Feature

The Environmental Impact of Mining in the Galilee Basin

Investigating the largest fossil fuel projects in the world.

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Environmental journalist Oliver Milman spent a week in western-regional Queensland to conduct research for The Guardian's interactive microsite detailing the effects the proposed Galilee basin development could have on the environment. Oliver was kind enough to give me his time in answering questions about The Guardian's interactive microsite and his views on an array of climate based topics.

How did the idea of an interactive microsite to highlight this issue come to be?
The idea kind of came about that we (The Guardian) would investigate the largest fossil fuel projects in the world and give them the big treatment I suppose in terms of an interactive online for people to really get a feel for the issue. So, the proposed drilling for oil in the Arctic is one of them, the oil sands extraction in Alberta Canada. There’s another one in Brazil and in terms of Australia, we’re looking at the mines that are proposed for the Galilee basin. We spent a week up there filming, taking pictures, interviewing people; that kind of thing.

I really like the idea of it following several people from the area, therefore making it personal ...
Sometimes we can just get dragged into the numbers of an issue; emissions, temperatures, when essentially climate change is a human story. If you’re a farmer in central Queensland and you’ve got a grazing property next to one of those mines then you have to be concerned about ground water and what the mines will do that. If you live on the coast, like Airlie Beach or the Whitsundays, your concern is the Great Barrier Reef. Then there’s the indigenous rights issue as well; the mines are being built on indigenous land and the local indigenous group by large oppose the mines. So there’s quite a few different issues going on there as well as the overarching one, which is climate change of course.

As other countries turn to more sustainable ways of finding energy why do you think the government is so adamant in doing the opposite for Australia?
Australia is still the largest coal exporter in the world. It would little more than double if the mines went ahead and they reached capacity. I think people kind of high up in the business world and government see that as being Australia’s economic future and key to maintaining the standards of living Australians have.
The fossil fuel industry is very strong it’s very vocal; if you look at when Kevin Rudd was prime minister, he tried to bring in a mining tax and the mining companies campaigned so successfully against that. So they do have huge influence and they do have good connection to the government and I think that’s kind of their legacy. I think Australia can move beyond that kind of fixation with fossil fuels, I think that it’s possible, they just need the physical will to do it.

Do you believe the sustainable energy sector is something Australia should be investing in?
Australia’s got the highest carbon emissions in the developed world; I mean we need to start de-carbonizing this economy. From an economic view it makes sense as well, you know, massive number of jobs and coal is a declining industry. Lots of major banks and financial institutions are not backing coal anymore - discouraging governments from backing them as well. The best thing the Australian government can do is make that transition now rather than wait until coal is completely obsolete and we’re left with a bunch of coal mines that no one wants to buy the coal from, leaving us isolated.

Does development of the Galilee basin play on fears of a slowing job market?
The key argument of coal industry is that coal provides jobs. They kind of see it in moral terms that you need to provide jobs at home and also energy security overseas by exporting coal overseas. Tony Abbott said, "Coal is good for humanity". This overlooks the impact of coal on the climate and even its effect on the economy; the cost of climate change far extends what the fossil fuel companies are delivering from coal in terms of growth. You even see mining towns now - the boom was three-to-four years ago, but now everyone’s moving out of these towns. This is what happens when the booms drops off and people suffer. I think for Australia to be locked into that kind of boom of mining is very short-term thing.

Adani and GVK, the Indian companies that want to develop the Galilee basin and Abbot Point have a serious record of environmental violation in India. Why do you think the Government allow such a company to develop on Australian land?
It’s a question that’s being challenged right now in the courts. There are two court challenges against Adani who are creating the Carmichael mine. The first being their environmental impact and of course Adani’s record. The technical response from the Australian government is, although it is required to consider a company’s record when it grants approval for these projects; it takes the definition of its record in Australia. Adani hasn’t really done anything here in Australia, until now there is no black mark against their name here. So, that’s an interpretation of the legislation. The green groups think it should be a little wider, and you should look at company’s reputation overseas as well as here so they will give you clues on how they will operate.

Do the environmentalists fighting against the Carmichael mine have a chance in winning?
It depends on what you define as winning. In terms of raising awareness for this issue, certainly they can do that. In terms of aiding that anger towards banks that will finance it, that’s been partly conceptual. If you look at those 11 international banks that are not funding the mines based on the concerns of the environment to ultimately protect their reputation; they do not want it to be damaged. And they may well win in getting the government to consider climate change when approving these projects. In terms of actually stopping the mines though, I think that will be down to economics rather environmental groups.

It is scary to think if the development of the Galilee basin went ahead, it would be the seventh largest contributor of carbon dioxide in the world. That little area giving off more carbon dioxide than larger countries is cause for concern.
Yeah, nearly as much as Germany. There are so many contradictory arguments from this debate when you look at what the Australian government is doing. It’s spending 1.5 billion on its direct action plan for climate change to reduce emissions by 2020. That money will be wasted if they go ahead with these mines. Even the Carmichael mine itself - any of the coal from that mine will wipe out any of the good Australia do in terms of their emission reductions. So the government argues that they just want to look at what Australia’s doing rather than worry about overseas. Technically - the UN counts domestic emissions only but you’ve got westernized countries like Australia, like Europe, who are cutting their emissions at home but their offshoring those emissions elsewhere. So if you get all your goods manufactured in China, then it’s going to be happening in China and you just import them.

Australia can’t just wash its hands of these coal exports and say ‘well it’s nothing to do with us’. Australia approved these mines, it contributes large amounts of money to actually getting the infrastructure built and the coal past the reef, so Australia can’t pretend it’s playing no role in this. It needs to actually look at its contribution because ultimately the coal that is exporting and allowing to be exported will come back and haunt Australia in many ways in terms of droughts, extreme weather and acidification of the warming of the ocean, which will put the Great Barrier Reef in huge danger. So it’s in Australia’s interests to take account for the emissions it exports.

Developing on native land does not just affect the environment, but the indigenous as well. Their connection to the land and culture goes beyond what most of us could ever understand. How do you think the development of the Galilee basin will affect the indigenous population?

That’s a kind of intangible question really because it’s hard to kind of get a grasp on that unless you are indigenous yourself. I think that kind of connection to country and that kind spiritual connection to land is difficult to understand for someone who is not indigenous. You know, speaking to one of the top indigenous elders, he was kind of talking about their dreamtime stories; all the rivers and all the animals and what their totems mean to them and the trees they use for their canoes and weapons and also the burial grounds for the deceased as well. So, uh, very sacred kind of sites to them and I guess it’s a huge disruption to that order and flow of things. But let’s not pretend that all indigenous people feel the same. There are those that are quite happy to sign agreements with mining companies. They see it as being beneficial to their people because they can earn money from those agreements. I think it’s difficult to say there’s one uniform view there.

Do you think the interactive will be successful in its goal of educating people on the impact of the development of the Galilee basin?
Yeah I hope so, it will kind of introduce a new concept for the people overseas or even in Australia who do not understand the issue in Queensland and the kind of broader outlook. Ultimately it is more of a global story because it could impact on climate change affecting the world as well. It doesn’t really matter where emissions come from; it’s a worldwide impact; that’s the main thing.

Make sure to view the interactive at:
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2015/may/15/carbon-bomb-australia-the-new-coal-frontier

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