What price coal? What is our mania for mining costing the Great Barrier Reef? Or our fertile agricultural lands? Or our economy? Or rural and regional communities? Even our political integrity? Few questions escape the scrutiny of Anna Krien in her Quarterly Essay. She takes to the waters off Townsville and the back roads of Queensland to measure the impact of the planned Adani coalmine in the Galilee Basin. There’s no certainty about the cause of this destruction, but a proposed mega-mine, and mining’s connection to coral bleaching, cannot help.
Adani’s backers spruik its employment prospects – 10,000 jobs, says Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. But Krien quotes Adani’s own expert, economist Jerome Fahrer, who puts the peak job number at 2400. The port expansion at Abbot Point – another site of the Adani “boom” – would, based on the Newcastle experience, create just 80 jobs.
Even Adani’s Australian chief executive has said that, from pit to port, mining will be automated. “In our minds, this is the mine of the future,” he said. The mining industry excels at public relations. You’ve seen the TV ads – “backbone of the nation” and all that stuff. Funny, ponders Krien, that it provides only 2 per cent of jobs. “That the mining sector is Australia’s economic heart is less an argument than a pea-and-thimble trick.”
A 300-kilometre car trip to the mining town of Moranbah in the Bowen Basin is a trip to an Adani future. Not so much fly-in fly-out as drive-in drive-out, it is a cluster of motels and houses of declining value. Canny investors who bought when homes were $150,000 and watched their value soar to $750,000 are now bankrupt. The local workers’ club that got a $5 million facelift is ghostly. “Moranbah is more a camp than a community these days,” writes Krien.
But the political oomph of the coalmining industry keeps the dream – or illusion – alive and politicians in line. The Turnbull government lobbied in late 2015 against efforts by the United States, Germany, France and Japan to end the funding for all but the cleanest coal-burning power generators. Our diplomats scrambled to accommodate the demands of the US coal industry.
Meanwhile, India is discovering solar power and LED lights. Krien’s message about Adani: think again. PT
Quarterly Essay, 146pp, $22.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2017 as "The Long Goodbye: Coal, Coral and Australia’s Climate Deadlock ".
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