Coal, CSG and Climate Change
“The clear and present danger of climate change means we cannot burn our way to prosperity. We already rely too heavily on fossil fuels. We need to find a new, sustainable path to the future we want. We need a clean industrial revolution.”
– United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
Coal and climate change became central to my thinking from around 2000 onwards. Locally, academics such as Jonathan Nott and Steve Turton at JCU were discussing the impact and scale of the climate change threat. Tim Flannery was raising the issue nationally and David Suzuki was a significant public intellectual on the international stage. Suzuki spoke to many of us with his concerns regarding environmental destruction and of the need to confront climate change. It was clear to any educated, thinking person that climate change was a clear and present danger to the future of humanity.
Shortly after I was elected to council in 2008, I received a presentation from a climate scientist who warned about the impact climate change would have in our area. His message was clear for far north Queensland. Temperatures would increase by over 1.5 degrees. We would experience sea-level rise which would inundate much low-lying coastal land (especially when there were storm surges). There would be fewer tropical cyclones, but the ones that did occur would be far greater in scale and cause massive damage and destruction.
It never occurred to me for one minute that refusing to accept technical advice from a climate scientist was an option. Just as when you are sick, you see a doctor and accept the prescription, or when a bridge needs to be built you engage an engineer, I accept the informed scientific advice of a technical expert.
The scientific analysis I received in 2008 would prove to be true over the coming years. Unfortunately, and almost unbelievably, we were beginning a period in Australian politics where the truth would become subject to political debate. For more than a decade, precious time was lost as many politicians sought to make political mileage at the expense of our nation and the world. My frustration that so many people would deny the reality of climate change was shared by activists and intellectuals around the globe.
Climate change became an ongoing campaign for me. Once I was elected to state parliament, I had a greater opportunity to give voice to the greatest challenge facing humanity. I championed the move away from our reliance on fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. I campaigned hard against big coal and Coal Seam Gas (CSG).
In my first speech to Parliament I said, “Climate change is a scientific fact. It is leading to sea-level rise and Cairns is a low-lying city. Every year I do my best to attend a king tide on the Cairns Esplanade. I see the esplanade seawall breached and I see water coming up through the storm-water drains and flooding underground car parks. This is an urgent situation and we need a sense of urgency from all our elected leaders. I have the utmost respect for those working in disaster recovery, but the reality is that a summer king tide combined with a category 5 cyclone would see much of Cairns city destroyed. All levels of government need to first acknowledge the problem and then make sure our best scientific minds feed into an all-of-government policy response. I pray this will happen.”
The Adani Coal Mine
I was completely opposed to the proposed Adani Coal mine and the opening up of massive new coal mines. It was clear to me that we had to move away from big coal for the sake of humanity. I also learned of an additional impact as increased water temperatures began to bleach coral on the Great Barrier Reef.
The Adani mine was the most viable of nine coal projects earmarked for the Galilee Basin. The basin is about the size of Victoria, containing one of the world’s largest untapped deposits of thermal coal – the type used to make electricity. The mine proposed by Adani was meant to be a keystone project for the Indian company’s so-called “pit-to-plug” strategy of owning coal mines to feed its power plants in India.
Adani also ran ports in India and had various other interests. Its chairman and founder, Gautam Adani, was the 10th richest Indian in 2018, worth $17 billion. His poor environmental record was widely reported. In December 2016 Gautam Adani met with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk in Townsville and put forward a timeline for the project. I was appalled by Palaszczuk’s support for the project.
Remarkably I was the only MP to oppose Adani in the Queensland Parliament. However, it was a speech in the federal parliament by then Treasurer Scott Morrison where he held a piece of coal that motivated me to make a plea for the planet. I gave the following speech, penned by my comrade Zelda Grimshaw on 15 June 2017, holding a piece of bleached coral.
Great Barrier Reef, Coral Bleaching
Mr PYNE (Cairns—Ind) (1.06 am): This is coral—bleached coral! Be scared. Be afraid. It will not hurt you, but the global warming that killed it will. This bleached coral is the canary in the coalmine. This coral was once part of the Great Barrier Reef, a 10,000-year-old ecosystem, one of the natural wonders of this world. Tens of thousands of men and women who work in the electorates of those who sit in this house, such as the electorates of Barron River, Mulgrave and Cairns, rely on coral for their livelihoods.
This coral, that has sustained thriving tourism and fishing industries for decades, in a World Heritage wilderness area that can be seen from space, is dying due to global warming. Thirty per cent of the Great Barrier Reef is dead. This is a national emergency—a climate emergency.
The problem is that those in this House have an ideological, pathological love of coal. There is no word for ‘coalaphilia’ officially but that is the malady that afflicts those in this House. We continue to suffer the impacts of global warming because of their pathological, ideological addiction to coal.
Australia has become a pariah and a laughing stock internationally because of the ‘coalaphilia’ of our political elite. We are wasting these precious years of opportunity to mitigate global warming.
Many of those who sit in this House are taking big money from the fossil fuel industry while allowing our brightest hopes to fizzle out in the dark of 19th century technology. I am sick to death of hearing the mantra of ‘jobs and growth’ repeated ad infinitum in this House. This coal-loving, coral-hating mantra has taken us to the brink of ecological disaster. Unless we stop to question what sort of jobs, what sort of growth, this mantra will destroy the planet we inhabit.
The Great Barrier Reef mass bleaching events are symptoms of climate change. Climate change is driven by burning fossil fuels. Supporting new coal at this juncture is tantamount to ecocide. Today the ‘coalaphiliacs’ in this House may pander to Gautam, Gina and Twiggy in return for support, but in 10 or 20 years, when their grandchildren ask, ‘What did you do to stop global warming?,’ they will have no answer.”
My office put out a media release reminding people that emissions from coal were contributing to coral bleaching and urging local residents to vote to protect the reef because it is an international wonder and a massive financial asset for the region. I warned that resultant emissions from the coal from the Adani mine would fuel the primary threat to the reef’s survival: I clearly said, “Our governments seem to refuse to acknowledge the reality of the situation. It’s a choice – it’s coal or it’s coral and we are going to have to pick, because we can’t have both.”
Guarding the Galilee
Around this time, we were contacted by the radio/television producer Nell Schofield in relation to a movie she was making called “Guarding the Galilee”.
I appeared for a brief interview and a few months later we organised a screening in Cairns.
New Ackland Coal – Stage 3
From 2007, the Oakey Coal Action Alliance (OCAA) fought the plans by New Acland Coal (NAC) for a Stage 3 expansion at their mine west of Brisbane. The two parties became engaged in a legal and political battle. I was happy to support those opposed to Stage 3 of the mine going ahead.
OCAA was a local farming and community group of more than 60 members and others from the community who objected to the controversial expansion.
“To be clear, the re-opening of the case was at the request of New Acland Coal and not our client. Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) Qld respects the Land Court decision to reopen evidence,” EDO Qld CEO Jo-Anne Bragg said. During the previous 84 hearing days of the court case, evidence challenged various claims made by New Acland mine owners New Hope, exposing:
- Farmers’ critical groundwater supplies were at risk.
- A high risk of the project exceeding air quality limits unless so-far unproven controls were in place.
- Complaints about coal dust and noise levels and requests for data have fallen effectively on deaf ears for the past decade, including more than 100 complaints to New Hope and 30 to the state environment department.
I supported a rally outside Parliament against the Ackland expansion. Local objector and representative of OCAA Aileen Harrison made four clear points to the crowd:
- There is no life without water. Nothing can survive without water. Our farms cannot survive without water. We cannot survive without water. If the mine goes ahead it will cut through the aquifers and risk our bores drying up. If we have no farms, what will we eat and what will our children eat? We need to look after our future for our children and grandchildren. Long after the mine is gone, the farms will still be around.
- There are no certain alternatives to supply water. This risky mine should not go ahead.
- What happens when mining is over in a short 12 years? Mining is short term but if it destroys our water, it will kill off farming that could continue otherwise for hundreds of years. We need water for our food bowl now and in the future.
- The dust and noise from the mine affected my families’ health. If it is expanded, how many families will be affected, including children? How can anyone agree with the expansion?”
The more fossil fuel we use, the faster climate change takes places. This means that seal levels will rise quicker, and I was conscious my electorate of Cairns was a low-lying city, much of which will become submerged. I felt I would’ve been completely neglectful in my job if I had not voted against the coal industry and in favour of keeping our city above water, literally.
Black Lung Disease
At this time, a number of Queenslanders started getting sick with respiratory problems. The dreaded black lung disease had re-emerged in Queensland (if it had ever really gone away). I supported a resolution in the Queensland Parliament for a royal commission into the coal industry. The resolution was moved by the LNP, motivated by political opportunism, but it was opposed by the ALP. I could not believe the ALP would vote against a royal commission into a dirty industry which killed workers. Jo-Ann Miller the Member for Bundamba (a coal miner’s daughter) broke-down during the debate as she spoke of her father dying from black lung disease. She was crying when she voted with the ALP to oppose a royal commission. I was not blind to the fact that the resolution was politically motivated, but as always, I looked at the wording of the resolution and decided for myself what was the right way to vote. I voted for the resolution, which was lost on the numbers.
I was the only member in parliament to question the whole narrative of jobs, jobs, jobs, whichg drove the political debate. I made the following comments in the parliament on 19 April 2016:
The thing I am about to say you do not often hear in this place. That is, some jobs are simply not worth having—jobs that poison the air we breathe or jobs that will kill you. The Premier and the Leader of the Opposition are on a unity ticket in their support for the coal industry. I certainly am not. I am opposed to the Adani Carmichael coalmine because of the environmental damage and the contribution to climate change. When I am talking to young people I explain it in terms of what smoking can do to the individual. You become dependent on tobacco, you keep smoking and it destroys your health. What we are seeing with the consumption of coal and fossil fuel is a great contribution to greenhouse gases that is leading to more coral bleaching than we have ever experienced on the Great Barrier Reef and coral bleaching for the first time off the coast of Western Australia.
In light of what we are already experiencing, going further down the path of such a massive coalmine as Adani in my mind is just wrong. The other consequences are sea-level rise, which desperately affects low-lying cities like mine of Cairns, and more intense natural disasters such as we have seen in the Philippines and more recently in Fiji with cyclones and storms of biblical proportions. I did feel for my friend the member for Mount Coot-tha when he spoke in favour of Adani. If he had been Pinocchio, his nose would have crossed to the other side of the chamber because I know that he certainly does not want our state or our country to go down that path.
In terms of the individual, we have seen black lung disease re-emerge. In Queensland, since 1982 or 1983 we are supposed to have been applying international standards for reviewing X-rays for this disease. This has not happened. There have not been X-rays in line with international standards and there has been misreporting. Workers have been wrongly cleared to return to work when they have in fact been suffering from black lung disease. If these were mammograms or bowel screens that were being read by suitably qualified people there would be outrage overnight, yet mineworkers in mining jobs underground have been failed by the system that was supposed to protect them. They have had to fight for months and are currently being paid lip-service, not given solutions.
Some other jobs not worth having are some of the jobs in the coal seam gas industry, which is endangering our most valuable asset, our groundwater, and destroying valuable agricultural land. George Bender fought for these things, and many of us will carry on the fight that George Bender fought for himself and his community.
Coal Seam Gas (CSG)
Coal seam gas (CSG) mining is a risky, invasive form of unconventional gas mining. It usually involves thousands of gas wells, with roads, pipelines, compressor stations, wastewater dams, and other infrastructure. A CSG project can spread across hundreds of thousands of hectares of land. The CSG industry often involves fracking (the fracturing of bedrock formations by a pressurized liquid).
There have been numerous risks and problems identified with invasive CSG gas-fields. These include encroachment on good farming land, disruption of other land uses and industries, clearing of bushland, air pollution, contamination or depletion of ground or surface water, pollution of waterways, health impacts on workers and nearby residents, and damage to biodiversity.
Not long after becoming the Member for Cairns I caught up with one of my old friends Marybeth Gundrum. Marybeth was friends with a young woman by the name of Helen Bender. Helen’s dad George Bender had fought against the CSG industry in the Chinchilla district in western Queensland. After years of struggle and disappointment, George Bender tragically took his own life. Marybeth and Helen alerted me to the dangers of CSG and energised me to join the campaign against coal seam gas and fracking.
In 2015 I spoke with ALP State Secretary Evan Moorhead about my support for the “Lock The Gate (LTG) Alliance”. He replied, “Oh be careful with them, they are a bit radical”. I remember thinking “FFS we are talking about farmers and the knitting nannas. They are not militant revolutionaries.”
The truth of my experience of LTG is that they were just ordinary people who did not want their family or indeed their farm land poisoned. By 2017 I had resigned from the ALP. While this left me ostracised in the parliament and *with nothing more than an outside chance of re-election, I was just so grateful for the opportunity to speak from the heart on issues I was passionate about. I made these comments to Parliament on 22 March 2017:
Mr PYNE (Cairns—Ind) (6.12 pm): I speak in support of the motion moved by the Member for Mount Isa. I was surprised recently to read that we are in a gas crisis. After all, I regularly hear in this chamber how well our gas boom is being handled in this state, how effectively the government is managing it and how it is underwriting the economic vibrancy of Queensland and not to mention Gladstone, which from all accounts is turning into an economic industrial powerhouse the likes of which the world has never seen. How can there be a gas crisis when we are mining more gas than ever before?
About six years ago, the Queensland and Australian governments entered into agreements with three huge gas consortiums to give massive approvals to build three giant terminals in Gladstone. They promised huge supplies of gas in contracts with foreign countries, contracts nobody else has ever seen. Our governments have in effect linked the local gas market to the international gas market. How crazy is that. Of course, it has massively pushed up the price for gas that people have to pay here in Australia. The result is that Queensland people and businesses are paying through the nose for something that occurs naturally here in vast quantities. In fact, it is not only vast quantities; Australia is poised to become the world’s greatest gas exporter.
It reminds me of the line from The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, which goes something like ‘Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink’. In this case it is more like ‘Gas, gas, everywhere, but none to keep Australian pensioners warm this winter’.
I am also reminded of the lyrics from the Skyhooks song Ego Is Not A Dirty Word. I would hope ‘ego’ is not a dirty word in this place, because there is a lot of ego in this chamber. Another word that should not be a dirty word is ‘regulation’. Regulation exists to protect consumers; regulation should be used to protect Australians. We know that regulation works. We see it working in Western Australia. It is simply a matter of saying to these companies that if they want to export, they need to reserve 15 per cent for domestic use for the domestic economy.
People are left scratching their heads about gas prices, but one thing they are not scratching their heads about is the growing evidence of the damage this industry has done in Queensland and New South Wales. There are industrial gas fields imposed on regional communities that are damaging farms and damaging the environment.
We have seen farmers who have had livestock die. I have spoken to parents outside this chamber who live close to gas wells and who have said that their children are bleeding from the nose. We have seen the tragic consequences here in Queensland with people like Mr George Bender taking their own lives after a lengthy struggle with this massive gas industry.
When an individual farmer is dealing with a multinational company of such power and influence, how can they be expected to compete with that influence? I have always believed that governments should be there to help the little guy but, no, governments here in Queensland are helping the big multinationals, not the little guy.
We all know that opening this country up to more damaging fracking will not help push down the price of gas—not while the price is linked to the international market. Who is to blame for where we are today? There are only two parties to blame—one, the greedy multinationals that come here with no other goal than to maximise profits while sucking this nation dry and, two, the governments of this state and country that failed to reserve Australian gas for Australian consumers.
As my first term in parliament approached its conclusion at the end of 2017, I had done everything I could to campaign against expansion of the fossil fuel industry in Queensland. It was also clear that my climate change activism was not playing in my favour in my local community.
In Cairns my political opponents in the major parties were describing me as being anti-development and captured by green ideology. However, I knew I had done the right thing by my city and future generations. I was proud that I followed the science and spoke truth to power. A majority in my electorate may not have supported me, but I was full of hope that future generations of political leaders would not fail the world as badly as my generation had on the issue of climate change.