There’s a narrative by this stage familiar to anyone who has followed the climate wars. The media rolls footage of the dusty mining regions of Australia its hard-scrabble men and women, usually to camouflage visiting politicians in a hi-vis cosplay of populist virtue. Counterposed to them are the ‘woke capital-city greenies’, fighting tooth and nail to destroy regional mining communities, blinded by their privileges. Recently, this dichotomy has been challenged through the mainstream promotion and appeal of ‘Green New Deal’ policies that seek to unite environmentalism and working-class politics once again. Though, in the Australian context, policymakers are seeking to transition back towards fossil fuels, not away from them. Recently the Hunter Valley has increased its coal production by 25% in 10 years while Australia has quintupled its liquified natural gas exports.
We know well enough the impact on the planet of all this. However, in my own trips to the Hunter Valley and Narrabri Shire, what struck me most was how such an expansion of extraction is directly impacting the very communities held up as the defenders of fossil fuels. It’s not hard to find people who want a different future for their regions.
Dr Merran Auland and her partner Phil Kennedy are farmers in the strikingly beautiful Bylong Valley. They have been fighting the Korea Electric Power Corporation’s plans for an open cut and underground thermal coal mine for three years, but they note those who have been fighting it for a decade. KEPCO has suffered far greater resistance than most mining projects, being knocked back at the Gateway Certificate Process, the Independent Planning Commission, and the Land & Environment Court. More than anything it has been the land itself that has protected Bylong. “It’s valleys like this that feed people in the city” says Merran “this valley is in the top 3% of agricultural land in NSW, why would we ever let a mine happen here?”.
Yet without a single tonne of coal dug it is striking the social impact Kepco has already had. Family farms have had their names torn off and replaced with signs listing BV01, BV02. “They bought about 30,000 acres of property” says a cross-armed Phil “virtually emptied the valleys, there’s half a dozen landholders left and they’re the only thing standing in twwwwheir way”.
Phil bemoans how Australians have “sat on our arse and let somebody manage it and rape and pillage us to our eyeballs, and all we get is a job. Whoop-de-bloody-do!”. Merran talks about how she dreams of bringing the community back to Bylong, with new farming families “to see this valley come back to what it was 10, 15 years ago”. But so long as KEPCO carries on its legal campaign, so too will the shadow that prevents a new harvest growing in the valley.
Three hundred kilometres north of Bylong is the Narrabri shire. Sally Hunter is a farmer in the area with her husband Geoff and three sons. Coal isn’t what terrifies Sally. She hails originally from Roma in South West Queensland, a region where coal seam gas mining (CSG) has expanded without restraint. “It takes no prisoners, it just moves across the land no matter what’s in its path”.w
Sally is particularly concerned with what will happen to the Great Artesian Basin (GAB), through which the Narrabri Gas Project (NGP) will drill. The GAB is the largest and deepest artesian basin in the world, its bores being the sole source of water for 22% of Australia. Drilling will draw 4 megalitres of water a day from the basin as well as reducing the pressure needed for water to rise in bores across the region. Secondly, drilling brings chemicals and toxic salts from deep in the earth upwards, and risks contaminating the GAB.
The threat to the GAB is not just a scientific problem for Sally, but an emotional one. “It’s quite hard to explain the disempowerment if you don’t have access to that water and you start to see your bores going dry. It’s not a good feeling”. She isn’t alone. 98% of submissions to the IPC hearings were in opposition to the project, including two thirds of locals. Yet the NGP was approved by the IPC in 2020 and is a key component of the Federal Government’s plans for a ‘Gas-Fired Recovery’. “You just sort of wonder is this really a democracy?” Geoff laments “when that incredible level of opposition was shown and then given complete disregard”.
Little about the NGP surprises Tameeka Tighe, a Gomeroi woman and local activist against the NGP. She had a telling answer for how it felt when the project was approved. “It’s the life of a Black person in this country that your voice is never heard” Tameeka said “that’s nothing new, our country has been destroyed for 250 years, its only now that it’s affecting white people that it’s an ‘issue’”
Yet the impact of the NGP and the climate crisis is a trauma like little else on Tameeka and her mob. “As a Gomeroi person and a Gomeroi woman, the destruction of my country is heart-breaking because it’s literally who we are. So as the country is destroyed, as the animals are destroyed, our spirituality, our livelihood, our laws and our practices are being destroyed with it”.
‘Green jobs’ in renewable energy and new industries are no doubt key to winning a coalition for climate action. Yet in our focus on the future, we cannot ignore the ruination of our regions unfolding in the present. New regional industries in renewables and sustainable agriculture are threatened if we despoil our land for fossil fuels, and pollute the water and air where future workforces are expected to live. Worst of all, we will continue to destroy the greatest heritage the land holds, that of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders cultural and spiritual heritage. It’s not about pleasing the ‘climate concerned’ in the cities. It’s not even strictly about climate change. It’s about protecting the existing wealth and health of regional Australia.
That means keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
This article was published in ‘Embers’, a pullout in Honi’s Semester 1, Week 11 edition.