LAUNCESTON, Australia (Reuters) - Can thousands of people standing in lines to spell out “Stop Adani” actually scupper the Indian company’s plans to develop a huge coal mine in the Australian outback?
Perhaps a more relevant question is whether the protesters are enough to make Australia’s federal and Queensland state politicians lose their nerve, and quietly withdraw support for what is the world’s largest new coal mine planned.
While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal Party, which holds federal power, and the Labor Party, which rules Queensland state, have maintained their backing for Adani Enterprises’ Carmichael mine so far, both have also previously backed down on political issues over possible electoral losses.
Thousands of people opposed to the $4 billion, 25 million tonnes-a-year Carmichael mine turned out at various locations across Australia on Oct. 7, attending events organized by an umbrella organization of groups opposed to the development.
While the presence of protesters isn’t enough itself to cause the federal and state governments to abandon Adani, there is an opinion poll showing a majority of Australians are against the mine. Also, media coverage has grown increasingly skeptical, if not hostile.
The state Australian Broadcasting Corp last week aired a program alleging Adani engaged in bribery, corruption and environmentally damaging practices in India. The program also reported that Adani has set up complex corporate structures in tax havens to minimize any potential tax payments in Australia.
Adani has dismissed the allegations and stated that the Carmichael project remains on track.
Adani Australia’s chief executive officer Jeyakumar Janakaraj, in an interview published on Oct. 5 in India’s Economic Times, said Adani’s corporate structure was above board and that work on the mine will start in a “couple of weeks.”
Janakaraj did acknowledge, however, that the company still has to secure A$4.2 billion ($3.3 billion) for the Carmichael mine and associated rail project, and that it intended to achieve this by March next year.
Part of the problem for Adani is that the company is seeking about A$900 million of this cash from Australia’s federal government to build the near 400 km (260 mile) rail line from the mine to a port on Queensland’s coast.
It’s this money that environmental activists are hoping to target by ramping up pressure on Prime Minister Turnbull, who holds power by a razor-thin majority in parliament.
If there is any realistic chance of seats in Queensland falling to the Labor Party, or even the Australian Greens, Turnbull will be tempted to reverse course on support for Adani.
Turnbull’s government has so far sought to distance itself from the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry in Queensland amid mounting public anger over high local natural gas prices and the idea that three export LNG plants in the state are to blame.
State governments, both Liberal and Labor, have also given into activists by banning or restricting natural gas exploration and production in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
That has the anti-Adani activists feeling they have the wind at their backs and their campaign against the Carmichael mine is gaining traction.
It doesn’t seem to matter to the activists that many of the claims against the mine are exaggerated, as long as the public believes it is the tipping point for man-made climate change and the destruction of Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef.
Carmichael’s 25 million tonnes of coal a year obviously won’t help mitigate climate change, but it’s a spit in the bucket when viewed against China’s annual consumption of around 3.5 billion tonnes and India’s demand of nearly 1 billion.
However, it seems that Adani is losing the public relations battle in Australia, and that increases the risk its political support will evaporate as well.
If the environmentalists do manage to halt Adani, the victory may well have implications beyond coal.
Any resource project could be targeted given environmentalists are generally opposed to any fossil fuel or mineral extraction, making it harder for Australia to expand or replenish the sector that is the nation’s major export earner.
Single-issue activists rarely consider the wider implications of their campaigns, but politicians are supposed to do just that. The potential costs of weak political decisions are mounting in Australia.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.
Editing by Tom Hogue