Photo: Earth Island Journal

“Campaigns are more effective when they are joined up”

Opposition to Adani’s Coal Mining project in Queensland is one of the more successful environmental movements against a transnational corporation. An interview with Quentin Beresford, author of Adani And The War Over Coal.

In 2015, Australian professor of politics Quentin Beresford published his book on Gunns Ltd- the biggest logging firm in Tasmania. The company was engulfed in snowballing controversy after announcing plans for a pulp mill that threatened native forests. It was a familiar script. Supporting the project, state politicians had dismissed concerns from local scientific bodies. Only spirited local opposition – which took to the streets and went to the courts – eventually saved those forests.

His next book, published in 2018, focuses on a very different environmental struggle. Where The Rise And Fall Of Gunns Ltd described a forest imperilled – and saved – by local actors, Adani And The War Over Coal is about local ecosystems threatened by a transnational corporation. Unlike Gunns, its impacts are not solely local – nor are the financial flows and political systems supporting the company.

Last week, wondering how the added complexity of a transnational corporation alters the task facing local environmental activists, CarbonCopy wrote to Beresford. In the email interview that followed, he discussed the current status of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, Australia’s pro-coal stance, the importance of local opposition to keep environmentally sensitive projects at bay and why countries should be penalised for exporting fossil fuels.

What is the update on Adani’s Carmichael coal mine since your book was published in 2018?

One of the major themes in my book was the well organised anti-Adani campaign in Australia which, over several years, not only turned the company into a toxic brand, but succeeded in blocking all conventional sources of institutional finance to construct the mine. At the time, it appeared to me, and to many others, that the mine faced huge obstacles in proceeding, especially as Adani was known to be a highly leveraged company that would struggle to finance the mine itself.

It was therefore a surprise to everyone when sometime later, Adani announced that the mine would be scaled back and that the company would provide the finance. But there have been no further details on how this arrangement will work.

Adani then set about negotiating contracts with local firms to carry out various parts of the project, including a contract to construct a railway from the mine to the port several hundred kilometres away. Several of the companies approached to be contractors to the Carmichael mine declined out of concern that their businesses would be affected as a consequence of being targeted by anti-Adani campaigners.

Only limited site work has been undertaken so far. A major stumbling appears to be the difficulty Adani has had in securing insurance for the work on the mine. The company said that it had secured arrangements, but three insurance companies that have worked with the company over recent years have reported that they are ceasing their involvement with the mine and exiting from coal.

And, of course, the implications of the global economic slowdown resulting from the impact of COVID-19 have added further uncertainty to the future of the mine. Due to its remote location, this is regarded as a high-cost mining operation.

However, there have been no reports from the company that they intend to walk away from the project, and it continues to have strong government backing. Given Adani’s lack of transparency, there is no way of assessing whether the obstacles it faces can be adequately resolved or can prove to be the undoing of the mine.

How does the transnational character of the coal industry increase the challenges facing the environmental activist?

As I detail in my book, the campaign waged against Adani in Australia was incredibly successful in blocking international finance to the mine. Ultimately, the battle to stop the Adani mine from going ahead (assuming that it still does go ahead) was lost in Australia’s domestic politics. Australia’s major political parties back the export coal industry and although tremendous pressure was placed on them to reverse their stances on the Carmichael mine, electoral politics dictated that the mine received all the approvals it needed. Political parties sell exaggerated claims of the jobs benefits to mining communities while ignoring the damage to jobs that will come from rising greenhouse gas emissions to iconic international tourism destinations such as the Great Barrier Reef, which is under serious threat from climate change. Tourism and commercial fishing on the reef produce many more jobs and long-term revenue to government than will be provided by the Carmichael mine.

Targeting fossil fuel companies anywhere in the world is a huge challenge because of the power they wield in the political system. However, in recent years, environmental activists have found that targeting the institutional financial backers of fossil fuel projects can be an effective strategy. This is because many corporations find that they can be on the receiving end of national and international-based internet campaigns that damage their reputation. However, much more needs to be done in the area of holding corporations to account for their role in climate change.  

The Australian coal mining industry has recently been embroiled in a major certification scandal. What can you tell us about this and how does it play into international trade of Australian coal?

Allegations of a coal scam involving falsified test samples attracted colourful headlines in the press recently. The implications were serious in that the point of the alleged falsification was to produce certification for better quality coal than was actually the case. However, the allegations are caught up in a bitter court case between the two companies at the heart of the scam and there have been claims and counter-claims as to what happened. Police investigations have so far failed to find sufficient evidence to support the claims.

One of the reasons that the allegations attracted media interest lies in the potential damage to Australia’s reputation for producing ‘quality’ coal. The powerful coal industry and its backers in government fend off growing criticism of Australia’s role in exporting climate change to the world by arguing that the nation’s higher quality coal displaces lower quality product from countries such as Indonesia. Of course, such arguments ring increasingly hollow as pressure grows on governments around the world to exit from coal.     

In your book, you talk about how banks — not just in Australia but also in China — were convinced to not lend to the project. You also describe a trip by local leaders to the tar sands of Canada to talk to project-affected local communities there. Other leaders, as you show, travelled to India as well. What does it take, essentially, to challenge extractive transnational corporations? Is local opposition, which delays projects, enough to disrupt their economics?

This depends on the type of project and the strength of support in a given local community. But in my study of the campaign against forestry in Tasmania and against Adani, several things are clear. Firstly, local opposition is crucial because campaigners can use the concept of ‘social licence’ around which to base their opposition. This is an ethical rather than a legal concept, but it is more difficult for corporations to pursue a project when locals are opposed to it. Tasmanians were opposed to the cutting down of their old growth forests and this support proved crucial in the long campaign of activists to stop the practice, which was controlled by one giant corporation – Gunns Ltd.

However, the difficulty for anti-Adani activists has been that the Carmichael mine has the support of the local Queensland coal mining community even though it has consistently been opposed by a majority of Australians.    

The second thing my studies of environmental activism has shown is that campaigns are more effective when they are joined up; that is, when locals receive support from wider state, national and international groups. One of the most successful phases of the anti-Adani campaign was the creation of such inter-organisational cooperation under the #StopAdani banner.

Reading the book, I couldn’t help contrasting the successes enjoyed by Australian protestors with the more limited progress activists in India have made. Out here, coal blocks in the middle of forests continue to get auctioned; allegations of malfeasance make limited headway. And so, can you tell us about the larger ecosystem in which environmental activism operates in Australia — the courts, the media, etc. How supportive have they been?

Australia offers both opportunities and obstacles to environmental activism. On the plus side, environmental awareness is widely spread and there exists a great diversity of well-resourced professional environmental organisations and localised community-based groups. Groups increasingly combine traditional non-violent protest activity with sophisticated social media campaigns as seen in both the anti-Gunns and anti-Adani campaigns. In addition, there have been some notable community-based victories over fracking in some states.

However, Australia is a resource-based economy and powerful resource companies exert a disproportionate influence on government. They are able to exploit the weaknesses in Australia’s system of governance such as its lax laws governing donations, lobbying and accountability for corruption. Australia, too, suffers from a highly concentrated media, most of which is owned by Murdoch’s News Limited, and it pursues a pro-corporate, pro-fossil fuel and anti-green agenda.

While Australia has a robust and independent court system, it has generally not proved to be fruitful ground for environmental campaigners, and especially in relation to coal. The Commonwealth government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is more than 20 years old and in need of reform. Sometimes projects can be usefully delayed using this legislation but, usually, the courts will side with government-backing corporate coal projects. This comes down to lack of clear legislative guidelines on dealing with climate change and the courts tend to take a conservative, ‘black letter’ interpretation of the law. This was the case with Adani, which survived several court hearings brought by environmentalists, even though the courts forced it to make relatively minor changes.

In the book, you also talk about the need to penalise fossil fuel producing countries for the emissions they export (thru the fuels they sell) to less developed countries. Can you describe how such an arrangement might work?

Under current United Nations climate change agreements, countries that hugely benefit from exporting fossil fuels such as coal are treated the same as those countries that do not directly benefit from the industry. Coal exports are one of Australia’s major industries earning the country billions. And, under the largely voluntary international climate agreements, Australia is able to sign-off on commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, which are at the lower end of international rankings. Australia, therefore, gets advantages both ways – it earns a lot from perpetuating fossil fuels while lacking ambitious targets to reduce them. The only way to redress this imbalance is at the international level by revising climate agreements that, for example, set higher minimum targets for fossil fuel exporting countries. The problem, of course, being that countries are unlikely to agree to such an approach, but at least the issue needs to be raised and the case mounted.

In theory, the governments of India and Australia should be at the forefront of ramping up international agreements as both countries are highly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. However, both countries suffer from the ‘coal curse’; India’s reliance on coal generation and Australia’s reliance on coal exports.

It is going to be up to the people of both countries to press the case for greater action.

About The Author