Coal barons sowing the seeds of unrest

Social, legal and health issues related to unrestrained expansion of coal mines in Australia.

Coal barons sowing the seeds of unrest

Postby HVPA_research » Sun Jul 31, 2011 9:31 am

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Warwick Giblin brought the following article from Sydney Morning Herald to our attention.

Coal barons sowing the seeds of unrest
David Humphries and Leonie Lamont
July 30, 2011
Changing land use is fuelling rural tensions, write David Humphries and Leonie Lamont.
For top farming land only a few road hours from Sydney, the Bylong Valley came late to settlement. Its remoteness imposed by the surrounding sandstone curtain and the national parkland that separates it from the Hunter Valley, this canyon riverbed is as productive and as versatile as it gets when seasons are good. But rain has been poor this year.
Peter Grieve, whose grandfather and father took up the 1300 hectare Talooby in 1937, has been cursing the dry only half as loudly, however, as that other intruder he considers the valley's greater affliction.
"I've nothing against coalmining," says Grieve, who is helping to spearhead the Bylong Valley Protection Alliance, one of dozens of landholder groups springing up around the bush in a spirited but mostly futile resistance to the Great Coal Rush. "On principle, I don't believe country like this, or the Liverpool Plains or the Darling Downs, should be turned over to mining. This country was made for food production."
A decade or two ago, Grieve's lament might have been dismissed as nimbyism meets pastoral romanticism. But two emerging factors give Grieve's complaints new traction with broader public opinion.
One is the ubiquity of coal and coal seam gas exploration and exploitation, and the seemingly unquenchable appetite for these abundant, cheap and accessible energy sources, notwithstanding public and political pressure to lessen carbon pollution. It's dirty and noisy and a fabulous export earner.
The other is the rise of a new global shortage - food, the very commodity the coal rush stands accused (fairly or roughly) of impeding. It's at least in the realm of possibility that the next global conflagration is over food shortages rather than energy supplies. After all, riots spilt across 33 countries in 2008 when food prices skyrocketed and shortages are said to have contributed to the wave of public rebellion that swept over northern Africa this year, when food prices again escalated.
With global population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, an estimated 6 million extra hectares of farmland will be needed annually for the next two decades just to keep pace. Australia will be asked to do its bit with its 26 million virgin hectares available for cultivation - equivalent to about half our existing farmland. But how is this to happen if mining is eating up some of the best existing farmland?
The sore festers when you throw into the mix the perception that global coal and food shortages each leads to a foreign invasion of land buyers - the international sell-off of the farm and all that means for food security and national interest, as well as the national psyche.
Evidence of this foreign invasion is at best scratchy, prompting the Herald to do its own research on foreign ownership of land for seemingly incompatible goals of mining and food production.
It found miners spent $113 million in the past 12 months buying 350 square kilometres of rural NSW. Their purchases rivalled those by foreigners seeking land for agriculture.
The mine purchases included $14 million for historic Kurrumbede, the family property near Gunnedah where Dorothea Mackellar supposedly wrote My Country, an ode to a land when wheat and wool were kings.
It found also that much of the land bought by miners is not alienated from food production. Bob Ewing's family has been farming for 70 years near Gunnedah. When the Herald spoke with him, he was finalising the sale of about 560 hectares to Coalworks. "I'm going to lease it back and we are going to carry on our normal agricultural business," Ewing says. No wonder he likens the deal to winning Lotto.
Chris Meares, a rural property expert with Meares Associates, reckons the Liverpool Plains purchases for mining - the most strategically contentious in the public debate over food production versus energy supply - amount to about 2 per cent of local farmland.
"There's plenty of room in the country for both to exist," Meares says. "It's a big country." He says farmers generally don't mind open cut coalminers because they pay handsomely for big buffer zones.
"The fear is longwall mining and coal seam gas extractions because they don't need buffer zones but interfere directly with agriculture. They interfere with water, they interfere with farm management. That's where the danger signals are."
Peter Wilkinson, NSW general manager of Idemitsu Australia, owner of coal deposits at Boggabri and Muswellbrook, says miners are required to invest in a lot more land than is necessary for mining alone.
If a company intended, say, to mine 500 hectares, another 2000 hectares of land high in ecological value but low in agricultural potential would be bought and rehabilitated as an offset.
Then areas affected by noise or dust, but outside the mining lease, would be bought. "If we end up with agricultural land, we try to lease it straight back to the previous owners," Wilkinson says. "Our goal is not to become farmers."
These type of buyouts have resulted in much rancour around Wollar, the former farming village north of Bylong and adjacent to the Wilpinjong mine owned and operated by the American giant, Peabody Energy.
Bruce and Renee Marshall moved from Sydney 20 years ago "looking for what we had as kids - freedom, space and the opportunity to buy something you could afford".
"And then the bastards came in," says Bruce Marshall, who has erected a sign on his fence line declaring: ''Mr Peabody destroys another paradise''.
Renee says, "We used to have dances at the hall with local musicians jamming away. To have something now, you've got to put the word out months in advance, and then you might get only half a dozen turn up."
This collapse of community spirit is blamed on declining population, as some take the Peabody largesse and leave, and the bad taste left behind between those who see mining as an economic opportunity and those who resent mining as a blight on rural peace and quiet.
But to blame community divisiveness on Peabody - "they've split the community", says Bruce Marshall - is to under-appreciate the vagaries of the human condition. Self-interest is never far from the surface, whichever side of a debate is being examined.
Peabody was instructed by the NSW Planning Department to buy up sections of the village that aren't intended for mining, because of noise and dust problems. It pays landholders above market value, offers some the opportunity to stay on as tenants, has bought the local service station and store to ensure their survival, and is repairing its purchased homes so that mine workers can move into the village. This at least might save the Wollar school, dependent now on the enrolments of seven members of one family.
But mining wrought a lifestyle change that was inescapable. And the effects on Wollar secure a new immediacy in others' minds, now they too confront the prospect of mining disrupting their idealised lifestyles. Nothing focuses the mind quite like intrusion by hard hats.
"Four years ago, Bylong was telling me I was the whinger from Wollar," says Marshall. "Now, it's their turn."
"Life in Wollar is not as we enjoyed it," says Bev Smiles, a farmer between Wollar and Bylong. "It's a vibrant community destroyed. Once the mine started operation, people were awakened to the unbearable noise 24/7." She recalls a village dedicated to working together, a hall committee, an active sporting association. "Now, we've barely got enough people to keep one Rural Fire Service truck going. We know we've lost with Wollar, but others will fall."
Australia is the largest exporter of seaborne coal but, at 6 per cent of global coal production, is not a coal giant. That's because most coal is burnt in the country where it is mined. China, for instance, mines half the world's coal production and still is a huge importer.
As coal production has grown globally by two-thirds since 2000, Australian production is up 40 per cent. And still we're left with the impression that coalmining has displaced Australian agriculture in terms of land mass as well as monetary value.
How is this so? Part of the answer lies in political willingness to fan the fires over foreign ownership of rural land - the buying up of the Aussie farm, as much as for food security as for riding the energy boom - ahead of challenging the might of mining.
The Greens, of course, have it in for coalmining. But they happily ride the nationalistic fervour excited by the expectation that the best of our farmlands and associated agribusiness are falling into the hands of foreign companies and governments worried about whether the world can feed itself within a few decades.
More puzzling, however, has been the willingness of conservative politicians to jump on the bandwagon, given the traditional and vital flow of foreign capital as a booster of Australian agriculture. Before the election, Tony Abbott talked of the preference that "we sell the food rather than sell the farm", and Bill Heffernan joined the dots by linking "another nation's food security" putting Australian produce "out of reach of Australian need".
Sydney University geographers Jennifer Broadbent and Bill Pritchard have identified, albeit from poor quality data, a low level of corporate land ownership in NSW. But the data does show company-owned land rising from 20.21 per cent of the total in 2004 to 21.95 per cent in 2008, while the percentages owned by individuals dipped from 76.24 per cent to 73.6 per cent.
Across eight NSW local government areas, 83 companies bought land between 2004 and 2008 and held more than 1000 hectares. Only three were foreign, and all of them had been involved in Australian farming for more than a decade.
Company lands, of course, do not distinguish foreign owners from locals or how much land is owned for non-farming uses such as mining.
Derek Byerlee, an Australian former rural strategic adviser to the World Bank, joined with Klaus Deininger, a German senior economist, for a paper to the Farm Policy Journal on high commodity prices pushing demand for farmland. "The [global] land rush of recent years is unlikely to slow," they reported. "To cope with rising demand for food and agricultural commodities [such as biofuel feedstock] global production will need to rise by 70 per cent" over the next two decades.
Expansion of Australian farming was more likely from within than from outside, Byerlee and Deininger wrote. Meanwhile, foreign investment in land overseas was accelerating. In 2008, for instance, foreigners bought 40 million hectares of Africa - equivalent to about 90 per cent of Australian farmland.
"In Australia, given skilled farmers and strong institutions, there seems little reason for concern about recent reports of foreign investment in farmland." The authors noted the US response to a 1970s scare about foreigners grabbing farmland. The Americans set up a register that obliges foreigners to reveal such land holdings. It shows 1.7 per cent of US farmland in foreign hands. "Transparency of this type seems to have gone a long way towards reducing fears of foreign ownership of farmland in the US, and a similar register may be appropriate in Australia."
But Alan Winney, chairman of the grain marketer Emerald Group, warns against self-assuredness, particularly on ownership of agricultural businesses beyond the farm gate. "Asia is seeking out food and energy resources to support this phenomenal growth [of 65 million additional Asians a year] and the preferred agribusiness locations are Australia, South America and sub-Saharan Africa," Winney wrote in the same winter edition of Farm Policy Journal.
"Moving from a largely Australian and often farmer-owned position, we now face a real prospect that Australian agribusiness may in the near future be run from boardrooms in Singapore, New York or Shanghai."
with Paddy Manning

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Warwick Giblin, FEIANZ
OzEnvironmental Pty Ltd
Delivering true progress

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