Coal or Food: 48 hours on the floodplains

One moment last week sums up why I wouldn’t swap this job for anything.

At about 11am on Tuesday morning the Senate Environment, Communications and the Arts (ECA) Committee is confronted with an unusual sight in the Felton Valley, about 20 km south of Oakey on the Darling Downs in southern Queensland. A crowd of people have taken over the road; a sea of green T-shirts and triangular yellow placards, kids lined up with banners, hand-made signs; all the essentials for a home-grown demonstration.
We alight in the mid-morning sun; strong tea and coffee served off the back of a ute, maps thrust into the Senators’ hands. It’s not every day a rally happens in Felton, but these are not ordinary times. We’ve paused here amidst sunlit fields of wheat and barley at the epicentre of Australia’s most productive farming region to choose between two alternate futures.

These are the northern headwaters of the Murray Darling Basin, that vast stricken catchment that stretches from here to the far side of Adelaide, watering 14% of the Australian land mass as it falls away to the south. This fertile floodplain, billiard-table smooth, is intersected by eroded basalt hills that overlie the prize: 40 billion tonnes of Permian-era brown coal across the whole of the Surat Basin.

‘Here’, my new guide says with quiet urgency, fingers tracing the map and gesturing toward a meandering stream at the base of the wheat field. I’m asked to visualise gaping mine voids falling away, the road diverted; the hills and gentle crop-laden slopes devoured; flat-topped mesas of waste rock disfiguring the horizon, and a towering petrochemical plant cooking up some coal-to-diesel alchemy amidst a pall of ash and fumes.

Not possible, I figure – in an age of knife-edge global food security, surely Australia in 2009 has legislative safeguards in place that would prevent our best farmland from being permanently torn up for coal extraction.

24 hours earlier, the ECA committee was 400km to the south in Gunnedah at the heart of the Liverpool Plains in New South Wales. The landscape there is spellbinding on a hazy day; ancient volcanic ridges and cores inscribe a dead-flat black soil floodplain that may as well have been levelled by a laser. This is truly Australia’s food-bowl, as impervious to drought as any part of our capricious continent. The secret here is groundwater: even if the rains fail, the black soil country acts like a colossal sponge lending its farmers a potent resilience. Rare, epic floods submerge the plains beneath a horizon-to-horizon sheet of water recharging an invisible complex of basins and flow lines that keep the place alive in lean years.

The system constricts to a six kilometre choke point at Breeza that funnels the entire catchment into the Namoi River and onward into the Murray Darling system. It is here, naturally, that BHP and Shenhua have discovered a billion tonnes of coal which they propose to open cut on either side of the gap.

This is not an abstract proposition – both projects are making rapid progress through the one-way foregone conclusion formerly known as environmental impact assessment. The upstream consequences of permanently ruining the hydrogeology of the Liverpool Plains, and the downstream consequences of filtering inland Australia’s drinking water through a pair of active coalmines will no doubt be sanitised out of existence in a pair of beautifully designed management plans soon to be published by the NSW ‘Government’.

The locals have mounted a blockade on one of the BHP leases which has stood for a year; without a dreadlock in sight, fifth and sixth generation farming families are supporting a spirited defence of their way of life which will have lasting consequences a long way from this blessed bit of farming country.

Climate change is the 52 billion tonne elephant in the room at the two days of committee hearings on this awful collision between coal and everything else. With straight faces, the representatives of the Queensland mining industry confirm that their member companies do indeed plan to strip every tonne of coal from the Surat basin between now and 2030. Santos turn up to give evidence on the impressive reserves of deep coal-seam methane that they can blow into the atmosphere within roughly equivalent project timeframes. Other proposals helpfully nominate incinerating the coal underground and capturing the off-gas for burning elsewhere.

BHP and Shenhua have chosen to give their testimony anonymously through the NSW Minerals Council, and yes, everything in the Gunnedah Basin is intended for combustion as rapidly as infrastructure subsidies and corrupt land-use planning sophistry will allow.

State Governments hopelessly compromised by mining royalties seem completely unprepared to face the reality that a large fraction of the coal measures in this fertile country will need to remain underground. The Commonwealth needs to break the coal hypnosis and drop an urgent moratorium over these basins so that at the very least we protect the nation’s food bowl. A good place to start will be reintroducing the measures that the old parties combined to vote down the last time we proposed them in the Senate, to firmly quarantine prime farmland from further mining activity.

The blockade across the farm road; the rally in the wheatfield; months of organising, research, advocacy; and now its’ crunch time. As a nation, we’re incredibly fortunate that local farming families have stepped into the regulatory void to say enough is enough, and their voice must be strongly amplified through the report of the Senate inquiry. Its time to choose between coal and food.

Caroona Coal Action Group

CCAG Facebook group

‘The Good Earth’ – Four Corners visits the Liverpool Plains

Friends of Felton

Coal for Breakfast

Future Food Queensland

Rising Tide Australia

Six Degrees