May 16, 2014

A Journey to the Galilee – Part 1

For a long time the Galilee Basin has loomed large in Australia as the next big fossil fuel fight, it’s been likened to Keystone XL in the US and represents a veritable ticking carbon time bomb. Last month 40 people from across Australia took the long journey out to this massive proposed coal field. This three part blog series will tell the stories of that trip, the people we met and the growing campaigns to stop the mines.Greenpeace Australia 2012It doesn’t take long to develop a deep appreciation for the Bimblebox Nature Refuge. Having spent several days on the road, it was a relief to walk through the box gum trees, hear the birds flitting through the bushes and meet the dedicated and humble people that care for this land. It was an incredible feeling to finally see this place, somewhere that has been talked about so widely in the environment movement, but visited by relatively so few.

Sadly though, it also doesn’t take long to Clive Palmer (an Australian Senator none the less) and his Waratah Coal company have plans to take this refuge for wildlife, scrape away the trees, and dig an unimaginably deep and long hole to find their supposed riches. And as they dig up the coal, they plan to put it on a rail line that will dissect 100kms of prime grazing land; take it to a port that will damage a little place we call the Great Barrier Reef; and sell the coal to power stations in places like China and India to fuel another generation of health impacts and water scarcity. Oh, and this isn’t any old coal mine – it’s a 40 million tonne per year beast.

Now you might be thinking that sounds pretty bad, but zoom out a little, and you find that across the Galilee Basin region a story like this is repeated nine times. Nine mega coal mines; five of them to be the largest ever in Australia. We’re already the world’s largest exporter of coal (read: climate change) and with these mines the plan is to double to those exports, and produce 330million tonnes of coal per annum. For those  of you that have kept track of the campaign to stop the Maules Creek coal mine – that is close to the entire quantity  of coal that would be extracted from Maules over 30 years – dug up in just one year.

An impressive team

Our teamSo that’s why 40 of us – young and old – from across Australia packed ourselves in to a bus an to travel the 1500km from Brisbane in to the centre of Queensland to learn about the proposed mines, the land they would destroy and to meet some of the communities that live at the front line of the expansion. This was first and foremost a learning tour, a chance to understand the Galilee Basic not as some abstract threat to the climate, but as a place where families have lived for generations and many are presently doing it tough. It was a chance to bring together a diverse crew of people: campaigners, conservationists, writers,  photographers, students, retirees and others to share both a confronting and inspiring experience.  For some of our group, this was their first experience of travelling past mine sites and gas well; for others this was something of the everyday.

As one of the organisers of the trip, I’d spoken to this crew of 40 people many times by email and phone in the lead up. I thought we were on to a good group, but  to actually meet each of them during the trip, hear their stories and discover their commitment to a more sustainable and just world was incredibly inspiring. In the face of such enormous mines and powerful companies — I was still left with a feeling of hope.

A state already scarred by coal and gas

Heading out west it doesn’t take long to be reminded that Queensland has a long history with coal and gas.

RollestonPassing the turn off to Acland Coal Mine, we were reminded of Oakey Action on Coal’s long fought battle to stop the mine expansion and destruction of Acland. A town where only one resident remains.

Travel a little further beyond Toowomba and cutting across the fertile soils are newly lain pipelines destined for the new LNG processing hub at Gladstone. These will be the arteries for the unconventional gas expansion that is underway across the state. Despite the ongoing challenges to both coal and gas expansions, just last week we saw the Queensland Government sign an agreement with extractive industries, to make it easier and easier for them to carry out their business and avoid challenges from the public.

Springwood Station

Our first property visit of the trip was to Springwood Station, a beautiful cattle property run by 3 generations of the on family. As we approached the property on a windy dirt road, a coal mine, Rolleston, loomed large to the south. Glencore has plans to expand the mine and with it destroy up to half of the fertile Springwood property. And so our very generous hosts have to spend months and months of their precious time negotiating with a behemoth of a company.

Looking back on the trip, the afternoon we spent on that property was one of the most moving. As we sat beside the peaceful river we heard stories from 5 generations of family farming. A young lad of four played in the grass around us, of the property his parents and grandparents hope he’ll one day inherit.

The peaceful river running through Springwood StationThese humble people have dedicated their lives to this land and they have found a relatively harmonious balance between running cattle and sustaining a diverse ecology. But now, this is all at risk of being lost. Now they have to go through the long and arduous process of negotiating with a mining company.

Later that day we headed further west towards the Galilee Basin – more on that in Part 2.