Race for coal puts Galilee Basin at risk of destruction
IN THE book of Joshua, the biblical city of Jericho is destroyed as God sends thousands of foreign invaders, ensuring its destruction. In western Queensland, Jericho is a tiny rural outpost with fewer than 500 people and no hospital or ambulance.
While the town may not be under attack from thousands of holy marauders, residents in Queensland's own Jericho fear it will be swallowed up in a wave of mining investment, development and mining camps.
There is apprehension as the advancing hordes from God could be replicated as up to 28,000 builders and mine workers flood into the region to build at least seven enormous projects.
Jericho and neighbouring Alpha are key towns in the drought-affected Barcaldine shire, a 54,000 sq km sprawl with a 3500-strong community living on top of almost limitless reserves of coal.
Combined, the seven mines would pump out more than 255 million tonnes of electricity-making coal every year for decades once they hit full speed in 2022. At the coalface, Indian energy giant GVK - in partnership with Gina Rinehart's Hancock Prospecting - leads the race to start digging but its home-town rival Adani is not far behind.
GVK Hancock has three mines on the drawing board: Alpha and Kevin's Corner each with state and federal approvals while its Alpha West project plods through the thousands of environmental hoops its forebears have already conquered.
GALILEE BASIN QUICK FACTS:
Located about 450km west of Rockhampton, covering an area of 247,000 sq km.
Estimates vary, but it could contain 14 billion tonnes of coal
The most promising seven mines planned, are worth a total of $42.7 billion based on mid-2013 estimates.
If developed, they would export a combined 255.6 million tonnes of energy coal per year by 2022.
Currently, Queensland's entire coal industry produces 164.78 million tonnes a year.
- If the 255.6 million tonnes is burned by overseas buyers, it would produce more carbon emissions that Australia's national output a year.
Alpha and Kevin's Corner are capable of producing 30 million tonnes of coal each per year, triple the amount the state's largest mine, BHP Billiton's Goonyella Riverside in Central Queensland.
The scale of Adani's Carmichael project is difficult to comprehend - the 60 million tonne coal supply already earmarked for Adani's own insatiable power plants which line India's western coastline.
Adani will be its own supplier and customer.
GVK Hancock and Adani are just two of many gigantic firms making in-roads into the Galilee.
Billionaire politician Clive Palmer's Waratah Coal and others are charting their own courses toward construction and eventually operation.
An as-yet-unbuilt 500km rail line will link the mines to an expanding Abbot Point coal terminal which lies on the coast of the Great Barrier Reef.
THE FIGHT FROM ALL SIDES:
- Barcaldine Shire mayor Rob Chandler: "We have to be confident that the mining companies have good make-good water agreements with the landholders because water is the lifeblood of their cattle enterprise. That's our stance. We don't take sides."
- Climate Council chief Amanda McKenzie: "Burning all fossil fuel reserves would lead to unprecedented changes in climate so severe that they will challenge the existence of our society as we know it today."
- Queensland Resources Council chief Michael Roche: "Stopping Galilee Basin projects won't make one iota of difference to coal emissions globally because it will come from other countries."
Fighting the billions of dollars of investment and government income are a loose alliance of environmental activists including Greenpeace, the Australian Marine Conservation Society, anti-mining or simply wary landholders and even a fringe-group of radicals promising the rail would be built "over our dead bodies".
These groups consider that Jericho and the entire Galilee Basin face the destruction laid upon its ancestor.
They fear the waters will run dry and land will be torn apart in pursuit of the minerals beneath.
The fear is not unfounded.
The Queensland Government's own analysis of GVK's now-approved Kevin's Corner mine warned of a "complete destruction" of water supplies GVK would be expected to repair any damage done and pay compensation for everything else.
Miners wanting to tap the Galilee are proving useful enemies for green groups.
The carbon price is facing its end under a new Prime Minister and support for significant action on climate change is languishing when compared to the sky-high support that helped sweep Kevin Rudd to power in 2007.
The three-pronged aspect of the Galilee - mines, ports and rail line - creates a trio of enormous targets.
A multi-billion dollar expansion to the port of Abbot Point will add three new coal-loading terminals to service the Galilee Basin alone.
The extra room will require three million tonnes of sand to be dredged from the shoreline. Environmentalists warn this will all-but-ensure the reef's decimation.
In 2006, North Queensland Bulk Ports dredged three times that amount at Abbot Point.
An Australian Institute of Marine Science report studying reef health over 27 years and released in 2009 failed to even mention dredging as a threat. It found storm damage, crown-of-thorns starfish and to a lesser extent coral bleaching was contributing to its destruction.
This does not clear the resources industry, however, because a warming environment causes bleaching. Exporting an amount of coal so large that its burning contributes more carbon pollution per year than the whole of Australia is certainly no help to halting climate change.
The counter-argument the miners and industry push is that coal demand is not something that disappears just because Queensland puts up the not-for-sale sign.
It means buyers - be they Indian, Japanese, Chinese or European - go elsewhere.
Carbon emissions remain the same, or worse depending on the quality of foreign coal, while Queensland and
Australia lose the billions of dollars they could be spending on health and social services, education and infrastructure.
Keeping the endless expanses of Jericho and Alpha free from development also ignores the hopes of many of those living in the area.
The council has no control over how or where mines are developed, but it keeps a sharp eye on their plans because a mistake could cost Barcaldine its future.
Unlike the Jericho of old, Barcaldine mayor Rob Chandler has a reason to welcome the predicted influx of human traffic.
"Alpha and Jericho do not have a doctor. Jericho doesn't have an ambulance.
We would be looking for mines to create that critical mass to provide those services we so desperately need," he said.
"That's health, education, sewerage treatment plants and regulated air services from Alpha to Brisbane."
It might also mean they could hold on to their children who would otherwise leave to study, then to find work.
"For the locals in Barcaldine, Winton, Longreach that go to work in the mines, they will stay and live in their communities," Mr Chandler said.
"If they're bringing home a mining pay packet compared to what they're earning today, you'll see a huge difference to your communities."
How the hope of building rural communities compare to the threat of climate change from exporting endless shipments of coal remains up to debate.
The debate will be had in Brisbane, Canberra and in the media among politicians and protestors, all of whom want to write their own book for Jericho and the Galilee.
It will be a testament to those 3500 of Jericho, Alpha and Barcaldine how they handle this uncertain future, to ensure that mining or no mining, they are left with something.
True destruction may not be a risk for now, but for those who have lived in the area for generations, the Galilee needs a future long beyond their lifetimes.
ON THE CARDS:
Alpha + Kevin's Corner (60 million tonnes coal exports per year combined)
Company: GVK Hancock Coal (India/Aus)
Value: $14b incl mine, rail, port. Jobs: 9750, total.
Carmichael Coal (60mt)
Company: Adani (India)
Value: $16.5b for mine Jobs: 4150
China Stone (60mt)
Company: MacMines (China)
Galilee Coal (40mt)
Company: Waratah Coal (Aus)
South Galilee (13.6mt)
Company: AMCI/Bandanna Energy
Alpha West (20mt)
Company: GVK Hancock (India/Aus)