The last weekend of September saw a series of protests against coal mining in northwest NSW’s Leard Forest that included one protestor strapping himself to a train line. The protest, staged by nearly 200 people, was carried out at four mines and one coal loader across the state. The daredevil protestor who tied himself to train tracks caused delays at Newcastle’s port, the world’s largest coal export terminal.
The protests were primarily targeted at Whitehaven Coal’s mining development at Maules Creek in the Leard Forest. The project has been criticised for destroying pristine wildlife and multiple cultural heritage sites belonging to Indigenous Gomeroi custodians. Local farmers are also concerned that the company’s water use may deplete nearby water tables by several metres.
In August, the University administration announced it would review its investment policies and withhold purchases in all consumable fuels until its findings were complete. Since then, the University has been “unable to provide any further commentary on this matter.”
The recent student referendum on fossil fuel divestment represents a major victory for student activists. 79.67 per cent of USyd undergraduate voters supported divestment from companies whose primary business involves fossil fuels.
SRC Environment Officer and Fossil Free USyd Collective member, Clo Schofield, said the referendum should send a signal to the University administration: “As primary stakeholders of our university, and as primary stakeholders of the future of the planet, our voice should be, and will be heard.”
A recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) report claims that coal divestment is viable due to the dramatically decreasing global value of this resource. With stock prices of coal-extraction companies halving since 2009, the report suggests that “other large sectors could absorb coal equity dollars, as could clean energy.”
The report also states that divestment from oil and gas companies could take longer and be more difficult. Yet Schofield says divestment is compatible with economic sustainability: “We haven’t suggested that all investment in fossil fuels be ceased tomorrow, we have instead proposed that of USyd’s holdings, the uni should divest from all companies whose primary business is the extraction, transportation and processing of coal, oil and gas. The effect of divestment…will be another prominent institutional voice added to the many calls for a just transition away from fossil fuels, that is both environmentally and economically sustainable.”
Some pro-coal advocates have suggested that any form of divestment may lead foreign investors to purchase shares in international coal companies with poor environmental records.
This case was made by Conservative Club President, Chaneg Torres, who plagiarised a number of passages from NSW Liberal MLC Scot MacDonald’s website and other sources in a recent Honi Soit print debate on the divestment referendum.
In an almost word for word translation of MacDonald, Torres wrote: “Australia’s international customers would simply substitute our resources for poorer quality coal from international competitors.”
Some of the world’s most notorious polluters, however, are making conscious decisions to limit their carbon footprint. For instance, China, which consumes as much coal as the rest of the world combined, will implement environmental restrictions on coal imports from January 2015. India too is making efforts to change its energy consumption patterns, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi organising a global investor summit focusing on renewable energy for February.
As more foreign governments commit to environmental reform, the argument that Australia should continue to invest in coal to prevent misuse becomes less convincing.
Indeed, the case is gaining little traction as companies and organisations around the world consider divestment. A number of prominent overseas groups, including Stanford University and the Rockefeller Brothers, have divested themselves of fossil fuel stocks already. In the last two weeks the Australian National University and Local Government Super have announced they will be dumping holdings in select fossil fuel companies. The Uniting Church in Australia Assembly has also committed to divestment.
USyd’s Students’ Representative Council is now even targeting businesses affiliated with fossil fuel investments. The Council has sent a letter to the National Australia Bank (NAB) threatening to split ties if the organisation does not divest from coal and gas export projects in the Great Barrier Reef.
Despite this action and the general trend it reflects, it is hard to see the Maules Creek mine development being overruled. Whitehaven Coal have already been taken to court and seen the project approved, while both federal Labor and Liberal parties also support the mine.
However, if recent protests are an indication of resolve, activists will continue to fight Whitehaven long into the future. Another company that is mining in the Leard Forest, Idemitsu, was worried about protestors enough to hire a security consultancy that embedded spies within activist groups.
There is no doubt that mining companies see protestors as a threat to their business model. Through a combination of investor boycotts, student referendums, and creative grassroots protests, the campaign to save the Leard Forest may yet succeed.
Image: Clo Schofield.