Stop Adani: An Interview With the Galilee Blockade’s Ben Pennings

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Ben Pennings

Adani announced on 29 November that it will be going ahead with a scaled-down version of the Carmichael coalmine. And construction on the project’s rail line would begin early in the new year. However, at this stage, it seems very unlikely due to a number of delaying factors.

The CSIRO revealed last week that it’s found Adani’s water management plan is flawed, as it doesn’t protect the nearby Doongmabulla Springs. And the Indian mining giant needs to get federal and state government plan approval prior to commencing construction.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) recently launchedlegal challenge against the federal government’s decision to allow Adani to bypass a full environmental impact assessment of its North Galilee water use plans, which involve the use of up to 12.5 billion litres of water a year.

And then there’s the challenge from the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners. They claim that the Indigenous land use agreement that’s essential for the Adani mine to proceed is void because it hasn’t been correctly certified.

As a last minute tactic to have the case thrown out, Adani filed an application with the Federal Court asking that the traditional owners put up security costs. This led to the case being pushed back to May – instead of January – causing yet another setback for the terminally delayed project.

A changing of the guard

The Wangan and Jagalingou challenge now sees the Adani proposal stalled up until the next federal election. And with Labor expected to win by a landslide, those who oppose the mine are now focusing on the current opposition party’s stance on the mine.

Back in March, Labor leader Bill Shorten spoke out in opposition to the mine. However, since then he’s pulled back on the issue. And while he recently expressed scepticism to whether the project would ever get off the ground, his party is certainly not outright opposing it.

So, that’s why activist groups that oppose the mine are calling on federal Labor to stop sitting on the fence. And as opposition to the Adani mine grows within the community, it will be increasingly difficult for Labor to simply skirt around the issue.

Taking direct action

Members of the Galilee Blockade campaign were set to target a public speech that Labor shadow opposition tourism minister Anthony Albanese was presenting at the Woodford Folk Festival on Saturday morning.

The grassroots civil resistance movement also played a pivotal role in disrupting Bill Shorten’s speech at the Labor National Conference on 16 December. As the opposition leader was about to begin speaking, activists appeared on the stage beside him holding Stop Adani banners.

The group has also been actively targeting companies involved in the project. Indeed, it was this sort of activism that led Adani to have to self-fund a scaled-down mine, as both domestic and international banks refused to finance the original version after pressure from environmentalists.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke to Galilee Blockade spokesperson Ben Pennings about the need for Labor to speak out in opposition prior to the next election, the direct action his group will be engaged in during coming months and why he believes the mine will never see the light of day.

Firstly, Ben, you’re about to protest at Anthony Albanese’s presentation at the Woodford Folk Festival. Why have you set your sights on him?

The Stop Adani movement is quite frustrated with Anthony Albanese. First, he’s shadow tourism minister. And there’s been two bleaching events of the Great Barrier Reef in the last three years, because of the heatwave at the moment.

It’s almost certain that we’re going to have three mass bleaching events in four years, which is of real risk to the reef, but also to the tourism industry as well.

But also, Albanese is the de facto leader of Labor left and a huge proportion of Labor left members – and Labor members all together – want nothing to do with the Adani mine.

Albanese is nowhere. He refuses to make a statement. He just goes to the old adage that if it stacks up environmentally and economically then it’s OK. But, he refuses to say what he believes.

He’s playing both sides of the fence, and with Adani really ramping up the pressure on their end, we need senior people to make a principled stand, rather than playing politics.

The Galilee Blockade was also involved in the disruption of Bill Shorten’s speech at the Labor National Conference two weeks ago. Mr Shorten said he was against the Adani mine earlier in the year. But, the Labor Party still support its go ahead.

Do you think there’s a likely possibility that Labor could take a different stance and oppose the mine?

We’re really keen to remind Labor federally and Queensland Labor that we represent a vast majority and we’re not going to leave them alone.

It’s really clear that most people oppose the mine. Labor are trying to sit on the fence and appease everyone.

We believe this is a really strong issue environmentally, economically and morally, and they really need to make a stand before the election.

There’s never been a single coalmine stopped in Queensland before. And Labor and the Libs have been supporting coal in Queensland the whole way through, so it’s hard for us to trust that even when they get in that they’ll make more of a stand then.

We believe they need to make more of a stand beforehand, and go to the election with a clear platform. Particularly, because Adani are making their big final push and gamble at the moment.

They’re saying they’re going to put their own money in. They’re doing everything they can to get things happening before the election, so it makes it harder for a Labor government to stop it afterwards if they want to.

But, if federal Labor comes out strongly now, it’s very unlikely that Adani will push ahead and put more money in if they know that Labor is going to try and end the mine after the election.

Also, Queensland Labor can stop the Adani mine any day they want to. And Queensland Labor and federal Labor are linked, so we’ll be pushing the Queensland Labor government to really bail federal Labor out.

So, the next federal election is coming up in May. What sort of direct action and acts of civil resistance will the Galilee Blockade be taking in the lead up to the vote?

It really depends upon the approval processes. But, with regards to politics, we’re going to be everywhere. And not just us. Wherever Labor or Liberal pollies are, we’re going to keep it on the agenda. It has to be.

Labor is going to want to talk about health and education and housing, which is great. They can talk about that until the cows come home. But, we’re not going to let them forget climate change.

And they can’t be serious on climate change, unless they’re stopping new coal. They can’t pretend that they’re a government that cares about climate change if they’re still supporting new coal mines.

So, we’re going to be targeting the election as much as possible, so we can get a firm commitment out of them beforehand.

Also, with regard to civil disobedience, you would have seen the school strike happen. That is going to happen again in March. And it’s going to be much bigger. There were 15,000 kids and supporters last time. And that’s going to grow massively.

On 15 March, here, and other places around the world, there’s going to be kids, their parents, grandparents and supporters – and hopefully unions and service clubs – hitting the streets and saying, “We’re striking today, because a side of politics aren’t taking climate change seriously.”

That’s going to be something grand and creative. With regard to central Queensland, it really depends on what work Adani is doing on the ground.

At the moment, because of the native title case and the groundwater approval process there’s not much they can do on-site.

They moved three trucks on-site the other day and made a big deal out of it. That was in the Australian and on the news. And all they did was have three more trucks with equipment go on-site.

If there’s evidence that they’re doing more work – for example on the rail line – Frontline Action on Coal, who’ve got the camp in central Queensland, will be targeting any Adani work on the ground.

But also, the Bob Brown Foundation has a got a flotilla planned. That’s going to be literally hundreds and hundreds of people – whether they’re grey nomads or other people – travelling up in convoy all the way from Hobart to central Queensland.

It will start in Hobart and then go through to Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. So, all the way up people are going to join this convoy. There will literally be hundreds and hundreds of vehicles, along with the people and training and skills.

They’ll be up there, in central Queensland, holding line if they need to. But, hopefully they won’t need to. Hopefully, Adani sees sense and moves out. But, the Stop Adani movement is very much ready for large scale direct action.

But, ultimately, it should be politicians doing it. It’s not our job to try and whack every bad project on the head every time. We really want to change the politics of coal all together, so there will be no more new coalmines in Australia.

The CSIRO said that Adani’s water management plan is seriously flawed, while the Australian Conservation Foundation has launched a legal challenge in regard to a federal government decision in relation to its water usage.

What do you think about these developments? Could they bring about a halt to the mine?

They definitely could. Adani have never found the source of the Doongmabulla Springs. And that’s really important, because they’re taking billions upon billions of litres of groundwater a year.

If they’re destroying a spring system that’s a million years old, and sacred ground for traditional owners, that’s ridiculously important.

Adani are pretending that they’re about to get off and running, when they can’t. They do need the groundwater management plan. They do need to get the North Galilee water plan ticked off federally, which is now going to go to a court case with ACF.

So, there are still ways that governments can stop it. We need tighter environmental regulations, so we can stop it. If climate change was included in environmental regulations, it would never have gone anywhere.

But, there are other really important things like threatened species and water, which Adani hasn’t ticked off on yet. And we hope that regulators and government see sense and stop this in the next few months, rather than it be a fight for years.

Adani announced in November that it’s going ahead with a self-funded and scaled-down version of the Carmichael mine. What sort of mine are we looking at now? What environmental impact would it have?

At the moment, they want to start off at about 10 or 15 megatonnes a year. And then move it up to 25 and possibly 60. It’s just a matter of time. They want the mine to be as large as possible.

The full-scale plan is 60 million tonnes a year for 60 years. So, that means once they’ve built it and operating it in 65 years time they’ll still be digging out thermal coal for electricity, which is completely insane and we’ll all be dead. And they’ll still be doing something which will have ridiculous impacts.

At the moment, the market’s not there, but as soon as they get infrastructure at the Galilee Basin, it makes all the other mine proposals there cheaper.

So, Gina’s got plans. Clive’s got plans. And as soon as you get a workers’ camp and an airport etc, then the other planned mines become more viable. And it’s something environmentally that we can’t even consider.

And lastly, you’ve been campaigning against the Adani mine for years. The project has consistently been delayed, domestic and foreign banks have refused to lend money to fund it, the traditional owners’ challenge is still going ahead, and there are these water management concerns.

Ben, do you think the Carmichael mine is ever going to come to fruition?

I’ve been 100 percent convinced from day one that the Carmichael mine won’t go ahead. The reason being that there’s too many Australians who are concerned enough about it to take real ongoing direct action.

So, if Adani did get all of the approvals, I’m sure there are thousands upon thousands of people who will be arrested. It will be long. It will be ugly. But, ultimately, we will win.

But, it shouldn’t have to get to that. There’s all the environmental evidence against it. There’s all the economical evidence against it. And the vast majority of Australians are against it.

It really has to be a political decision to stop the mine y politicians doing the right thing and the popular thing.

Because what happens if we do win this over the next five years with thousands of arrests, then we’ve got to go and do that again with the next coalmine and the next coalmine.

We really have to have that line in the sand politically in saying that given the evidence from the IPCC report, and all the climate change evidence over the last 30 to 40 years, we have to stop new coal.

We have to work with the communities that are reliant on the coal industry to transition their economies to cleaner, greener, more sustainable ones that are less reliant on the boom and bust of commodities.

We really need to work with those communities and transition them as soon as we can, because the science is clear. And we can’t just put our heads in the sand anymore.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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