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Extracting Ourselves from Extraction: Why I Protested at Maules Creek

Monday, 5 May 2014  | Byron Smith

Eighteen reasons I decided to participate in a non-violent blockade of the Maules Creek open cut coal mine in rural NSW recently.

1. This is a new coal mine. It is insane to be opening up new sources of fossil fuels when we can't even burn all the currently open mines without undermining the habitability of the planet (climate change + ocean acidification). Coal is the largest and yet lowest quality source of fossil carbon we have. If we are to burn any more carbon (and we should be phasing this out as rapidly as possible), then oil and gas are both far more useful than coal.

2. This particular mine is big - the biggest open cut coal mine under development in Australia at the moment. It also has coal of a quality that will enable a number of other coal mines to become economically viable when their production is taken together. Stopping this one will seriously undermine the viability of others in the area. Maules Creek is also critical to the business plan of the T4 coal port terminal expansion in Newcastle, which will significantly expand the capacity of that port (already the largest coal port in the world). Thus, this mine will lock in infrastructure that will lock in further fossil fuel use for decades.

3. The total production from the mine over its 30 year lifetime is estimated to be in the ballpark of 900 million tonnes (though I've seen a few figures for this, some a bit lower), which in the context of a ~500Gt global carbon budget to have a semi-decent chance of staying under 2ºC represents more than half Australia's share (if we distribute the 500Gt amongst seven billion people and give Australia 0.3% of it).

4. Burning the coal will materially contribute to the seven million deaths that already occur annually from air pollution (with coal combustion being the worst offender in that regard), not to mention the hundreds of millions whose lives are shortened and worsened through breathing toxic air.

5. The Leard State Forest under which the coal is located is the last semi-substantial remaining stand of White Box eucalypt forest anywhere in the world. It is a critically threatened ecosystem, home to almost 400 species, including at least 34 threatened species. The Maules Creek mine, in conjunction with two other (somewhat smaller) local mines, will require the destruction of more than half the remaining forest (which is already fragmented and has been logged, so it isn't in great shape - we're not trying to protect pristine forest, just the last struggling remaining of a unique ecosystem).

6. The mine involves the destruction of scores of indigenous sacred sites. Local Gomeroi elders claim that more than 40 sites have been bulldozed by Whitehaven already and that they have been denied access to land over which they have native title in order to conduct traditional ceremonies (including smoking ceremonies for a recent death in the community). Imagine wanting to hold a funeral for a young person in your congregation and being told that only five people can enter the church at any one time.

7. The mine makes major demands on local water supplies (already stressed) and will displace agricultural production in some of the most fertile soils on the continent (Liverpool Plains). It will also involve lowering the water table so that the 500m deep hole doesn't fill with water. (This will be a final void: i.e. the hole will remain once the project is finished. The environment minister who gave initial approval to the project allegedly didn't even know what "final void" meant when he was told.) There is also the possibility of contamination of the water table. Locals farmers are deeply concerned about their water supply and the majority strongly oppose the mine, including many who are rusted on Nationals voters.

8. Farmers are also deeply concerned about the loss of control over their own land that mining projects like this represent. They have no legal right to prevent access to their land by companies whose activities can severely degrade the value of their land. Many farmers rely on their land as their superannuation and so losing the value of their land is not just losing a livelihood, but also their nest egg.

9. Mining causes all kinds of disruptions and degradations of local quality of life. Dust and noise from the 24/7 operation (trucks + blasts) is considerable. Locals also claim that the management plan on which Whitehaven gained approval has already been breached on more than 50 occasions.

10. Whitehaven (the coal company) is emblematic of the far-too-close ties between the mining industry and government (Alan Jones has called the mining industry "the upper house of every government in Australia"). The chairman of Whitehaven is Mark Vale, former Deputy Prime Minister (he was leader of the Nationals when John Howard was PM). Also in senior positions at Whitehaven are the former chief of staff to Barry O'Farrell (NSW Premier) and a member of the panel that determines the pay of politicians and judges (I haven't yet been able to confirm this final point, which I heard from one of the people at the camp). For instance, more than $100m of public money was spent upgrading the train line out to Narrabri in order to facilitate more coal trains heading down to Newcastle. This amounts to a massive subsidy of the project, since the infrastructure is basically only for coal trains.

11. The mine is distorting the local economy. Anecdotally, according to locals, rents in local towns have risen by something like 300% since the mining started, and there are major skills shortages in things like electricians and plumbers because they are now all working for the mines. While there have been some big winners locally (economically speaking), the long term effect on the local area is corrosive.

12. The mining industry as a whole (especially coal mining, which is the least defensible of all mining operations, in my opinion) are harming the Australian economy by driving up the price of the dollar. For every job created by mining over the last few years, we've lost six in manufacturing (largely as a result of the higher dollar), not to mention the hits in tourism and higher education, which together account for a larger share of Australian GDP (and a massively larger amount of employment) than mining.

13. The fossil fuel industry is distorting the global economy through the creation of a "carbon bubble", trillions and trillions of dollars worth of inflated asset prices on the stock market that represent a huge threat to the stability of the global economy when the point comes that governments start to put their foot down about climate regulations and render fossil fuel reserves worthless.

14. The profits from coal mining largely go to the already über-wealthy, while the costs are largely felt by the poor. Thus coal mining contributes to local, national and global inequality.

15. The fossil fuel industry is polluting public discourse through funding misinformation campaign about climate. This coal will help to keep funding that.

16. The ongoing expansion of the fossil fuel industry locks Australia into an outdated economic model without a long term future. The small number of jobs associated with coal mining and burning (roughly 4,000 in NSW) stands in contrast to the more than 70,000 that are projected to be created if NSW decided to go 100% renewable by 2030.

17. There are a host of related ecological issues associated with the extraction, transportation and combustion of coal: air quality and health issues from coal dust near the mining site and on rail routes; sound pollution from coal ships affecting marine ecosystems, black soot from coal ships contributing to various problems (including glacial melt through albedo change), mercury and other heavy metal pollution at both the site of mining and combustion (with mercury bio-accumulating especially in the marine food chain), acid rain, global dimming and diminished photosynthesis from aerosols resulting from combustion, and so on.

18. And then there is the matter of the biodiversity offsets, which allegedly do not meet legislated requirements (hard to see how they could if they ecologists are right in saying that there is basically no more White Box eucalypt forests of similar significance to save). This is where most of the media coverage has focussed and there is currently a Senate investigation into it. For my money, it is merely the tip of the iceberg of what is wrong with this mine.

Not all these points are of equal value. To me, it is #1 that is most important. I am opposed to basically all new fossil fuel extractive projects, which I think are deeply dishonouring to the Creator and cause enormous harm to so many of my neighbours. Nonetheless, this particular mine brings together so many other reasons that is stands a better chance of drawing together a broad enough coalition of opposition that it might just win. A win here would give a huge boost to fights elsewhere. Even without a win here, fighting (non-violently) against such enormous destruction is simply the right thing to do. 

“God put coal in the ground for us to use", some might say. This is no more a license for burning it than noting that God put asbestos in the ground too. The builders of my house put bricks underneath it. Sometimes, it would be nice to have a doorstop. Should I take the bricks out of my foundations to use as a doorstop? Why would the builder have put the bricks down  there where no one can use them as a doorstop? Wouldn't it be better to dig them up and then everyone could have doorstops? God also gave us brains. Coal is already doing an immensely valuable job: safely sequestering trillions of tonnes of carbon in long term storage. That is a more important task than the momentary profit from digging it up and burning it.

Out of respect for our creator and care for our neighbours, Australians do best to leave coal in the ground and pursue alternative ways of powering our lives.

If you'd like learn more about the Maules Creek mine and blockade, to add your voice to those opposing the mine, to remove your money from the banks funding the mine, or to travel to Narrabri and join the blockade, then check out some of the following: 

  • 350.org Australia Maules Creek pages
  • Greenpeace Australia Pacific Maules Creek pages
  • Wilderness Society page
You can see some more photos of the protest herehere, and here.



Janet Down
May 6, 2014, 8:53AM
Thanks for being there Byron.

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