Coal-fired debate

COAL has not always been a dirty word. For centuries, it has not only been a primary energy source, but the foundation of many communities, economies and jobs. But recent boom times have seen every aspect of the Australian coal mining industry heightened to a new level, not excluding a fiery increase in opposition campaigns.

Staff Reporter

The mounting media hype on climate change and global warming has coincided with the major expansion plans of the coal industry, as it takes full advantage of the resources boom.

Across Queensland and New South Wales, which together account for around 97% of Australia's black coal production, new mine proposals and expansions are now coming on board while companies continue to explore new coal opportunities.

In the NSW Hunter Valley, coal mine opposition is particularly widespread, as concerns also grow about the displacement of other industries in the region, like winemaking, farming, thoroughbred breeding and tourism.

Felix Resources’ Moolarben Coal Project in NSW, which includes opencut and underground mining, is just one major coal project that has encountered ongoing opposition from environmental groups, which claim the project should not be approved because longwall mining will cause subsidence damage to the Goulburn River gorge area.

While Felix is confident the project will begin operating in 2008, environmental groups such as the Green Party are adamant it should not go ahead.

“Moolarben is a massive coal proposal with unacceptable impacts on local water resources, on the community and on the climate,” Greens Upper House candidate John Kaye said earlier this year.

“The Greens promise to introduce legislation into the next parliament to stop Moolarben and the 22 other new coal mines slated for NSW.”

Opposition groups have rallied against Moolarben since its proposal, setting up a website, www.savethedrip.com, which called for Felix to move the longwall further away from “The Drip” – a sandstone rock wall, fed by underground water – and allow a 1km buffer zone around the river.

“There should be a moratorium on new coal developments, considering the threat of climate change and the link between coal and global warming. Geosequestration and clean coal technology are as yet unproven,” the website says.

In late 2006, Felix made changes to the first mine plan in response to public submissions, including moving the longwall 500m back from “The Drip”, with the new plan now awaiting NSW Department of Planning approval.

When Korean Government-owned Korea Resources Corporation (Kores) announced its plans for an underground coal mine near Wyong, known as Wallarah 2, the local community banded together to oppose the mine, which they believe will impact local water catchments.

In February this year, NSW Planning Minister Frank Sartor announced an independent inquiry into all coal mine proposals in Wyong, near the Dooralong and Yarramalong valleys, which was welcomed by Kores.

“We have given a commitment to the community that the only proposal we would put before the Government would be the one that safeguards the surface and underground water regimes,” Wallarah 2 environment manager Peter Smith said.

“The panel process is part of the comprehensive and robust system for mining in NSW which involves extensive community consultation.”

But Tony Davis, a Dooralong Valley resident and former barrister who provides legal advice to the Wallarah 2 action group, said the present system for approving mining operations is a joke.

“What happens in practice is that the mining company produces, at their own expense, and with their own chosen people, an environmental impact statement," he told the Sydney Morning Herald in December.

“Anybody with an iota of intelligence would comprehend that when you pay enough, you will get the results that you want, and even if you got a result you didn't like you put it in the rubbish and try another person."

Despite the ongoing opposition, Smith said last month that the Wallarah 2 project team remained confident a viable mine plan could be submitted in regards to mining engineering and environmental outcomes.

Centennial Coal’s opencut Anvil Hill project has also been the focus of much attention over the past year, with plans to reach a target of 10.5 million tonnes per annum of thermal coal by 2008.

In November 2006 a climate change campaigner challenged the environmental assessment for the Hunter Valley mine.

While he was unsuccessful in most parts (with the judge ruling the current approval process for the mine will remain on track) the court found the State Government must take climate change into account when considering the approval of new coal mines.

“It's brought into perspective the nature of the amended Environmental Planning Assessment Act so it will have many ramifications much beyond the Anvil Hill mine proposal," environmentalist Peter Gray told ABC Online at the time.

Around that time last year, Centennial chairman Kenneth Moss told shareholders the company was confident Anvil Hill would be in production by 2008 and that Centennial's application had been prepared to the highest standards and had met all stipulated state and federal legal requirements.

Meanwhile, the Green Party has also supported recent calls by celebrated climate scientist Tim Flannery to end all coal exports from Australia by 2010, and has been an active campaigner in phasing out the industry altogether.

“The sooner we plan a transition towards renewable energy, the less disruptive it will be for the coal industry,” Greens leader Bob Brown said.

“There is no doubt that the transition away from coal will be bumpy, but it will pale into insignificance if we leave the world of our children to the economic and environmental damage of coal-boosted climate change.”

But Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche spoke for much of the coal industry when he said Senator Brown's rationale for eliminating the coal industry didn't add up.

“Australia's contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions from coal – including all exports – is 1.7 percent,” he said.

“Shut the Australian industry down and coal buyers will simply go somewhere else to fuel their power stations and operate their steel mills.”

In February, the NSW Minerals Council did its bit to defend the industry when it launched a public awareness campaign about the industry’s contribution to modern life, from employment and the economy to electricity and consumer items.

“Unfortunately the public discussion on global warming has been railroaded by agenda-driven scaremongering, when what we desperately need is logic, innovation and collaboration,” NSWMC chief executive Dr Nikki Williams said.

“People at the moment are being demonised in their communities. If you’re from the Hunter Valley and you listen to some sections of the media you would believe that all the mine workers working at these coal mines are to blame for global warming.

“Closing down mines in the Hunter, capping or phasing out coal exports won’t have the slightest impact on global warming, but it will inflict major economic pain on the region, where thousands would be consigned to the dole queue.”

On a lighter note, while NSW Greens leader Lee Rhiannon has called for increased campaigning against coal, she has also turned her attention to the beef industry, recommending more people become vegans.

“We now know that cow manure, belching and flatulence generates 30 to 40 percent of total methane emissions from human-influenced activities,” she said.

Rhiannon quoted Professor Ian Lowe on the subject: "There is not doubt that reducing consumption of meat, especially red meat, is one of the most effective things the individual can do to reduce their greenhouse gas pollution.”

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