Sunday, September 27, 2015

Who's stopping new coal mines in rural Queensland?

After more research, I decided to break up the environmental portion of my posts on rural Australia into several distinct pieces, based on subject matter.  The first will focus on coal, the second on other mineral mining, and the third on agriculture.

Coal & Queensland

The state of Queensland is home to one of the most controversial proposed coal mines in Australia.  Queensland is also an incredibly rural state.  The population density averages 2.7 people per sq. kilometer.  The majority of the population is concentrated along the coast in the population centers of Brisbane, Gold Coast, Cairns, Townsville, and the inland town of Toowoomba (pop. 114,000).

The overwhelming concentration of people in coastal centers is the norm in Australia.  Therefore  the needs of the cities often far outweigh the concerns of rural, inland populations based solely on electoral .  One major, national concern is energy.  Australia is a very mineral-rich continent, particularly in coal production. Driven by the need to generate its own electricity and the desire for corporations to export significant amounts of coal to the burgeoning and energy hungry economies in India and China, Australia produces a lot of coal.  Queensland alone has 54 operating coal mines, producing 228.9 metric tons of coal, of which 208.6 metric tons are exported.  The entirety of this coal production takes place in the interior of Queensland, well away from major population centers.    And as the thirst for greater coal production increases, corporations are expanding farther west, into more rural locations.

The Carmichael Mine

The Carmichael coal mine is a proposed mine in the rural and remote interior of Queensland whose future is in serious question. It is approximately 160 km from the nearest locality of note, Clermont, a town of under 3,000 people that relies almost entirely on agricultural and coal interests for its survival.

The Carmichael mine was proposed by mining conglomerate Adani, which has encountered various issues (including financing) in getting the mine going.  A year ago, in July 2014, Environmental Minister Greg Hunt approved the mine.  The mine was supposed to be Australia's biggest: 200 sq. km in size and producing 60 million tons per year.  To ship this coal to markets in India and China, the Australian government was going to create a shipping channel through the Great Barrier Reef.

Green groups opposed the plan and the government's approval of the project, and subsequently filed an action in federal court.  In August 2015, the court rejected Hunt's approval of the mine because it did not give sufficient consideration to the impacts of the mine on two threatened species.

The green advocacy groups that challenged the mine are based almost entirely in urban, coastal Queensland.  The co-ordinating group, Mackay Conservation Group, is based in Mackay, a coastal city of 120,000 people, and relies on agriculture (mainly sugar), mining, and tourism for its economy.

The Tension Between the Urban Conservationist & the Rural Economies

While the goals of the conservationist groups are laudable, I am struck by the stark division between the impacts of the coal mine, and those who oppose it.  I feel like this is an issue that plays itself out throughout coal country--from Appalachia to Colorado and from Gujarat to Queensland.  Urban interests mine the coal, in the hopes of selling it for massive profits to developing countries (which, in itself, raises an interesting question of shifting rural impacts of coal use to rural populations in developing economies).  Other urban interests oppose mining out of a desire to protect biodiversity and ecological treasures.

Two urban groups fight over whether to mine coal, but the direct impacts of coal mining are felt in the vast rural communities.  In the United States, there are tangible impacts on rural populations when things go wrong (coal ash, polluted water, and other assorted human health risks that always seem to make the news from West Virginia).  But is the Australian coal industry more akin to oil in Alaska? Are the only interests in rural Queensland simply there because of coal? Meaning, are the industrial interests invested in coal country there simply to extract wealth?   If that's the case, of course those few Australians who depend on a single industry for economic well-being won't oppose additional jobs.  And that attitude will be reinforced as the coal industry attracts more people dependent on continued production.

Climate Change & Coal

A further aspect of this rich tapestry is the matter of energy policy.  The majority of the coal produced in Queensland is exported, but Australia still uses a portion of it for home-grown energy production.  Yet, Queensland, in Australia's wet tropics, can be significantly impacted by cyclones.  And, with a warmer planet, those cyclones are likely to get worse.

Australia's economic boom of the past 15 years has been based in mineral extraction and export, with coal playing no small part.  As commodity prices have collapsed, and Australia's budget has shrunk, it seems that rural areas are hit hardest.  Not only are rural services cut (which I will explore in the coming weeks in future posts), but the foundation of rural economies is shaken.  Without coal in Queensland, would there even be a rural economy? Or would the inland population necessarily migrate to the urban coast and simply abandon rural Australia. The two so intimately linked, that if coal collapses, so will numerous rural communities.

Urban observers may thus suggest an alternative: the development of renewable energy in these vast rural areas--solar, wind, etc.  Well away from the urban and still making use of natural resources--but in a less destructive way.  But, I don't think solar farms are the answer.  Most of the economic wealth comes from energy exports, and renewable sources cannot be exported like coal.

So, the urban exploits the rural, and the urban tries to save the rural landscape, at the expense of the rural economy.  What is left for a viable rural livelihood?  Is it agriculture?  Stay tuned for my next post, where I examine rural agriculture, water policy, and government changes to environmental laws that stemmed from the Carmichael mine debacle.


Dakota Sinclair said...

It's interesting that the urban world wants to save part of the rural in the name of preserving ecological resources. In their quest to save two threatened species, the environmental groups don't offer the residents of the rural community an alternative way to bring jobs into the area. I think you raise a solid point on the issues with solar power. One fact that is often overlooked is the further wire stretches, power is lost through resistance. Installing solar farms won't really help the community because by the time energy reaches the cities, it will have been diminished greatly.

What are other resources that are available to the region that the rural community can exploit, aside from coal or possibly agriculture? Is ecotourism a possibility?

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