On Monday this week a small group of Stop HRLians woke before dawn and drove 60 kilometers West of Melbourne to Bacchus Marsh. I rode shotgun, filming everything for a video I would like to make about the day. Neil drove. Shaun, Maude and Maddie were in the backseat.
We made the trip to perform a peaceful direct action against Mantle Mining, who are currently undertaking exploratory drilling in the area and hoping to dig an open cut mine in order to establish a brand new international brown coal export industry.
It’s hard to explain how crazy it would be for Victoria to start exporting brown coal to the world, but I’m willing to try. If you already know that it’s crazy to start exporting brown coal from Victoria, I don’t know, skip over this bit.
In Victoria, we have a lot of brown coal. That’s why almost all of our electricity is generated by digging it up and burning it, which boils water, spins turbines, and voila, electricity. And that’s also why Victoria’s per capita greenhouse emissions are among the highest in the world, what with brown coal being so dirty and all.
But now, thanks to Australia’s new carbon price legislation, Victorian power is being dragged kicking and screaming away from it’s dirty brown coal-flavored teat and into the mid-20th century. Yes, you heard correctly. The Labor government’s tragi-comically inadequate one-fifth-the-scientifically-accepted-minimum carbon pricing legislation is actually going (eventually) to price brown coal out of the electricity market. That’s just how polluting brown coal is – you can’t even burn it in Australia anymore.
Yet like any kicking and screaming little brat, the Victorian brown coal industry is refusing to go to bed peacefully. Instead, a new plan is emerging – if we can no longer make money here out of the stuff, maybe we can make money elsewhere out of it? After all, there are countries out there whose poverty and low historical emissions means they don’t have to do as much on climate change as us, which as a result of our ineffectual efforts means they really don’t have to do anything. So…maybe we can sell them our brown coal?
To date, this kind of thinking has been thwarted by a lucky happenstance in physics. You couldn’t export brown coal simply because it would catch fire if it came in contact with air. And air is fairly ubiquitous in the majority of our trading partners. But rather than recognise what seems to have been a fairly blatant hint from the Gods regarding the favor with which they view brown coal exports, a company named Exergen has now devised a method of drying out brown coal, rendering it capable of being transported vast distances and burnt in countries with less ‘ambitious’ emissions targets than our own.
For the crusty old white guys running Australia’s resources industry, this is great news. For nearly all other known forms of life it is not. James Hansen, the pre-eminent climate scientist in the world, has been warning us for years that the only way to avoid climate change so fundamentally disruptive to our planet’s life support system that no one even really knows where it might end is an urgent transition away from coal and other fossil fuels to renewable energy. He has even gone so far as calling coal ‘the single greatest threat to our civilisation and all of life on our planet’.
Unfortunately, for the exotic array of douchebags heading up Mantle and Exergen (and let’s not forget the extreme douchebagosity of their friendly financiers at Cygnet capital), it is simply a case of not seeing the forest for the toothpicks we could probably sell if we cut down its trees. Leave brown coal in the ground when we could make actual money by digging it up and burning it? Preposterous!
So anyway, in they come with their drill rigs and their disingenuous justifications, and they start telling local farmers in Bacchus Marsh that they might just be establishing a wee open cut coal mine on their property, thanks very much. And that is where they attract Stop HRL’s attention, and that is what sets the wheels leading to Monday’s action in motion.
So anyway, back to Monday. We drove for about 45 minutes, and arrived in Bacchus Marsh just as the sun was rising. I’m sure it was beautiful, though I think we were probably a bit nervous to notice. After a couple of wrong turns we found Mantle’s drill rig apparently unattended, just as we had hoped. After a quick scope out, Shaun climbed onto the rig and set up a banner reading ‘Back Off From Bacchus – No New Coal’ before securing himself to the rig via a set of thumb cuffs, and the rest of us set about phoning media outlets to follow up on the media release we had sent from Melbourne and inform them about what we were doing and why.
For a while, not much happened. I did an interview with ABC radio which I’ve been told went out nationally and during which I gave the quote appearing in this piece, we took a few photos (including the one above), Shaun got comfortable (after climbing down again not once but twice to go to the loo!), and then we waited.
At 8AM on the dot, a worker arrived at the drill site. We gave him friendly waves, but he didn’t leave his truck, instead getting straight on the phone to the police. As he was doing so, another worker appeared behind us. We hadn’t realized, but he had actually been there the entire time, asleep in a caravan twenty metres from the drill site. He was a young blonde guy guy in a baseball cap and singlet, with a red face and tattoos all over his arms. I smiled at him. ‘This is a peaceful protest’, I said, ‘it’s nothing against you personally’.
He was entirely confused. ‘I don’t give a fuck about your hippy bullshit peaceful protest, fuck off!’ he said aggressively. Then he saw Shaun on the rig, and really lost his cool. He started swearing and threatening Shaun, claiming he would climb up and kick him in ‘the fucking teeth’ if he didn’t climb down. We told him that Shaun was locked on and couldn’t be removed. “Yeah but we can still throw rocks at ya’ was his reply. We tried again to calm him down, saying that there was no point in him doing anything that would get him into trouble. Luckily, the other worker who had by then left his car was able to calm him down. He was a bit older than sleeve tattoo, and he told me that the police were on their way. I replied that was fine with us.
Soon after that, media began arriving. First was a fairly uncommunicative channel Seven camera man. Then an ABC reporter and camera man. Then the local news. After a while, the Nine news helicopter dropped by. Channel Ten arrived as well, a stunning blonde bombshell in high heels and dinner dress who ended up sitting on the grass with us and having a chat about life as a roving reporter.
To cut a long story short, the media reaction was brilliant. By the time the police Search and Rescue team climbed up the drill rig and cut Shaun down, the story had reached almost every major news outlet in the state, and many beyond. It was just what we needed to put the issue into peoples homes and into their minds. We even drew a comment from Premier Ted Baillieu, who seemed to distance himself from Mantle’s operations by making the point that Mantle had only received exploration, not mining permits.
But possibly the best reaction we received was from the Bacchus Marsh locals. One retiree named Russel dropped by after hearing about the action on the radio and pledged his support. In the few days since then he has letterboxed for us, and this has prompted a number of other locals to call us in support of Monday’s action, including one lovely 88-year-old lady named Alice.
In response, Mantle issued a press release reassuring its investors that test drilling was ‘progressing’, but nonetheless admitted that ‘activism’ may interfere with their activities.
Yes Mantle, it will. We will. And with the local Bacchus Marsh community dead against you expropriating their land and tearing up their farms for your profits, and even the local member of parliament coming out against the project, I have a good feeling that this time our ‘hippy bullshit peaceful protest’ is going to carry the day.