Maules Creek mine: front line action on coal

Phil Evans

From Chain Reaction #122, Nov 2014, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction

Tucked away at the edge of the Liverpool Plains, on the foothills of the Nandewar Ranges in north-western New South Wales is the small community of Maules Creek. Fewer than 100 people currently live in the area, mostly operating mixed farming operations grazing sheep and cattle, and often producing two crops a year of wheat, canola, cotton, sorghum, lucerne and other crops.

The Leard State Forest is named after a Maules Creek family who have lived in the area for six generations,1 and is the largest remaining stand of native vegetation on the Liverpool Plains.2 Separated from the Hunter Valley by the Great Dividing Range and several hundred kilometres of rail line, nobody in the area expected Maules Creek to be threatened by open-cut coal mining. But in 2009, a former pit electrician by the name of Nathan Tinkler bought a mining lease3 and announced that his company would build the largest new coal mine in the state – a $767 million project,4 now owned by Whitehaven Coal, that has since become plagued by scandal and controversy.

Maules Creek has no store or post office, just a hall, a school, a church, and that's about it. It is situated about 460 km north-west of Sydney near the Mt Kaputar National Park and about 50 km south-east of Narrabri. The creek after which it is named is dry most of the year, its porous rocky creek bed soaking through to the Gunnedah Basin aquifers that allow this area to be a highly productive agricultural area.

Like most of the north-west, Maules Creek farmers have typically been loyal National Party supporters, but their area is now threatened by a company chaired by former Nationals leader Mark Vaile. For several years local residents waged an at times lonely campaign to protect the farmlands, forest and aquifers, but over the last two years an alliance with environmental groups has been forged, creating a flashpoint in resistance to the rapid growth in coal exports.

The area is the land of the Gomeroi people, the traditional custodians of the woodlands now known as the Leard State Forest. The forest abounds with sites that show the rich and long history of the area, including scar trees, burial grounds and grinding groove sites. Tragically, some of these have now been lost forever. In early 2014, the Leard Forest Alliance (a coalition of local groups and NGOs like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, 350.org and The Wilderness Society) signed a protection treaty with the Gomeroi Traditional Custodians with a commitment to mutual respect and value for the Leard State Forest's cultural significance.5

The forest itself has been described by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage as 'irreplaceable'.6 It is home to the largest remnant of white box-gum woodland – listed as an endangered ecological community at the state level7 and critically endangered federally.8 Although the forest was selectively logged some decades ago for ironbark to produce railway sleepers,9 the box-gum vegetation was largely untouched in the forest, as it is of little value for the timber industry because of the way the trees hollow out. However, this hollowing quality makes the trees almost akin to high rise houses for the many species that inhabit the forest, with as many as 100 hollows per hectare.10 Of the 396 species of flora and fauna known to inhabit the forest, 34 of those are listed as threatened or endangered.11

Offsetting biodiversity

In 2014, the Australian Department of Environment launched a criminal investigation into whether Whitehaven Coal had deliberately misled the government about the conservation value of their biodiversity offsets12 following audits by independent ecologists which found that areas marked as box-gum woodland were completely different vegetation types.13 Although the investigation could not prove that the misleading claims were made deliberately, a government-ordered review validated the findings of the independent ecologists.14 This investigation also sparked a Senate Inquiry into the adequacy of offset programs,15 which has since recommended that critically endangered ecological communities should not be considered to be able to be offset, and that the market-based system of biodiversity offsetting is poorly regulated and deeply flawed.

While many submissions to the Senate Inquiry called for the integrity of the offsetting system to be strengthened, others questioned the concept of offsetting itself, likening it to a smoke and mirrors game that paves the way for projects that would be otherwise considered unacceptable because of high biodiversity impacts.

Whitehaven has since been forced to purchase a series of extra properties to bolster their inadequate offsets, but questions continue to be raised about the quality of these offsets and their 'like for like' habitats. At the heart of this controversy is an impossible dilemma for Whitehaven: since the Leard State Forest contains the largest intact high-quality remnant of white box-gum woodland, it is not possible to find enough of that ecosystem in the same condition to offset its destruction in the Leard State Forest. Nevertheless, having convinced both state and federal governments to approve the mine early last year, the company has been allowed to continue to clear and purchase offset properties over the life of the mine.

A threat to over 50 % of the forest

In 2006, two small coal mines, Tarrawonga and Boggabri, began operation in the area. In February 2013, not only were both mines given approval to expand into the Leard State Forest, but approval for the Maules Creek mine, with a production greater than both other mines combined, was also given.16

The approvals represent a threat to over 50 % of the 8000 hectare forest and, according to the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development, would lead to a drawdown in alluvial aquifers of at least 2 m, and over 10 m for hard rock aquifers.17 These impacts would not only affect the sustainability of the agricultural industry in the area, but also present a threat that was "significant in terms of the ecology of groundwater dependent or influenced ecological communities" in the forest.

Coalruption

At the time of the approval process, the project was owned by Aston Resources, a company owned by Nathan Tinkler. Tinkler has been implicated in the Independent Commission Against Corruption's (ICAC) recent investigation linking Coalition MPs to prohibited political donations.18 That investigation, Operation Spicer, saw Barry O'Farrell resign as NSW Premier and 10 MPs resign from the Liberal Party and move to the cross-benches. The investigation focussed on slush funds being set up to channel donations to the Liberal Party, and implicated Liberal Party apparatchiks right up to the federal level.

Tinkler said to ICAC that he made political donations in the belief it would "grease the wheels" for government consideration of his coal related infrastructure. This 'coalruption' in NSW has also plagued the ALP in NSW, with ICAC's Operation Jasper exposing corrupt dealings, most notably by Eddie Obeid. Tinkler's Aston Resources and Whitehaven Coal merged in 2012, with the Maules Creek project making up almost half of the value of the merged company.

For the first time, the local community was prohibited from mounting a legal challenge to the merits of the mine – a process that has since become standard for major coal mines19 – and detailed submissions from the community were ignored. Ultimately, both the state and federal approvals were given with key parts of the impact assessment uncompleted. Instead, the company was required to continue with the assessment process as a condition of their approval. Former federal environment minister Tony Burke blamed the incomplete assessment and subsequent "Clayton's approval" on the leaking of a letter by Chris Hartcher,20 the former NSW resources minister, who has since resigned over the Tinkler donations scandal.

Front Line Action on Coal

In August 2012, a small group of people came to show support for the Maules Creek community by pitching tents in the Leard State Forest – amongst them Murray Drechsler, Tania Marshall and the now infamous Jonathan Moylan – who was recently charged with an offence under the Corporations Act for an email hoax claiming that ANZ had withdrawn its $1.2 billion dollar funding of the Maules Creek project.21

The camp became known as Front Line Action on Coal, which has slowly become a gathering point for climate change and forest campaigners across the country. However, in early 2014, after a request from Boggabri Coal and the NSW Police, the NSW Forestry Corporation closed the forest citing "fire danger" as a concern (the forest has not seen a significant fire in over a century) and the camp was shifted to long-time local ally Cliff Wallace's property, 'Wando' – where it continues to flourish today.

Opposition to the Maules Creek mine reflects a broader shift in the approach of the environment movement to the energy and climate debate after years of frustrating progress through lobbying on a national and international level. This new approach is in some senses a renaissance of the Lake Pedder and Franklin Dam campaigns, involving grassroots organising, supporting local communities and employing a vast array of tactics including legal action, breach reporting, divestment, and peaceful civil disobedience to frustrate the company's efforts.

The diversity of people supporting the campaign has undermined the mining lobby's attempts to paint its opponents as driven by an ideological fringe. The 250-odd people arrested at Maules Creek ranged from seasoned activists from forest and coal campaigns, to first time arrestees including farmers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, students and even a 92 year old, legally blind WWII veteran, Bill Ryan.

The high-spirited determination of the Leard Forest Alliance is creating enormous challenges for Whitehaven Coal, which is already battling a high Australian dollar, a depressed coal price and a series of loss-making years. However, the company continues to hope that the industry's problems are a low point in the price cycle rather than the result of a growing distaste for the world's dirtiest fuel.

More significantly, the growth and strength of the movement at Maules Creek foreshadows problems for any other company that wants to build a new coal mine in a sensitive area in the future. Whatever the future holds, those who have trekked out to Maules Creek to take action are certainly not leaving it to chance.

Phil Evans is the Maules Creek Campaign Coordinator with 350.org and a spokesperson for Front Line Action on Coal.

web: http://350.org.au/campaigns/leard-blockade, www.frontlineaction.org
Maules Creek Community Council – www.maulescreek.org

facebook: www.facebook.com/350.orgAustralia, www.facebook.com/FrontLineActionOnCoal

Twitter: @FLACCoal and #LeardBlockade

email: phil.evans@350.org.au

ph: 0490 064 139

References:

1. Howden, S, "Mining for Controversy," Sydney Morning Herald, 5 May 2012

2. Leard State Forest, Icons Under Threat, Nature Conservation Council of NSW, 2012

3. "Tinkler held nerve to snare Maules Creek from beleaguered Rio", Australian Mining Journal Online, 9 June 2011

4. Maules Creek Operation Information, Whitehaven Coal

5. www.lockthegate.org.au/leard_forest_protection_treaty

6. Maules Creek Mine: Submission 21, Office of Environment and Heritage, p. 11, Major Projects Register, NSW Department of Planning

7. www.environment.nsw.gov.au/determinations/BoxgumWoodlandEndComListing.htm

8. www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicshowcommunity.pl?id=43

9. Appendix E, Tarrawonga Coal Environmental Assessment, p. 21

10. Summary Report into the Whitehaven Offsets – Maules Creek, North West Ecological Services, January 2013

11. Appendix I, Maules Creek Mine Environmental Assessment

12. Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, Hansard, 24 February 2014

13. www.maulescreek.org/whitehaven-offsets-report/

14. Martin, A, Independent Review of Maules Creek Offsets, Whitehaven Coal

15. www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_...

16. EPBC 2010/5566

17. Advice to Decision-Maker on Coal Mining Project – Maules Creek, Independent Expert Scientific Committee, Department of the Environment, 2012

18. Manning, P, “The murky world of Tinkler's Maules Creek approval revealed,” Crikey, 28 August  2014

19. Higginson, S, “Public hearings a poor cousin to merit appeals,” Newcastle Herald, 14 April 2014

20. “Burke hits out over leaked coal mine document,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 9 February 2013

21. R v Moylan [2014] NSWSC 944


FoE Australia joins Leard Forest Alliance

Friends of the Earth, Australia has joined the Leard Forest Alliance. Other members include Frontline Action on Coal, Maules Creek Community Council, Lock the Gate Alliance, Greenpeace Australia-Pacific, 350.org Australia, The Wilderness Society, Quit Coal (Sydney), Northern Inland Council for the Environment, Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, Australian Student Environment Network, Friends of the Pilliga, Mary's Mount Protection Alliance, Mullaley Gas and Pipeline Accord, Protect our Water, Environment & Rights, Save Our Soils Liverpool Plains and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW.