The battle to stop the construction of Adani’s proposed new mega coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin is a defining environmental struggle of our time. If the mine goes ahead, it will be a catastrophe – not just for Australia, but for the entire planet.
Once fully operational, the mine would be among the biggest in the world. At peak production, annual carbon emissions from burning coal from the mine would be greater than those of entire countries, including Austria, Malaysia and Bangladesh.
If the mine gets up and running with a train line connecting it to the Abbott Point coal terminal on the coast, Adani will pave the way for numerous other companies looking to exploit the giant coal reserves in the Galilee Basin. If all the planned mines are built, production from the basin would double Australia’s coal exports to over 600 million tonnes a year. (Australia is already the world’s biggest coal exporter by a wide margin.)
If all the coal in the Galilee Basin is burnt, it will blow 10 percent of the world’s total carbon budget – the amount of future emissions scientists estimate we have left if we want to keep warming below 2 degrees. And if Australia does it, other countries with large coal reserves will be encouraged to do the same.
So the construction of the Adani mine could prove to be a crucial tipping point, propelling the world towards dangerous, runaway warming.
Politics as usual
Given all this, the biggest mystery about the Adani mine is why anyone other than the mining barons themselves would think it’s a good idea. And yet Australian governments – local, state and federal – have pulled out all stops to ensure the project will go ahead.
To say they’ve rolled out the red carpet is a significant understatement. The Labor Party-led Townsville Council, for example, is spending $18.5 million to “roll out” an airstrip for the mine – expenditure made possible by a cost-cutting program in which 140 council staff have been sacked.
Labor has been pushed into opposing the gift of $900 million of public money to Adani in the form of a low-interest loan from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund (NAIF). But this was a decision made under duress – largely in the form of pressure from the Greens in inner city electorates.
It was revealed in early November that Queensland Labor premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s partner Shaun Drabsch, an employee of consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, worked on Adani’s application for the NAIF loan. And it was only after this revelation, which the Liberals were preparing to use in a smear campaign against her in the run-up to the Queensland election, that Palaszczuk announced that her government would “veto” the loan.
There’s been no shortage of more “behind the scenes” assistance from Labor. The Queensland government has, for instance, done a secret deal with Adani to defer royalty payments from the mine, which the Australia Institute says could “effectively see Queensland taxpayers loan Adani a further amount that could reach over $700 million on terms that are unknown, but certainly favourable”.
Then there’s the free and unlimited supply of water that Labor granted Adani, which required a rewriting of Queensland’s state Water Act. And if all that wasn’t enough, state and federal Labor have teamed up with the Liberals and Adani to clear away challenges to the mine from traditional owners the Wangan and Jagalingou people.
So while there’s no doubt that it’s the Liberals and Nationals who have been most gung-ho in their support for the mine, when it comes to the practical steps taken to help get the project off the ground, Labor has been with them all the way.
The main justification politicians give for supporting the mine is that it will bring a jobs and royalties bonanza that will benefit all Australians. This is bullshit.
Supporters of the mine cite the figure of 10,000 jobs. But Adani’s own handpicked expert, Dr Jerome Fahrer, testified under oath in the Queensland Land Court that this was “extreme and unrealistic”. Overall, according to him, there will be an average of only 1,464 jobs through the life of the project.
To put this in perspective: there are currently 11,000 unemployed people in Townsville alone.
As for royalties, given Adani’s proven track record of tax evasion, we can safely say that they’ll be doing their best to whisk as much as possible out of the reach of Australian tax collectors.
You also have to balance whatever Adani might end up paying in royalties and taxes against the massive amounts of public money invested in the mining industry by Australian governments. In the past decade alone, the Queensland government has spent $10 billion on coal-related infrastructure. The fossil fuel industry as a whole is estimated to receive around $8 billion a year in government support in the form of tax concessions on fuel and other subsidies.
The real reason Australian politicians are so keen on the construction of Adani’s mine has nothing to do with making life better for ordinary people. Rather, it’s about what euphemistically gets called the “national interest”. Translation: it will be good for the Australian capitalist class.
Historically, a “cheap and easy” supply of gas, coal and oil has boosted profits across the entire economy. And the same can be said of exports, which lift Australia’s terms of trade and give it leverage over the countries it supplies.
There are a number of Australian politicians who clearly see themselves as representative of the mining barons. But this isn’t, in most cases, because they’ve been bought off. Rather, it’s because they identify the fortunes of the mining industry with the fortunes of Australian capitalism more generally.
Whatever the long-term picture, economically, socially, or environmentally, there’s no doubt that opening up the Galilee Basin to mining will provide a significant boost to Australian capitalism. And that’s the key reason it has bipartisan support.
We can win
Despite the best efforts of our political leaders, there are signs Adani’s project may be unravelling. There are a number of reasons for this.
First is the company’s difficulties financing the project. Adani is already heavily in debt, and has struggled to refinance an existing multi-billion dollar loan for the expansion of the Abbott Point coal terminal.
Australian banks have baulked at funding the mine. This is partly to do with an assessment of the financial risks involved, and partly to do with the “reputational risks” associated with supporting a project most Australians oppose.
It’s still possible that Adani may receive the necessary finance from international banks. In this, it appears to have had assistance from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Following an FOI request lodged by the Australia Institute in August for documents related to requests for foreign government financing of Adani’s projects, the department asked for more time on the basis that the request had “captured several hundred pages of documents”.
In this context, the fight over the $900 million in public funding that will potentially be loaned to Adani from NAIF takes on an even greater importance. If Adani’s application for this funding is successful, it will dramatically improve the project’s viability in the eyes of potential international backers.
The second (related) major stumbling block for Adani is the recent decrease in global coal demand. The Carmichael mine was envisaged to be a supplier for the company’s Indian power generation business. However, the Indian government has recently undertaken a significant shift away from fossil fuels in favour of solar power. Other major coal importers, such as China, are heading in the same direction.
In the short term, Adani would find no shortage of buyers for its coal on international markets. When you look at the project in terms of its projected lifespan of up to 60 years, however, it seems like a risky bet.
Adani is estimated to have sunk $3.5 billion into the project to date, and it’s not going to write this off without a fight. But given these issues, and the consistently high level of opposition to the mine among the Australian public, it should be possible for a determined campaign to stop it.
The worst thing we could do at this point is to sit back and hope that “market forces” will do our work for us. Now is the time to ratchet up the pressure even more. Importantly, along with direct action to hinder the construction of the mine and associated infrastructure, this should involve mass mobilisations on the streets of Australia’s capital cities.
This is something that the major environmental organisations involved in the campaign are more than capable of making happen, but which has been lacking to date.
The bigger picture
Stopping the Adani mine would be a significant achievement – something to build on in the years ahead. It would be irresponsible, however, to see this as anything other than one skirmish in a much bigger battle.
Even if we look only at coal, Adani’s is just one of numerous major new harmful projects in the pipeline around Australia. A recent analysis looking at NSW by the Lock the Gate Alliance found that new mines or mine extensions currently awaiting government approval will, when fully operational, have a combined output of 75 million tonnes of coal annually, more than Adani’s 60 million tonnes.
Stopping one coal mine is hard enough. Yet, if we’re serious about heading off climate catastrophe, our aim must be to bring down the entire global fossil fuel behemoth that’s been central to the world economy for the past century. And if that weren’t enough, we must also recognise the stark reality that climate change is just one among multiple potentially catastrophic environmental challenges facing the world today.
To name just a few: the pollution of land, air and water that’s estimated to be causing 9 million premature deaths a year; the destruction of ecosystems and an exponentially increasing rate of extinctions; the choking of the world’s rivers, lakes and oceans with plastic; the contamination of our food supplies with toxic chemicals. The list could, unfortunately, go on.
It’s one of the major tragedies of the past half century that the environment movement has failed to come to grips with the competitive dynamics of capitalism that underlie these multiple crises.
The dominant world view of the movement is liberalism – the idea that change will come through the free exchange of ideas between rational individuals. The major players among environmental NGOs tend to centre their efforts on lobbying, hoping that if they just make a convincing enough case for change, business leaders and politicians will see the error of their ways.
If this approach worked, then we might expect things to have started to change by now. Instead, notwithstanding progress in some areas, the world is in a worse situation than ever.
Time and again, what little in the way of “solutions” has been put forward by world leaders – the latest being the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change – has proven to be just more hot air. The endless round of global summits and diplomatic horse-trading goes on. Meanwhile, the world burns.
There’s a simple reason for this. The global ruling class and the politicians who serve them benefit from the existing setup. As long as the profits keep flowing, they’re happy to maintain the status quo.
Lobbying hasn’t got us anywhere. Neither will the “change yourself” mantra – taking shorter showers, installing solar panels – ever bring the kind of society-wide shift we need. Only when we can successfully challenge the core of capitalist destructiveness – the competitive global scramble for profits and power – can we hope to bring about the necessary shift to genuine sustainability.
This might seem pie in the sky. But there are encouraging signs. The publication of Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate in 2014 was a straw in the wind. A new generation of environmental activists, and young people more generally, are moving towards a critique of capitalism.
The more recent ascent to prominence of figures such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain have put the idea of socialism back at the centre of political debate.
The central pillar of socialism is the democratic control of production by the mass of ordinary people. Having thus liberated our productive resources from the imperative to generate profit, we could set about building an economy and society based on the principle of human need.
In such a society, a project like Adani’s – to construct another giant coal mine in the context of a global climate emergency – would be seen as the senseless act of environmental vandalism that it is. Instead of channelling billions of dollars of public funds to prop up the fossil fuel industry, we could instead mobilise society’s resources to enact a rapid shift to a 100 percent renewable global energy system.
The fight against Adani is just the start. The fight for socialism remains.