Two new books take a hard look at the fight against Adani — and for our future

A Stop Adani protest last year in Queensland. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

The Coal Truth: The Fight to Stop Adani, Defeat the Big Polluters & Reclaim Our Democracy
David Ritter, 2018
UWA Publishing

Adani & the War Over Coal
Quentin Beresford
August 2018
NewSouth

Since it was first mooted in 2010, the Adani Carmichael Coal and Rail project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin has proven controversial.

It has faced a series of legal challenges by environment groups and Traditional Owners every step of the way, as well as campaigns by activists calling on financial institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

The starting date has been rescheduled several times as the viability of the project has been called into question and potential finance proves elusive. With almost all licences and approvals in place, the Adani Group continues to state its commitment to the project and it enjoys bipartisan political support.

It is timely then, at this impasse, that two new books are released documenting the story so far and canvassing possible outcomes.

The authors bring with them, from different perspectives, authoritative accounts from within the movement.

Author of The Coal Truth, David Ritter is chief executive officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific and holds honorary affiliations with the University of Sydney and the University of Western Australia.

Quentin Beresford, author of Adani and the War Over Coal, is professor of politics at Edith Cowan University. He has a background in journalism and is the prize winning author of The Rise and Fall of Gunns Ltd, which gave an account of the failed attempt to build a pulp mill in the pristine Tamar Valley in Tasmania.    

Both books are well researched and chapters well footnoted. Sources are documented in detailed bibliographies. Both authors also conducted interviews with key activists, which enliven their narratives.

The Coal Truth opens with a prologue by Adrian Burragubba of the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners who have opposed the Adani mine from the outset: “Indeed every time we have said no, Adani has worked to override our decision and pursue its outcomes through the national native title regime. And the government has backed them.”

The first part of Ritter’s book is a first-hand account of his involvement since he returned to Australia in 2012 to take up his CEO role with Greenpeace, leading up to the “Angry Summer” of 2012-13.

He describes the start of opposition to the plans for the Galilee Basin, the experiences of the owner of Bimblebox Nature Reserve Paola Cassoni and her early work with Patricia Julien of the Mackay Conservation Group, and finally joining up with veteran campaigner John Hepburn and researcher Bob Burton.

The product of this work was presented to the first Beyond Coal Conference held in the Blue Mountains in October 2011. John Hepburn also prepared a draft document Stopping The Australian Coal Export Boom, which outlined the issues and put forward a proposed campaigning strategy.

In March 2012, Greenpeace’s launch of a report, Boom Goes the Reef: Australia’s Coal Export Boom and the Industrialisation of the Great Barrier Reef, was undermined by the leaking of the Hepburn’s strategy document. The mining industry and then-Labor government, in the form of resources minister Martin Ferguson, went into overdrive to defend coal.

This event, which is also recounted by Beresford, would mark the start of the next stage of the environment movement’s offensive against the Adani mine and other new coalmines.

Ritter’s account of the ensuing battle, as well as canvassing the political and legal challenges faced by the movement, is enriched by first-hand accounts with actors in the drama. He puts flesh on the bones of the growth of the Stop Adani campaign, which has strengthened to the point that a majority now oppose the mine.

He takes a road trip to mid and north Queensland, to the site of the proposed Carmichael mine, gauging the feeling of locals on the way. Even those who seem to support the mine volunteer concern over the impact on water and the Great Artesian Basin. This includes a Coalition MP he runs into at an airport and a young waiter in Townsville, who says: “Well it is good for the economy, but they’ve been given all that water when the farmers are struggling. Someone must be laughing.”

Part 2 of Ritter’s book consists of contributions by specialists on the climate change and environmental impacts; the public health impact; economic non-viability of coalmining; effects in India; and how to debunk the case for exporting Australian coal. These contributions provide useful in-depth information on various aspects of the threat from coal.

In the final chapter, Ritter takes up the crisis of legitimacy arising from the inadequate response of governments to climate change. He notes that the government response to this has been a restriction on democracy.

“Rather than tackling the threat of global warming,” Ritter notes, “there has been a protracted effort to shut up those sounding the alarm.”

Beresford’s book situates the Adani project and the movement against it in a broader geopolitical context. The book dedicates a chapter to the Adani family and how it has prospered under crony capitalism in India.

Beresford dates the “coal wars” to the early 1990s, when climate change emerged as a political issue and multinational mining corporations in Australia sought to shore up political support for the coal industry. What emerged was what he refers to as the “fossil fuel oligarchy” — a network of mining companies, lobbyists, media outlets (particularly Murdoch) and right-wing think tanks.

This network promoted the coal industry as synonymous with the national interest while minimising or denying climate change. A revolving door has developed between mining companies, their lobbyists and government bureaucracies. Politicians retired to directorships on mining company boards and lobby groups. This cemented the oligarchy.

It was into this environment that the “coal rush” of the years 2000-12 was born. Beresford shows how in Queensland, it was a Labor government under Anna Bligh that embarked on a quest for expanding coalmining, coal seam gas mining, and the industrialisation of the Great Barrier Reef.

He gives a detailed account of how successive federal and Queensland governments of both stripes played a role in the Adani story. What is revealed is the limits of environmental legislation and regulation, and the inadequacy of Native Title to ensure sovereignty for Indigenous communities, and the corruption that undermines democracy.

“The cronyism and the propaganda that drove the proponents of the mine serve as another example of the institutional corruption at the heart of Australian democracy,” Beresford writes.

Beresford says the fight against Adani has strengthened the environment movement, uniting the climate change and broader environment movements. As with Ritter’s book, Beresford’s ends on a hopeful note — recognising that progressive movements will have ups and downs, but that should the fight against Adani succeed, the movement must not lose focus and must continue to struggle to end all new coal and for a just transition to a fossil fuel free world.

Both books are a must read for progressives as they help to equip readers for activism to bring about the needed social and ecological changes.