Environmental harm comes with the territory when developing or running fossil fuel projects.
region with toxic chemicals, including uranium, at twenty times the safe limit for drinking water. Governments in Australia and overseas are often considered to be too closely aligned with fossil fuel interests, in turn leading to several documented cases of murky collusion and outright corruption. Political donations are part of this picture.
In developing nations, it is common for villagers to be forced off their land for energy and extraction projects, with no compensation. When they are angry and courageous enough to protest, fatal shootings have occurred in such countries as Indonesia, China, Peru, and Burma.
Sometimes, however, somebody makes a stand. In the highlands of Peru, Máxima Acuña lives on the site of a fifty per cent Us-owned gold and copper mine, and is blocking its development by refusing to move. This stance won her the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize. At one point she had her house demolished, and has experienced a campaign of violence, harassment and intimidation at the hands of corporate security guards working hand-in-hand with the Peruvian police.
Very welcome recent news is that the International Criminal Court is adding a new category of crimes linked to environmental destruction, especially illegal exploitation of natural resources and unlawful dispossession of land.
In the extreme energy era, far greater swathes of the planet are now at risk than before, including large tracts of rural Australia. Many bush dwellers have deep-rooted connections with the land, and it takes a lot, namely the prospect of their home territory being trashed, to turn conservative voters into activists. Yet, this process has been underway for a while. Breaking the stereotype of the unemployed protestor, participants in fossil fuel protests are typically local people from all walks of life.
American author Naomi Klein’s groundbreaking book This Changes Everything promotes the challenging message that climate change is on a collision course with the economy, and brought the term ‘blockadia’ to a mass audience. Blockadia is defined as a ‘roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity’, with community members on one side and rapacious extractive industries on the other, frequently fossil fuel mining and its associated infrastructure.
Blockadia is no linguistic invention of Klein’s; the term had been coined a year earlier in connection with protests against the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas, necessary for bitumen from the Canadian tar sands to be transported to refineries in the US Gulf Coast area. Against all expectations, President Obama rejected the project in 2015, linking this stance to action on tackling climate change. Fuel from the tar sands has a lifecycle carbon intensity 23 percent higher than from regular crude.
Protest action often involves public meetings, marches, vigils, information sharing, legal challenges, and, if all else fails, non-violent civil disobedience. Protesters put themselves in harm’s way by locking onto equipment as a means of preventing it from being used, making themselves vulnerable to dangerous or aggressive treatment. It requires some courage, especially when suspended off the ground in a tree-sit or tripod.
At other times, a row of people block an entrance by linking clips attached to the wrist underneath metal arm tubes that can only be dismantled with an angle grinder. The experience of being locked on necessitates spending a lot of time doing nothing, perhaps providing plenty of time to reflect on why such lengths have needed to be taken. In May 2016, many coordinated direct actions and protests around the issue of climate change were held globally, involving at least 30,000 participants. Newcastle, the world’s largest coal export port, was targeted by about 1,500 activists, who blocked coal movements by sailing kayaks in the harbour and locking onto a bridge. Of these, a total of 66 people were arrested.
Close to Lismore, development of the coal seam gas (CSG) industry by gas driller Metgasco was halted in 2014 at the village of Bentley as a result of the strength of a blockade that ran for three months. Ready to be taken by surprise, community members were permanently locked onto the entrance night and day. Thousands of supporters arrived in the early hours of the morning to boost numbers when a surprise police raid was most likely. A plan to spend millions of dollars on using about 850 police to violently break the blockade turned into a logistical nightmare when local businesses declined to feed and accommodate them, and shortly afterwards gas
licences covering the NSW North Coast were revoked by the state government.
On the Liverpool Plains of NSW near Gunnedah, some of Australia’s richest agricultural land, the farming community has been in revolt against short-sighted plans for coal mines such as the ANZ bank-funded Maules Creek mine that opened in mid-2015. During construction, there were hundreds of arrests following lock-ons.
Prominent in the news has been the major protest in America, targeting the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline that is being constructed to transport fracked shale oil about 1,900 kilometres from North Dakota to Illinois. Members of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota have concerns about it being routed under the Missouri River that they depend on for water, given the track record of oil spills elsewhere. Since the start of the protest in April, 2016, numbers have swelled as non-indians and members of tribes from all over the States and beyond have arrived to stand in support.