Mining doom heralds clean energy boom for Australia

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With Australia's resources boom looking like it may be over, Ruth Forsythe explains why the time has come for Australia to commit to 100 per cent renewable energy.
A gecko evades police at the Olympic Dam uranium mine (Image courtesy www.lizardsrevenge.net).

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
~ Margaret Mead American Anthropologist (1901 – 1978)

On 4 September, chief economist at Australia's Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, Quentin Grafton, said that more mining developments could be shelved given the sharp fall in commodity prices.

This was just two weeks after an announcement by BHP Billiton, on 22 August, that it's profit had fallen by a third, and that it was shelving expansion plans at its multi-billion-dollar Olympic Dam uranium mine at Roxby Downs, South Australia. Just five days later, on 27 August, the company announced it would sell its Yeelirrie uranium deposit in Western Australia.

But before all this happened, between the 14th and 20th of July 2012, the Lizard’s Revenge Festival, aimed at shutting down the Olympic Dam uranium mine, was held at Roxby Downs. The Festival followed decades of peaceful protest led by Uncle Kevin Buzzacott, an Aboriginal an elder from nearby Arabunna country. At the festival opening on Saturday 14 July, Kokatha custodians, along with Uncle Kev, welcomed us to their country, and in the evening younger Kokatha custodians performed with "Combat Wombat" and a slightly older Arabunna elder sang karaoke into the wee hours (one of his songs is located at the end of Part Two).

Rather obtusely, all Australian mainstream media reports covering BHP Billiton’s surprising announcements avoid any mention of Aboriginal custodians’ long ongoing battles to end both uranium and environmentally destructive mining practices generally.

In their wrap up of the decision, the media also almost completely neglected to mention the loss of global confidence in the safety of nuclear power following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Nor did they mention the considerable pressing moral, social, health and environmental issues associated with uranium production. And instead of informed discussion about the strong possibility that our exports are contributing to global warming, or mentioning the major global and national renewable energy trends impacting on the downturn in BHP's profits and contributing to them shelving the expansion, the debate led by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott laid the blame for the Olympic Dam decision simply at the feet of the Federal Government and its mining and carbon taxes.

However, as reported by The Australian on 22 August, neither the carbon price nor the mining tax was relevant. The Minister for Mining, Energy and Tourism, Martin Ferguson, explained that

“...the mining tax was only applied to two commodities coal and iron ore neither of which were mined at Olympic dam”.

Although Australia has the largest known deposits of uranium in the world, previous environmental and land rights laws have restricted production; and even within these constraints,  a 1997 Australian parliamentary report described the devastating impact of uranium mining on Australia’s Original peoples.

The report observed:
‘(The) history of uranium mining in Australia and its impact on Aboriginal people is deplorable. Past mining in places like Rum Jungle have left areas so degraded that traditional owners are unable to use them, while mines such as Ranger (also in the Northern Territory) have been forced on traditional owners against their will ....

'Even at mines such as Olympic Dam, there was deep concern at the reckless degradation of sacred sites and insensitivity to Aboriginal culture.'
Events on the world stage have moved at a fast pace since the Prime Minister made history late last year, in a shock move, to endorse exports of uranium to India. The decision split the ALP, with Labor Senator, Doug Cameron publically stating:
 “...this is one of the worst decisions the Labor party has ever made”.  
At the 4 December ALP national conference, 206 delegates endorsed Ms Gillard's view to overturn the 1987 Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act by voting in favour to export Australian uranium to India, even though it has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) with 185 of Labor’s left faction opposing it.

Labor's Left faction vowed not to give up its fight against uranium exports to India.

Federal Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese said it was inappropriate
"... nine months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster it is not the time to be expanding our uranium exports."
In India, a national alliance of political parties and groups has formed due to concerns of the high risk of nuclear accident regarding the location of six reactors at Jaitapur. And many of India’s citizens are engaged in non violent opposition at the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Julia Gillard prepares to visit India on 15 October to negotiate the supply of uranium.

Following the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, it has become increasingly obvious the world does not view uranium as a safe option. This, combined with rapidly diminishing global food stocks, the significant health risks of radiation and the subsequent destruction to our prime agricultural lands is not commonsense.

The Financial Review reported in August that Russia and the USA are experiencing relentless drought conditions 'sparking fears a fresh food crisis could emerge'. The article states that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) has
'...forecast that agricultural output will need to rise by 60 percent within forty years to meet the rising demand for food as the world’s population soars beyond 9 billion people.'
It is clear that Australia now needs to move towards food and sustainable energy technology both for domestic and international trade. As The Financial Review editorialised (August 11 – 12, 2012):
“...farmers can switch between grazing and different types of crops in considerably less time than it takes to construct a coal mine
and an increase in food production
“...does not require the same lead time or levels of investment as are needed to boost output of (mining) resources”.
The industrial scale hole-making, fracturing, scraping, scoring is nothing less than environmental vandalism of our beautiful continent’s landscape. Further, it is an outdated and unsustainable practice that harms our soil, flora, fauna, water and ultimately our agricultural productivity ― and even capability.
The devastation already wrought on the environment at the Olympic Dam mine at Roxby Downs.

The Global Renewable Energy Revolution

A review of the global situation reveals the scale of the renewable energy revolution currently happening. The USA and EU countries such as France, Belgium and Germany (that latter of which has less than half the annual wind potential and sunlight as Australia) are proudly boasting an array of successful and exciting renewable energy innovations.

A meeting of the world’s largest scientific society, the American Chemical Society, held in Philadelphia on August 21, heralded the launch of new solar photovoltaic technology that make highly efficient shingles made from inexpensive “earth-abundant materials” like copper and zinc.

“The United States alone has about 69 billion square feet of appropriate residential rooftops that could be generating electricity from the sun,” said Prof James C Stevens, a chemist with The Dow Chemical Company.
“The sunlight falling on those roofs could generate at least 50 percent of the nation’s electricity, and some estimates put that number closer to 100 percent. With earth-abundant technology, that energy could be harvested, at an enormous benefit to consumers and the environment.”
On August 26, reports emerged that France and Abu Dhabi are set to test French inventor Marc Parent’s wind turbine that literally pulls H2O from the air and turns it into drinking water. On average, each unit creates over 62 litres per hour when the temperature is 75 Fahrenheit at 45 per cent humidity.

German solar power plants produced a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity per hour − equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity − through the midday hours Friday May 25 and Saturday 26.

Meanwhile, Belgium has retrofitted their existing infrastructure with renewable energy.  On 9 June, trains set off powered by a world first "solar tunnel", in Antwerp, Belgium ― the railway infrastructure has been used to generate green energy. The €15.7 million ($21.5 million) project will supply 3300 MWh of electricity annually ― enough to power 4,000 trains[1]. This endeavour is estimated to reduce CO2 emissions by 2,400 tons per year.

The Australian Renewable Energy Revolution

In Australia, an extraordinary national social movement is happening, led in part by the Lock the Gate Alliance, which comprises over 120 communities, industry and environmental groups. This movement demonstrates that ordinary Australians are aware and concerned about the adverse impact of mining.

On 18 June, when he introduced the Protecting Local Jobs (Regulating Enterprise Migration Agreements) Bill 2012, Greens MP Adam Bandt stressed that is not just uranium, iron ore and coal that Australia exports in large quantities:
"...we export a lot of dividend payments as well. In 2009-10, mining profits were $51 billion, of which 83 per cent, or $42 billion, accrued to foreign investors.”
Although more people are employed in the arts and recreation services sector than in mining, a 2010 report by the Minerals Council of Australia said that mining accounted for around 320,000 jobs either directly or indirectly ― around 2 per cent of our national employment. Therefore, it is imperative for the Australian economy that new jobs are immediately created in the renewable industry sector, particularly given the thousands of job losses occurring across both the NSW and Qld public sector.

On Sept 11 the Qld State government announced a further 14,000 job losses amid cost cutting by most mining companies. Even mining giant BHP Billiton has indicated that it may have to cut jobs at its Australian coal mines due to worsening market conditions.

On 12 September, the Financial Review reported that BHP Billiton and Xstrata have cut 900 coal mining jobs citing falling prices, high costs and the strong Australian dollar.

South Australia moves to Renewable Solar Thermal Technology

As it stood ready to benefit from the royalties and economic activity to be generated by the Olympic Dam uranium mine expansion, the South Australian Government has understandably expressed its disappointment at the decision.

However, it is highlighted as a positive for farmers. During an ABC radio interview on August 24[2] with Brenton Vanstone Mayor of Port Pirie on the decision by BHP Billiton to defer the Olympic Dam project, the host David Bone points out that agriculture adds more value to the state than mining, suggestingfarmers will be happy because they will be able to get more workers. And in an electrifying turn of events for South Australia, it may soon be host to Australia’s first solar thermal powered city! Recent reports from Port Augusta, show overwhelming support for a move to solar from the community, the mayor, the business council and the owners of the coal stations!

The Stock Journal (July 24) has published an article about how the community campaign to transform Port Augusta’s coal fired power to renewable solar thermal technology is gaining momentum. And lobby group Repower Port Augusta has announced the result of a community vote that received 4,000 responses, with 98 per cent in favour of solar thermal power over the alternative option of gas.

Beyond Zero Emissions report released earlier this year claimed that 1500 construction jobs and 360 on-going jobs would be created by the Port Augusta solar thermal option.

Perth moves to Renewable Wave Technology

Given that we live on the world’s largest Island and driest continent, the use of renewable power generated from wave energy would be fantastic for Australia ― not only is this technology able to produce zero-emission power it can be used to desalinate water.

Cities across the globe − including in Ireland, Chile, Italy and the Province of British Columbia, Canada − will soon be powered by zero carbon emission wave technology.

In a commonsense pre-emptive move by the Federal and Western Australian Governments, WA Carnegie Wave Energy Limited have been allocated a $12.5m grant for a Perth Wave Energy Project located offshore of Fremantle at Garden Island. With approximately 50 per cent of the project government funded, this know-how is set to become a reality for Australian people before the end of 2013. The Wave project also aims to create up to 30 jobs and, according to Carnegie Wave Energy, this technology also attracts marine life.

On 16 July Steven Smith, the minister for defence, said:
“It is estimated that the global wave energy sector will be worth US$760 billion by 2050 and annual revenue from the sector will be $100 billion by 2025”.

A.C.T. moving quickly with “Big Solar” plan

The recent tendering process for a 40 megawatt solar project was won on 5 September by Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV), as Canberra gets ready to position itself as also the nation's solar capital.

NSW’s renewable options

Back in April 2008, Dr David Mills from the Sydney University said that 90 per cent of NSW's power needs can be supplied by his solar thermal plants (ABC news).

Last year, Prof Mark Diesendorf, Deputy Director, Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of NSW explained that
“...detailed computer simulations, backed up by real-world experience with wind power, demonstrate that a transition to 100% energy production from renewable sources is possible within the next few decades.”
His research provides us with a wealth of renewable electricity technologies that are now available to supply baseload power.

The obvious question is: where can Australia get the millions needed to create employment across the nation in the renewable resources sector? The answer, given by Greens leader Christine Milne in April in the Senate this year, is to stop the subsidies and cut the $2 billion diesel fuel rebate to mining companies.

Last words goes to Martin Ferguson, who said on the day after BHP Billiton’s announcement that it was shelving its multi-billion-dollar Olympic Dam expansion plans:
"But you've got to understand, the resources boom is over."

(In part two, Ruth shares an enlightening experience of the healing spirit underlying the Lizard’s Revenge Festival.)

For over forty years the Wangkatja people have fought to stop uranium mining at Yeelirrie.

[1] The 3.6-kilometer (2.2-mile) tunnel was built to protect trains from falling trees as they pass through an ancient forest. The installation covers a total surface area of 50,000m² (538,000 ft2). The electricity produced by the installation will be used to power railway infrastructure, such as signals, lighting and the heating of stations. It will also power the trains using the Belgian rail network.
[2] ABC North and West SA, Port Pirie hosted by David Bone 24 Aug 2012 8:38 AM

Further Reading

Uranium Mining Update for NSW

In March this year, the NSW government passed the Mining Legislation Amendment (Uranium Exploration) Act 2012 and announced it would overturn a 26-year bipartisan ban and allow uranium exploration across the state. Premier Barry O'Farrell cited the narrowly won ALP national conference vote, allowing uranium sales to India – a nation outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – as his rationale for the policy change.

On July 10, the Border Mail reported the following:
Perth based company ALKANE Resources managing director Ian Chalmers was tossing up whether to use road or rail to move processing materials and concentrated uranium products between Toongi and Dubbo in the central west region of NSW .

The uranium mine is located at Toongi 21 Kms south of  Dubbo and called the Dubbo Zirconia Project (DZP).

About $20 million has been spent in the past 13 years on the DZP, not including federal cash that helped establish a demonstration pilot plant where a world-first processing technique has been refined and product samples shipped overseas.

 “As far as I’m concerned if we have the local communities on side and ultimately the bureaucrats in the planning department on side, I don’t see why there will ever be an issue.”

Mr Chalmers said “radioactive” waste would be placed in the dams of the DZP and stabilised through the application of limestone.
Note: Victoria is now the only Australian State with a blanket ban on uranium exploration and mining.

(More information may be found at the Nature Conservation Council of NSW website http://nccnsw.org.au/campaigns/uranium-mining.)

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

The Festival followed decades of peaceful protest led by Uncle Kevin Buzzcott, an Aboriginal an elder from nearby Arabunna country. At the festival opening on Saturday, 14 July Kokatha custodians along with Uncle Kev  welcomed us to their country, and in the evening younger Kokatha custodians performed with  "Combat Wombat" and a slightly older Arabunna elder sang karaoke into the wee hours, - one of his songs is located at the end of Part Two  article http://www.independentaustralia.net/2012/environment/mining-doom-heralds-clean-energy-boom-for-australia/   

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