Abbott’s war on the environment

The Abbott Government is planning the biggest expansion of the coal industry in Australia's history.

One of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s first acts has been to abolish the Climate Commission. Set up under Julia Gillard in 2011 and chaired by Tim Flannery, the commission’s role was to explain climate science to the public.

It is well known Abbott will abolish the carbon price, but other climate programs in Abbott’s sights include the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

This is a clear sign the new Abbott government believes the environment can be sacrificed for profit.

Under the catchcry “removing green tape”, the government is taking steps to make it easier to log forests and mine for coal, oil and gas.

Abbott has promised to set up a “one-stop-shop” for environmental approvals and hand power to state governments to make the final decision.

In a phone call soon after the election, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman urged Abbott to fast track approvals for the huge coalmines in the Galilee basin. When asked by Abbott what Queensland wanted from the new government, Newman told the Courier Mail: "I said without any hesitation the need to see the massive Galilee Basin coal projects approved as soon as possible.”

The nine mega-mines proposed for the Galilee Basin would be the biggest expansion of the coal industry in Australia’s history. Greenpeace has said: “If the Galilee Basin were a country, the carbon dioxide produced from using the coal would make it the seventh dirtiest fossil fuel burner on the planet.”

The effects of climate change are increasingly being felt. The past 12 months in Australia have been the warmest on average since records began. But Australia’s coal expansion has global implications.

It would have alarming consequences for the Great Barrier Reef as new coal terminals and a rise in export ships will risk permanent damage to the reef. UNESCO has warned Australia is not doing enough to protect this world heritage area.

But these considerations are pushed aside by corporate interests. Billionaires Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer own three of the mega-mines and they will use their influence to make sure the coalmines go ahead.

Other natural assets like Tasmania’s forests will also suffer. The Huon Valley Environment Centre’s Jenny Weber wrote on New Matilda: “Abbott made an election promise to seek the reversal of the World Heritage listing and promised there would be no further forests protected in Tasmania.

“Abbott, state Liberal opposition leader Will Hodgman, and Tasmanian Liberal party senators Eric Abetz and Richard Colbeck are set on reviving Tasmania’s forestry industry.”

The environment movement has decades of history and experience in Australia, and the war on the environment will not be waged without opposition.

One of the key battlegrounds will be over the issue of coal seam gas (CSG). Before it can develop the lucrative gas industry, the federal government will first have to overcome the strong community campaigns that have been organising across the country for the past two years to stop the CSG industry before it gets a foothold.

Earlier this year, the new minister for industry, Ian McFarlane, told an anti-CSG rally on the Darling Downs that he had “misgivings” about the industry and that more research was needed to ensure aquifers would not be damaged by mining.

Now in government, McFarlane has changed his mind, telling ABC radio that developing the NSW gas industry would be one of his top three priorities and that "every molecule" of gas should be extracted.

McFarlane said he was “not interested in noisy protesters, minority groups, with no interest in the development of regional Australia and the economic progress of agriculture and mining together.”

The NSW state government has been forced to introduce stricter regulations of the industry in a concession to the campaign. In a sign it has lost the public relations battle over the issue, a leaked briefing note recommended that all reference to CSG in official documents be removed and instead referred to as “natural gas from coal seams”.

Spokesperson for Stop CSG Illawarra Jess Moore told the Illawarra Mercury: "The NSW government knows CSG drilling is so unpopular with the community. But rather than do what the community is calling for, by banning CSG mining, it is just changing the words, it's ridiculous."

Rather than “noisy protesters”, the opponents of CSG are a united network of farmers, environmentalists and well-informed people who are aware of the risks of CSG and do not want to see their land, water and climate suffer for the sake of private profits.

There is no need to continue using dirty fossil fuels when Australia has the capacity to use renewable energy for its energy needs. Making this switch will require us to break the power of the mining corporations and create a democracy that responds to the interests of ordinary people.

These community campaigns show that people power is a force that can stop the war on the environment and create a future where our land, forests and climate are protected.