The eyes of even the most hardened court observers glazed over as the seemingly endless mess of legal procedures dragged on. It wasn’t just unremarkable, it was outright dull – obscuring the profound struggle set to unfold.

Monday  was day one of a court case in the Brisbane Magistrates Court in which a group of landowners are taking Xstrata, one of the world’s biggest mining giants, to court over the impacts of the proposed Wandoan coal mine on farmland and groundwater. But the case isn’t only about the local impacts. Friends of the Earth are also objecting to the Wandoan approval on the grounds that the climate change impacts of burning the coal from this one mine alone will undo the entire emissions reduction efforts of the Federal Government’s carbon tax legislation.

The Wandoan mine is big. Really big.  The initial approval is for 30 million tonnes of coal per year, with some speculation that it could grow to be up to 100 million tonnes per year. To put this into perspective, the largest coal mine in Australia currently produces around 20 million tonnes of coal each year.

To coincide with the start of the Wandoan case, Australia’s coal magnates were gathered just down the road in Brisbane’s Sofitel Hotel for a two day conference on how to grow the industry faster. Bigger, faster, more. More more more…faster. Bigger too.

Wandoan is just one of several ‘mega-mines’ proposed in Queensland and NSW that are threatening an unprecedented coal boom that will make the mining boom of the last decade look like a Sunday school picnic. Off the back of Wandoan, there is the proposal by the Indian based Adani group for a 60 Million tonne per year mine near Alpha in the Galilee basin, as well as Clive Palmer’s proposed 40 Million tonne per year “China First” mine in the same area.

In response to the unfettered expansion, the industry’s social license is increasingly under question. Landowners are starting to lock the gate to mining companies and are refusing access to their land for exploration. Economists are starting to question the real benefits of the mining boom, as the high Australian dollar drives other industries like tourism, education and manufacturing to the wall. A lack of Government regulation is leading farmers and environmentalists to increasingly turn to the courts to try to reign in an industry that is out of control.

The Wandoan legal challenge is but one salvo in an intensifying battle between the coal industry and the rest of the Australian community. At stake is the future of much of Australia’s best farming land and ultimately the global climate system upon which our lives depend.

As I walked out of the court room, a man approached me and asked “are you a journalist?” I replied that I was just an interested observer and asked his interest in the case. He said he did public relations for Xstrata. As we rode the lift down together from the 8th floor, I told him that I hoped they lost. “Fair enough” he said.  Fair enough indeed. The mining giants have been winning for far too long.

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