September 24, 2013

Farmers vs Big Coal 3

Outside the Primary Industries Building in Ann Street in Brisbane's CBD is a white sculpture, The Drovers. This was part of a series of streetscapes depicting the essence of Australian life during Expo '88. Stockmen gather around a fire waiting for the billy to boil. I noticed this again the other day on my way to the Land Court, where a group of graziers are seeking to protect their water supply which they perceive to be at risk from a huge coal mine near Alpha once it is operational.

Cattle farming is, of course, a primary industry. But not as primary as mining, it seems. Very little can stop mining companies exploiting Australia's mineral riches. Except, perhaps, a serious global economic downturn. And climate change. After all, a badly flooded opencast mine can't function, can it?

Cattle farmers in Central Queensland may already be feeling the effects of global warming. Last summer's wet didn't really happen for them, and many are already drought declared. Temperatures are high for early spring: I've heard a hot summer predicted by several Queenslanders 'reading' August's weather signs. One of the graziers petitioning the Land Court last week reported that five of his eight bores are already dry.

Friday in Court was particularly interesting. First up was Professor Roger Jones from the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies at Victoria University in Melbourne. Trained as an earth scientist, he worked at CSIRO for 13 years, and brings science, economics and policy together to create methodologies for developing mitigation strategies to manage the risks of climate change. He has been a contributor to the IPCC as well as the Australian Climate Change Adaptation Strategy*. Scenario analysis is his specialist subject.

Hancock's chief cross-examining lawyer asked the professor about the uncertainties of predicting the impact of climate change; those countries bound by the Kyoto Protocol and those that had made non-binding pledges; Australia's emissions policy before and since the Federal election; the social costs of carbon; and the parameters of emissions scenarios. It gradually dawned on me how the lawyer was working his way towards absolving Hancock Coal of responsibility for its emissions, the social costs of which are not quantified at project level. Neither can specific damage as a result of climate change, such as coral bleaching, be identified with particular emissions.

The clever manoeuvrings of lawyers was further exemplified during the afternoon session when counsel for Coast and Country engaged in highly detailed questioning of the third-party reviewer about his preferred conceptualisation model for groundwater studies. The line of questioning began with the absence of a geological basis for the western boundary of the model and progressed to how much data – and hydrogeological data in particular – is required for such complex conceptualisation. There was a definite inference by the end of the afternoon session that more field data – permeability testing, for example – could have been better integrated into the modelling.

Fascinating as these sessions in the Land Court were today, they both illustrated the difficulties of unrepresented parties in getting to grips not only with legal procedures but with the style and intensity of verbal sparring. You can imagine how valuable daily transcripts are to participants? Unfortunately the outsourcing of court transcript services as part of the Newman government's cost-cutting measures has added to the already considerable financial burden of plaintiffs.

In my mind I keep coming back to an individual's rights and the great Australian concept of a fair go.
* within the new LNP government there is no department of Climate Change so presumably there is no longer any Federal adaptation strategy either

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