Sunday, October 18, 2009

Encroachment by mining has to be moderated

How come coal miners can establish in the middle of highly productive and closely settled farming communities on the Darling Downs? Coal mining at places such as the Felton Valley is contrary to the wishes of the resident community and against the best long term interests of the nation and the planet.

Friends of Felton have determined that there are more than 220 households located within 12 km of a proposed mine site. Potentially, all the occupants of these households would suffer mine-related externalities of some sort, without getting any compensation or offsetting benefits.

Clearly the market forces that currently allow miners to enter and establish in contravention of the greater good, are failing. Evidence of market failure is normally met by government intervention with the end result being regulations to correct the market failure. So why hasn’t there been any government intervention to protect the highly productive and closely settled communities of the Darling Downs and elsewhere? The blame on this occasion rests squarely with state governments as they control mining approval processes and issue the operating licenses. The fact that state governments also collect royalties from mining goes a long way towards explaining the root cause of their inaction.

So what should happen? Good governance demands urgent reform through some combination of the following.

1. Broad-scale land use planning that takes into account all relevant issues including history, demographics, existing development status, water, agricultural productivity and community aspirations. This reform would bring about balance between agriculture and mining and in the process give absolute protection to particular farming communities.

2. Vest the licensing of all new mines with a single national body, operating independently of any government department. Apart from severing the link between licensing and royalties, this reform would reduce duplication and make it possible for Australia to deliver a meaningful ETS.

3. Require the impact assessment process to include quantification of key performance indicators applying to affected precincts (such as household density, productive capacity of the ecosystem and qualities of the natural environment). Beyond some aggregate score, the site’s ‘performance’ would cause the mining proposal to be rejected outright and progression to mitigation strategies would not be attempted.

Making the EIS process more objective and subject to the possibility of outright failure would go a long way towards increasing public confidence in the assessment process.

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