5 May 2016
Dr Jo-Anne Everingham
Centre for Responsibility in Mining
Competing land uses have always created tensions, but in Australia mining in agricultural regions has generated the most controversy. The Hunter Valley has a long history of such conflicts, with 20 currently active mines and still many applications for new and extended mines. The Liverpool Plains is a more recent example, and the Gallilee Basin is an emerging flash-point. Coal and coal-seam gas are the resources most often associated with fertile agricultural land (since they are organic deposits from past biomass hotspots) and thus the global impacts of fossil fuel exploitation are relevant in addition to local impacts.
Whether or not a mine permit is granted depends on government decision, which must balance many competing claims, backed by incomplete and often contested data, and including impacts that are more subjective, are not readily measurable and are embedded in societal values rather than science. These decisions are often intransparent and open to political influence.
The township of Bulga recently failed to prevent the extension of the Mt Thorley-Warkworth mine. The extension will sustain the jobs of 1300 workers for a number of years, but most are not residents of the Bulga community. The planning advisory board took the unusual step of recommending that the town be moved. In contrast, the Drayton South mine lost its application for extension due to claimed impacts on the thoroughbred breeding industry. [We might speculate whether these differences reflect greater power of economic than social arguments, or differences in political influence.]
Government manages impacts by putting conditions on mine licenses. These may address how benefits are distributed, behaviour or side effects. The impacts are multidimensional and cumulative. A large agricultural development might have similar multidimensional impacts (some good, some bad). Impact management in the past has not considered whole systems well, usually focusing on specific metrics for specific impacts of specific activities in specific locations. Stipulated thresholds don’t deal well with cumulative nature of impacts across space and time. New mines build on the impacts of past mines, often measuring from a different baseline and working under different regulations. Other enterprises, whose air and water pollution may not be regulated, add to the impacts of regulated activities.
Individual viewpoints and values generate a wide range of views on whether gains outweigh losses. ‘Evidence-based’ decision-making may not handle values well. More jobs, diversified income sources and national exports are countered by more hazardous jobs, jobs mostly for outsiders, withdrawal of land and labour resources for other enterprises, the ‘resources curse’ effect of a higher exchange rate hurting other export industries, a two-speed economy and widening inequality, environmental change impacting health or general amenity, housing unaffordability and the potential for stranded assets at the end of the mining cycle.
The concept of ecosystem services, where a single system yields multiple inter-related benefits, may be applied to human systems. The concept of ‘five capitals’ recognises human capital, social cultural and institutional capital, natural capital, economic capital and built capital. Sustainable development requires that the total stock of capital is maintained or increased, so that we are living off the flows of services from these stocks, not consuming our capital. However, it is possible to shift the mix of capital stocks and achieve the same level of services. This notion allows the exploitation of non-renewable resources to be included in sustainable development models. [The idea of substitutability is often taken to extreme by those who claim that human technological ingenuity will always find alternatives for environmental services.]
Any industry brings benefits, risks and costs, and these will not be evenly distributed. These are often ‘wicked problems’. Our discussion raised the question of whether a more centralised planning system would be more able to make the tough decisions. The risk governance literature suggests that the more decisions are value-based, the broader governance needs to be for long-term success. The risk of political corruption is heightened when power is centralised. The importance of trust in authority was stressed. At the level of the Australian federal government, it was noted that Australia hasn’t signed the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. The profound conflict between signing the Paris Accord on climate action and simultaneously approving coal exports from Adani’s Carmichael mine were likened to one person trying to ride two horses galloping in opposite directions. The failings of governance would seem to be a greater impediment than the limitations of systems analysis to optimise land use decisions.
Download Dr Jo-Anne Everingham's presentation here (1.9 MB PDF).
Discover more presentations from the GCI Food Security Discussion Series here.