More than 100 people from Mackay, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney joined local activists in Maules Creek, NSW last week to bring attention to a battle that goes to the heart of Australia’s confrontation with climate change.
Maules Creek is the site of a proposed new coalmine to be operated by Whitehaven Coal. The proposal to build this mine has been the subject of dispute since its inception, but came to prominence in January last year as a result of a hoax press release.
The release highlighted the environmental and economic risks posed by the mine and said that ANZ, one of the key financiers of this risky project, had decided to withdraw its funding.
This event is now the subject of legal proceedings and Jonathan Moylan, who sent the release, faces up to 10 years in prison and a $765,000 fine.
Whitehaven’s new coalmine — it already operates another one near Maules Creek — will require the clearing of half of the Leard State Forest. It will also reduce the water table in the area, which is already drought-prone, by up to two metres. The mine project will limit the use of the prime agricultural land in and around Maules Creek. Many locals have already had to leave because of mining in the area.
The Boggabri coalmine is also near then Leard State Forest. At the blockade campsite, which has been defending the Leard since August 2012, Boggabri’s mining operations emit a constant dull humming noise and coal dust which is already interfering with wildlife and the health of residents.
The Leard State Forest is home to more than 400 native species of plants and wildlife, including 34 that are threatened, and two endangered ecological communities. Local ecologists have explained the crucial value of the Leard to some of these animals, including bats, frogs and lizards, whose needs and behaviour patterns mean they are unlikely to find suitable habitat elsewhere.
This expert advice has been ignored by the environmental impact studies on which the government is relying in its approval of the mine development.
The Maules Creek mine will also have extensive impacts beyond the local area.
The mine is expected to produce 30 to 50 million tonnes of coal a year, for a period of 30 years. That coal will be exported through Newcastle, meaning road and rail transport throughout many parts of NSW, increased dispersion of coal dust and increased threats of respiratory and other health impacts for people along the way.
Exporting coal is Australia’s single largest contribution to climate change. As the world’s largest coal exporter, Australia is responsible, directly and indirectly, for almost 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
In this respect, the decision to open new coalmines will have much farther reaching consequences for the global community.
There is a growing consensus that it is essential to stop burning fossil fuels in order to avoid runaway climate change. As one European participant in the Maules Creek action said: “In Europe, coal is seen as a fuel of the past. It is history.”
The devastating social, economic and political impacts of climate change, as well as environmental consequences, mean that even conservative financial institutions increasingly accept that investments in coal and other fossil fuels may not be prudent.
People have been engaging in direct action to stop construction and forest clearing at the Maules Creek mine site for many weeks.
On January 28 there was a big represented a major convergence to support this ongoing campaign. People ranging in age from 18 to 91 and travelling from all over the country joined with local mine opponents.
On the day, a handful of climbers occupied tripods and poles to block major access roads to the mine site and crucial pieces of machinery that are being used to clear the forest.
In addition, more than 100 people, including many local farmers, traditional owners from the Gomeroi nation and other residents, gathered to blockade the main gates of the mine site and support the climbers.
As a result of the action, all work was held up on mine construction for the day. Despite jubilation at the success of the action on January 28, the campaign faces new barriers. The Narrabri Shire Council has voted to remove the activists’ blockade camp in the Leard, meaning that they will need to find a new site.
Nonetheless, more action is expected in the days and weeks ahead to draw public attention to the threats this development poses to local people as well as the rest of the world.
For more information about what’s happening next in this campaign and how you can support it, visit eardstateforest.tumblr.com and frontlineaction.wordpress.com.