the University of Queensland's Environmental Collective. It's two years since I attended the film's premiere in Brisbane (see Bimblebox, March 2012). I had forgotten how wide-ranging is its content; how hard-hitting its message. The emotional impact was greater this time.

Two years on, Waratah Coal's plans to excavate a priceless nature refuge have been approved, at state and federal level. Plans for nine mega mines in the Galilee Basin proceed unabated. Significantly less environmentally friendly governments have been elected in Queensland and Canberra. The mission of these governments is to develop and export ever more of Australia's extensive coal deposits, while abolishing environmental constraints they believe stand in the way of mining companies. They intend to inhibit protest. The owners of Bimblebox fight on; they await a decision in the Queensland Land Court following landowners' action against Hancock Coal's Alpha mine over groundwater (see Farmers vs Big Coal posts, September 2013): meanwhile, Waratah's scrub-pullers are not yet at the gate.

I know how extensive and invasive open pits and spoil heaps are in the Hunter Valley, but the images in the film shocked me all over again. A landscape degraded to this extent can never be adequately rehabilitated. Mines should not have been allowed to grow and coalesce in such a way.

It is heart-wrenching to watch farmers – men and women – break down as they make their seemingly hopeless case against all-powerful mining giants, none of whom would talk on camera. Landowners with beautiful, once-profitable properties understandably long for their farms to remain in the family. They have been robbed of that heritage, as well as their health and emotional stability.

The destructive impact of resource development on ecosystems is always well exemplified by the koala. The image below isn't from the film but admirably sums up Australia's priorities. A koala isolated from its gum trees is a pitiful sight. At Bimblebox, endangered Black-throated Finches (top, courtesy of I Montgomery) have been spotted among at least 130 species of bird that make the nature refuge a biodiversity hotspot in a vast tract of land mainly cleared for pasture. But neither rare finches nor cute koalas were enough to prevent Waratah being given the go-ahead.

Significant Aboriginal sites are disrupted, not only by mine excavation directly, but subsequently by subsidence above longwall panels or water seepage and diversion. I hope the irony of the damage done to the cultural heritage of Australia's oldest inhabitants – whose affinity to the land is fundamental to their beliefs – is not lost on mining executives or political decision makers.

The implications of breathing in particulates in mining areas are well known, but legislative protection and monitoring remains woeful in this country. Shortly after we came to live here, I watched a news report on dust in the Hunter. A bright orange cloud drifted across a valley, and I distinctly remember thinking: 'Hang on, isn't this Australia? Surely that can't be allowed'. 

Today, a month after the heat and the bush fires, I still can't quite believe that more hasn't been made of the mine fire at Morwell in Victoria's Latrobe Valley. Fires have only just been brought under control, and some residents are still not advised to return to their ash-covered, fume-filled homes. Health advice was confusing in the beginning; and huge questions remain about GDF Suez's decision to defer expenditure for upgrades and maintenance at its Hazelwood power station and less-than-adequate environmental restoration of its associated mine. It would appear that the mainstream media shy away from covering such a potentially catastrophic event that could happen in opencast pits across this country, especially if hot dry windy weather conditions are on the increase.

One of the most poignant scenes in the Bimblebox film is the Kerry Valley blockade in the Scenic Rim in January 2012. For ten days residents resisted Arrow Energy's attempts to put its coal seam gas rig in position on a property. At the end of their tether, locals threw down their hats in defiance and disgust at their treatment by Arrow, before police moved them on. The machine may have crushed those hats that day, but the energy company was deterred. They changed their plans and removed their contraption: there has been no CSG development in the Scenic Rim since.

Those people perhaps feeling a little jaded in the battle against big coal should take heart from a growing murmur among ordinary folk that enough is enough; that what's left in the ground needs to stay there. Fossil fuel days are surely numbered, but that murmur has to acquire volume and a greater sense of urgency if we are to get adequate action fast.

I believe economics will ultimately decide the fate of the Galilee Basin: unstable commodity prices; China's increasingly renewables-based energy plan; Australia's higher production costs. The federal government seems way behind the curve with regard to the 'carbon bubble', and their position is out of kilter with that of some of their closest allies. They need a sharp prod before the bubble bursts. This can take the form of emails, calls, submissions, petitions, or taking to the streets. Criticism of Abbott is rising above party lines. One comment I read at the bottom of an opinion piece knocking the concept of marching in March resonated:

Why would you do something without an anticipated outcome? Well just because. It's called groundswell and you would ignore it at your peril.

Image courtesy of New South Wales Wildlife, Information, Rescue and Education Service
This post was last updated on 14 March 2014 

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