Coal mining, civil disobedience and the public good


Commentators were outraged by activist Jonathan Moylan's fake media release that caused disruption to the stock market last week. But there was little concern about the the impact of coal mining on people's health and the climate, the issue that prompted what was called his act of civil disobedience. 

Decades ago, industry and government were slow to listen to the message of activists about the dangers of asbestos, and we are now paying the price. The effect of coal mining on the health of local communities is probably far less significant, but nevertheless overseas evidence suggests it could be serious and far-reaching. 

The Beyond Zero Emissions 2012 study Health and Social Harms of Coal Mining in Local Communities points to evidence of elevated mortality rates in Appalachian coal mining areas in the US. The authors stress the need to research the health effects of coal mining in the Hunter Valley and other regions. But instead governments appear to be granting mining licences indiscriminately and offering favourable treatment to the coal industry.

The study cites offshore evidence of excess deaths from lung cancer and chronic heart, respiratory and kidney disease related to living near coal mines. Its authors detail major expansion that is underway or planned in our coal mining industry, but point out that there is a 'glaring absence of local evidence to determine what impacts these projects will have on the health of surrounding communities'.

It seems governments do not want to know about the long-term health impacts of coal mining. Coal mining's short-term economic benefit is more attractive politically, and there is also strong lobbying from industry groups and others. Rod Campbell of the public interest advocacy group Economists at Large suggests government actions go beyond cavalier and are more underhand. 

The Maules Creek community on whose behalf Moylan was acting approached Campbell's group to help make sense of the 2000 page environmental impact statement that was delivered just days before Christmas with only weeks to respond. He writes: 'Our assessment of the review is scathing. Gillespie Economics has overlooked the foreign ownership of the project and presented profits to overseas interests as benefits to the NSW community.'

Moylan did the wrong thing in undermining public confidence in the share trading system, which in turn underpins the stability of our economy. His actions were fraudulent and supporting them would amount to affirming anarchy and rejecting the rule of law, even if governments and the coal industry don't appear to be acting with integrity and in the public interest.

He was, as he told the ABC, only making 'the announcement that ANZ should have made, that it wasn't going to be investing unethically' in Whitehaven's Maules Creek Coal Project. 

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Jonathan Moylan, ANZ, Whitehaven, coal, mining



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Existing comments

When the democratic processes are corrupt and elected governments fail to serve the needs of those who have elected them, people of conscience are provoked to act. We have little tradition of civil disobedience in this country but the actions of Jonathan Moylan can be seen as part of that tradition. While they may be illegal they can be defended.
Doug Hewitt | 14 January 2013

"It seems governments do not want to know about the long-term health impacts of coal mining" - especially the impact on climate change. See George Monbiot's comments re Aust coal mining: I was thinking a lot about this recently when I saw the South Qld coal trains passing through Wynnum on the way to the Port of Brisbane. Up to 20 trains in 24 hours (right through the night), each train with 42 carriages of uncovered coal...causing dust problems for local residents ...and CC problems for the whole world
John Wotherspoon | 14 January 2013

I don't agree that Jonathan did the wrong thing. I think his action was inspired and necessary. Confidence in the share market system must be pretty poor if an unverified media release, not published by the ASX, can undermine it. But the larger point is that desperate times call for desperate measures. If you don't think global warming is an emergency, then you're not paying attention. We are on track for 4 degrees + increase by the end of this century. In case anyone is in any doubt, there is no adaptation to a 4 degree warmer world. We are talking about massive species extinction, sea level rises of at least 1m (and still going up at an accelerating rate), enormous volatility in the weather system, etc. The threat this causes to the 'share trading system' will so dwarf what Moylan did we will wonder why everyone wasn't with him. It is also worth noting that he, his friends and the local farming community have already tried every legal avenue, and some 'conventional' civil disobedience, to try to have their concerns heard in vain. The Australian on Saturday had an article noting he is a hero to the local community.
Justin Whelan | 14 January 2013

For goodness and truth's sake,messrs Wotherspoon and Whelan,be more questioning of alarmist journalist George Monbiot's assertions and other general scaremongering about rapid global warming. The latter is natural, gradual and very little to do with anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Read the writings of Australian professorial geologists, Bob Carter and Ian Plimer.
Gerard Tonks | 14 January 2013

I support civil disobedience in this case. The interests of material gain should never trump the interests of health of communities let alone the health of the environment.
graham patison | 15 January 2013

Although Moylan's actions were fraudulent, our current state Government is doing everything in its power to prevent the ordinary citizen from being able to prevent coal & other mining interests from damaging their health & environment. Farmers & the average Australian do not have access to the millions of dollars (often partly provided as subsidies or tax deductions to these mining companies) these companies can utilise to fight challenges in the courts to their proposed or current activities. The mining companies also have huge PR machines & lawyers who try to ensure reports that show the dangers of their activities do not receive mainstream media publicity or cast doubt on the science that shows the damage their activities foist on the populace & the environment.
Mary O'Byrne | 15 January 2013

I think the article lacks balance. It quotes from a study which looked at the Hunter and found no evidence on health issues related to mining there, although the report's commissioners are very anti coal and hardly dispassionate on this. Given that mining is not new to the Hunter, there’s a pretty good chance any health issue would have come to the fore if there were one. It refers to favourable treatment of coal miners. A quick look at the source of this (The Australia Institute) shows their key claimed subsidy to be fuel rebates. Treasury says they are not a subsidy and for good reason. I’ll take Treasury’s view on economics over TAI anytime. It also implies that governments and the coal industry are not acting with integrity or in the “public interest” – the latter being a fairly subjective point. They are big calls - and I don't see that Moylan necessarily represents public interest. After all this negativity, the article concedes that Moylan acted fraudulently and rejected the rule of law. He should be charged. On climate change, in time coal will phase out, but for the present it remains an integral part of world energy. Climate change is best addressed on a broad array of fronts – this includes the more efficient use of coal in terms of emissions.
Bill Frilay | 17 January 2013

Just say I happen to think that murdering Green activists is justified because of the danger they present to our society and way of life. I deeply believe that to be the case, for reasons I consider good. Would I be acclaimed for acting on those beliefs as "civil disobedience" because I think that Greens are going to burn down churches and ban Catholic schools should they gain power, or because I think that Lee Rhiannon would love to be Australia's Stalin? This is just another typical leftist cheersquad, who when presented with stupid and wrong conduct by one of their own, try to pretend it is not wrong at all, because one of their own did it.
Adrian | 18 January 2013

Gerard Tonks, oblivious to even the basics of science, refers us to the writings of Ian Plimer and Bob Carter.

That geologist Ian Plimer's writing on the issue of climate science is a confabulation is demonstrated by Ian Enting's exposé, "Ian Plimer's 'Heaven + Earth' — Checking the Claims" ( Far from being a rock-kicker, Enting is a fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematics and Statistics of Complex Systems.

Regarding the writings of Plimer's fellow geologist Bob Carter, Mr Tonk could learn from Uni Melb Climate Science Professor David Karoly, whose 24 June 2011 "Bob Carter’s climate counter-consensus is an alternate reality" ( clarifies the issue.
23 Apr 2009 ... Ian Plimer's 'Heaven + Earth' — Checking the Claims. Ian G. Enting. Version 2.2.

That said, I applaud Mr Tonks's right to set out his misunderstanding of reality provided he does so under his own name.
David Arthur | 18 January 2013

I enjoyed the article and its focus, am puzzled at the conclusion (or is it an assumption):'Moylan did the wrong thing in undermining public confidence in the share trading system, which in turn underpins the stability of our economy.' Surely if there is one thing that the dotcom boom and the GFC tell us it is to be (a) deeply sceptical of the share market, (b) wary of the role it plays in distorting the 'real' economy,and (c) critical of the competence and motivations of those who purport to regulate and commentate on it. (Or is that three things?) Perhaps Jonathan Moylan did a helpful thing both in his choice of target and his method.
Quentin Dignam | 18 January 2013

Who are the true prophets, exponents of the fossil fuel industry, or those who strive for a clean, green economy? Surely the latter!
When the effects of serious climate change really bite and, for example, increasing desertification of southern Australia causes extreme disasters like we have never known, Moylan's civil disobedience may be widely seen as well justified.

Australian media bias has given climate change deniers far too much oxygen.
I suggest readers read The Climate Institute 2012 Report 'Coming Ready or Not' to understand how ill-prepared this country is with current road and rail infrastructure etc and how heavily impacted we will be by extreme weather events that will inevitably follow.

Australia has an uncoordinated, piece-meal approach to preparing for the impacts of climate change. Serious climate change is coming 'ready or not'!

Climate change deniers and the media that have supported their false arguments, as well as politicians who have procrasinated on taking action to avert serious climate change, are the real villains of our society, not those who do acts of civil disobedience because 'The Law is an Ass!' Climate change is already killing over 150 000 people annually. Moylan is endeavouring to save lives! Are you?
George Allen | 25 January 2013


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