A BIG decision
I've been attending the Land Court in Brisbane for a few years now, in support of community groups and individual landholders taking on big coal. If I can't attend every day of a case without life grinding to a halt, I tend to choose the testimony of ecologists and groundwater experts over economists. That's how I came to miss the evidence of Adani's own economics expert witness during the Carmichael case, on the day he admitted there would be nothing like 10,000 jobs created in Central Queensland by the mine. The figure would be more like 1464, he confessed. Regrettably, that 10,000 figure is still spruiked* by right-wing pollies and Murdoch journos.
When the Acland Stage 3 marathon began in March 2016 I was only just back from a trip to California. I was keen to write it up, and my main interest had always been new Galilee Basin development rather than existing Surat Basin mines. New Acland Coal's expansion plans had already been curtailed by Campbell Newman's government, although much concern remained about impacts on groundwater in a prime agricultural region and the legacy of depletion for future generations of farmers.
I have attended Court a few times since the Acland case was re-opened in February amidst high drama, but the announcement that a decision would be handed down yesterday at midday came at short notice. I'd already arranged to meet a few friends for lunch at Manly marina on what turned out to be a typically beautiful Queensland winter's day. And so I missed an historic moment in the history of the Land Court and, who knows, perhaps even a significant point in the planetary shift away from fossil fuels. Member Paul Smith recommended that the Acland mine not go ahead.
Once again, the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) Queensland led the objectors to Acland Stage 3. In conclusion to this massive case they list some impressive stats about 'one of the largest environmental public interest cases of its kind in Australian history': there were 40 community objectors; 27 expert witnesses and 38 lay witnesses; 99 hearing days; two site visits; 1,892 exhibits and 7,452 pages of court transcripts. By April 2017's hearings the landholders looked weary and worn; but today they are vindicated and jubilant.
In the words of Paul King from the Oakey Coal Action Alliance, a group representing more than 60 farmers and other objectors: 'By recommending against the Acland Stage 3 mine, the Land Court has recognised that the impact on our water supplies, our farm businesses and the health of our families are too severe'. EDO CEO and solicitor Jo-Anne Bragg added: 'Without this case, the costs and benefits of this project would not have been scrutinised before the independent Land Court, and evidence including faulty groundwater modelling, increased noise and dust risks and complaints, and over-inflated job figures, would not have been exposed.'
Unfortunately, Member Smith's recommendations do not necessarily mean the end of Acland Stage 3. They are just that; recommendations. Neither the Minister with responsibility for the Mineral Resources Act (MRA) nor the Minister responsible for the Environmental Protection Act (EPA), Anthony Lynham and Steven Miles respectively, is compelled to take any notice. They are free to spout predictable platitudes and carry on regardless.
We are living in particularly interesting times, however. News came overnight that the US Republican administration is opting out of the Paris Climate Agreement. In anticipation, a couple of LNP fellow-fruit-loops – one of them, sadly, the chair of Turnbull’s backbench committee on environment and energy – have iterated that Australia should follow America's 'lead'. On the other hand, for the last couple of weeks or so, the state government of Queensland has had wobbly policy moments about Adani's proposed Carmichael mine. And, following a remarkable turnaround in the polls, I am holding my breath until the UK election on 8 June. Naively I'm sure, I have stumbled upon minute glimmers of hope.
In Australia, environmental protectors rarely experience elation. But just after midday on Wednesday we enjoyed more than a few moments. Since the Alpha mine case in the Land Court in 2014, I have had a lot of respect for Member Smith. He is empathetic and wise as well as learned, and on Wednesday he delivered. He relies upon the Precautionary Principle as a strategy for dealing with imponderables inadequately addressed by both the EPA and the MRA, both of them so last century.
* Spruik is an Australian English verb. It means to promote or publicise; and to speak in public, especially to advertise a show.