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Issue #1814      March 14, 2018

Block Adani mine

This week the Federal Court is hearing an application by the Wangan and Jabalingou people of central Queensland against the Indian firm Adani’s proposed construction of one of the world’s biggest coal mines, at Carmichael in Central Queensland’s Galilee Basin. The mine would consume 9.5 billion litres of underground water in the region and 12 billion litres of water from local rivers every year. Combustion of coal mined at full production rate would also result in a huge rise in global carbon emissions.

The Great Barrier Reef and the Queensland tourist industry are under threat from the proposal, not only because the company wants to dredge the seabed from its Abbot Point export terminal to enable shipping to pass the Reef, but also because rising sea temperatures associated with climate change are devastating the coral.

Adani claims it has the consent of the traditional owners for mining to proceed. But the Wangan and Jabalingou people argue that they are the owners, that they never gave their consent and that many of the people cited in Adani’s claim are not traditional owners at all.

The Wangan and Jabalingou people have formally rejected the proposal four times. However, in accordance with the Native Title Act, during former court appearances they were represented by Queensland South Native Title Services (QSNTS), an amalgam of several Queensland land councils. Members of QSNTS other than the Wangan and Jabalingou people were allowed to cast a vote concerning the mine and many voted in favour of the proposal.

As legal expert Dr Morgan Brigg observed: “QSNTS ... services more than half the state of Queensland, encompassing nearly all of the gas and coal-rich areas of the state. ... QSNTS badges itself as facilitating traditional owner aspirations and self-determination, but the [Wangan and Jabalingou people’s] experience with QSNTS does not reflect this.”

Central to this week’s case is the question of whether traditional owners really do have the power to block a development proposal on their land. The case has deep ramifications for Aboriginal land rights with respect to the Wik and Mabo determinations of the 1990s.

False arguments and wavering politicians

Last Saturday with the South Australian elections looming, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull boasted that coalition trade policies would boost the export of wine from South Australia. However, rising temperatures are threatening wine production in that state.

Climate scientists say a global temperature rise greater than two degrees would be a catastrophe for agricultural production throughout the world, and would result in global famines. The Australian wine industry would probably be ruined well before a global temperature rise of two degrees.

Both major parties have genuflected before King Coal over the Adani mine proposal. Representatives of the Wangan and Jabalingou people persuaded major overseas financial institutions not to invest in the mine. The battle against dredging thousands of tons of sludge and dumping it in onshore wetlands or on the reef was led by local community groups.

In response, the Turnbull government wants to alter the law so that environmental groups that take political action lose their charitable status and funding.

According to activist group GetUp, the government also plans to fund the Adani mine covertly by transferring money from the government’s Export Finance and Insurance Corporation to Adani’s suppliers.

The Corporation’s financial reserves recently received a massive boost of $3.8 billion. According to the government this was intended to facilitate the production and export of Australian weapons, but it could also be used to boost the export of coal.

The Australian Labor Party is divided over whether to oppose the Adani proposal outright, because that could lead to a loss of votes for the Party in the Central Queensland electorate of Herbert at the next federal general-election, which will be called later this year.

State and federal governments have also approved the Adani proposal, and if a newly-elected Labor government reversed this decision Adani might sue it for millions of dollars in damages for a “sovereign risk” breach of contract.

However, the law allows the federal government to backtrack on a development approval if new evidence emerges that the project would damage the environment.

And it has. A recent Climate Council report revealed that combustion of coal from the mine at the maximum rate of production would result in the emission of greenhouse gas at 1.3 times the current Australian emission level from all sources, and that the gas would have an ash content double the maximum level permissible in Australia.

Labor leader Bill Shorten says “if [the proposal] doesn’t stack up commercially or environmentally, this project shouldn’t go ahead”, and “we wouldn’t provide taxpayer funds” for the low-interest $1.5 billion federal government loan Adani is seeking to construct a new rail line to transport coal to the coast.

But “shouldn’t go ahead” doesn’t amount to an unequivocal statement that a newly-elected government would veto the project.

A vital issue

Labor risks losing votes if it doesn’t adopt a firmer stance on coal mining and export. It’s already in danger of losing the Batman by-election in Victoria on March 17.

Nationwide, public opposition to the Adani mine is mounting. In a recent opinion poll 65.1 percent of respondents expressed opposition to the mine (up 13.2 percent over 12 months), 69.1 percent agreed that burning coal contributes to global warming, and 73.5 percent wanted a halt to increased coal mining and an expansion of solar power.

Some 53 percent of respondents who vote for the National Party expressed opposition to the mine, as well as 52.9 percent from One Nation and 75.6 percent from Labor. Liberal respondents voted 43.2 percent against and only 34.7 percent in favour.

Nevertheless, the climate change deniers are still busy. They will doubtless try to use recent reports of massive snow storms in Britain as evidence that “global warming” is not taking place. But a one-off weather event neither proves nor disproves the existence of climate change. Moreover, scientists say that climate change will not only include a general warming of the planet, but also changes to global ocean flows, including the North Atlantic gulf stream, which will probably result in severe temperature drops in Western Europe and Britain.

The outcome of this week’s Federal Court case concerning the Adani mine is extremely important, not only because the Wangan and Jagalingou people are directly affected, but also because a verdict against Adani might encourage Labor to finally commit to the principled approach of phasing out coal mining altogether.

That would be a victory not only for Australia but also for the future well-being of the people of the world.

Next article – Editorial – From pit to port

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