Comment: Why coal barons and traditional owners can’t see eye to eye

  • Bill McKibben, SBS News, 1st April 2015

    Murrawah Johnson of the Wangan and Jagalingou people presents a Declaration of Defence of Country to Queensland’s Speaker of the House.
Wangan and Jagalingou people have refused Indian conglomerate Adani and the Queensland government a Land Use Agreement for the Carmichael coal mine, the biggest in Australian history, on their traditional lands.

People ask me sometimes, “what’s the next Keystone?”

That massive and ongoing fight, over a pipeline from Canada’s tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, helped kick off a new era of fossil fuel resistance and, partly as a result, there are now a hundred crucial fights underway around the world right now, as activists, scientists, and front line communities take on new coal ports and fracking wells, new oil terminals and gas storage caverns.

They’re all equally crucial—the science makes clear that if we want to slow down climate change we can’t build any new fossil fuel infrastructure, and must concentrate instead on moving rapidly to renewables.

But if you wanted to find a fight that was almost the perfect match for Keystone, except at the other end of the planet, you’d have to pick the burgeoning battle over plans to develop one of the world’s largest coal projects, in Australia’s Galilee Basin.

Like the oil in Canada’s tar sand belt, this coal simply has to stay underground: this one basin contains 6 percent of the carbon necessary to take the planet past the two-degree red line agreed to by world Governments.

And just as the Keystone pipeline is set to run right over the crucial Ogallala Aquifer, so too mining the Galilee will do even more damage to the already stressed Great Barrier Reef.

But perhaps most telling of all is that, just as with the tar sands, the most crucial opposition to this massive coal expansion may come from the indigenous people who have lived there long before anyone thought to burn hydrocarbons.

In Canada, the Athabasca Chipewyan, Cree and other tribal bands have been the most relentless opponents of tar sands development. Every summer now they lead a march across the desolate landscape—moonscape, really, where the endless lakes of toxic waste water are guarded by continually firing cannons designed to keep hapless birds from landing and dying.

And in Australia, now, the Wangan and Jagalingou, traditional owners in the Galilee Basin, have recently rejected overtures from Indian mining giant Adani (a politically connected company, owned by one of Asia’s richest men) to use their land to develop the $16bn Carmichael coal mine, the largest in the Basin. Here’s the language they used, straightforward, solid, and ringing:

If the Carmichael mine were to proceed it would tear the heart out of the land. The scale of this mine means it would have devastating impacts on our native title, ancestral lands and waters, our totemic plants and animals, and our environmental and cultural heritage. It would pollute and drain billions of litres of groundwater, and obliterate important springs systems. It would potentially wipe out threatened and endangered species. It would literally leave a huge black hole, monumental in proportions, where there were once our homelands. These effects are irreversible. Our land will be “disappeared”.

Think of the resolve that this decision represents. Handing over their lands would represent, in some sense, a windfall. But it would also represent a repudiation of the timeless communion with the landscape that has literally made that culture what it is.

Unsurprisingly, Adani was disinterested in this kind of testimony from people who have successfully inhabited the region for millennia. Having failed to buy them off with what a Wangan and Jangalingou spokesman called “shut-up money”, now they have moved to overwhelm native resolve with legal wiles, just as has happened in Canada.

Companies like Adani and Transcanada always figure that everyone else is like them—interested, in the end, only in money. And in politicians like Canada’s Stephen Harper or Australia’s Tony Abbott they usually find the front men they want. All in all, money usually wins.

But as with Keystone, the battle against the Galilee Basin will be a battle of money versus movements. Enough people are aware of the plans that it will be fought every inch of the way. And with the prophetic leadership of indigenous people, that fight will be successful. This coal basin will not be unlocked; coal ports on the Reef will not be expanded; that coal will stay, safely, where it has lain for deep time.

Bill McKibben, the founder of, went to jail on the first day of civil disobedience in Washington against the Keystone Pipeline in the summer of 2011.