Once again the absurdity of building the world’s biggest new thermal coal mine was put in stark relief on Monday evening via an ABC Four Corners investigation, Digging into Adani.
Where the ABC broke new ground was in exposing the sheer breadth of corruption by this Indian energy conglomerate. And its power too. The TV crew was detained and questioned in an Indian hotel for five hours by police.
It has long been the subject of high controversy that the Australian government, via the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF)that is still contemplating a A$1 billion subsidy for Adani’s rail line, a proposal to freight the coal from the Galilee Basin to Adani’s port at Abbot Point on the Great Barrier Reef.
But more alarming still, and Four Corners touched on this, is that the federal government is also considering using taxpayer money to finance the mine itself, not just the railway.
No investors in sight
As private banks have walked away from the project, the only way Carmichael can get finance is with the government providing guarantees to a private banking syndicate, effectively putting taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars in project finance.
The prospect is met with the same incredulity in India as it is here in Australia:
FOUR CORNERS: “Watching on from Delhi, India’s former Environment Minister can’t believe what he is seeing.”
JAIRAM RAMESH: “Ultimately, it’s the sovereign decision of the Australian Government, the federal government and the state government.
FOUR CORNERS: “But public money is involved, and more than public money, natural resources are involved.
JAIRAM RAMESH: “I’m very, very surprised that the Australian government, uh, for whatever reason, uh, has uh, seen it fit, uh, to all along handhold Mr Adani.”
Here we have a project that does not stack up financially, and whose profits – should it make any – are destined for tax haven entities controlled privately by Adani family interests. Yet the Queensland government has shocked local farmers and environmentalists by gifting Adani extremely generous water rights, and royalties concessions to boot.
Why are Australian governments still in support?
The most plausible explanation is simply politics and political donations. There is no real-time disclosure of donations and it is relatively easy to disguise them, as there is no disclosure of the financial accounts of state and federal political parties either. Payments can be routed through opaque foundations, the various state organisations, and other vehicles.
Many Adani observers believe there must be money involved, so strident is the support for so unfeasible a project. The rich track record of Adani bribing officials in India, as detailed by Four Corners, certainly points that way. But there is little evidence of it.
In the absence of proof of any significant financial incentives however, the most compelling explanation is that neither of the major parties is prepared to be “wedged” on jobs, accused of being anti-business or anti-Queensand.
There are votes in Queensland’s north at stake. Furthermore, the fingerprints of Adani’s lobbyists are everywhere.
Adani lobbyist and Bill Shorten’s former chief of staff Cameron Milner helped run the re-election campaign of Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. This support, according to The Australian, has been given free of charge:
Mr Milner is volunteering with the ALP while keeping his day job as director and registered lobbyist at Next Level Strategic Services, which counts among its clients Indian miner Adani…
The former ALP state secretary held meetings in April and May with Ms Palaszczuk and her chief of staff David Barbagallo to negotiate a government royalties deal for Adani, after a cabinet factional revolt threatened the state’s largest mining project.
Adani therefore enjoys support and influence on both sides of politics. “Next Level Strategic Services co-director David Moore — an LNP stalwart who was Mr Newman’s chief of staff during his successful 2012 election campaign — is also expected to volunteer with the LNP campaign.”
So it is that Premier Palaszczuk persists with discredited claims that Carmichael will produce 10,000 jobs when Adani itself conceded in a court case two years ago the real jobs number would be but a fraction of that.
If the economics don’t stack up, why is Adani still pursuing the project?
The Adani group totes an enormous debt load, the seaborne thermal coal market is in structural decline as new solar capacity is now cheaper to build than new coal-fired power plants and the the government of India is committed to phasing out coal imports in the next three years.
Why flood the market with 60 million tonnes a year in new supply and further depress the price of one of this country’s key export commodities?
The answer to this question lies in the byzantine structure of the Adani companies themselves. Adani already owns the terminal at Abbot Point and it needs throughput to make it financially viable.
Both the financial structures behind the port and the proposed railway are ultimately controlled in tax havens: the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and Singapore. Even if Adani Mining and its related Indian entities upstream, Adani Enterprises and Adani Power, lose money on Carmichael, the Adani family would still benefit.
The port and rail facilities merely “clip the ticket” on the volume of coal which goes through them. The Adani family then still profits from the privately-controlled infrastructure, via tax havens, while shareholders on the Indian share market shoulder the likely losses from the project.
As the man who used to be India’s most powerful energy bureaucrat, E.A.S. Sharma, told the ABC: “My assessment is that by the time the Adani coal leaves the Australian coast the cost of it will be roughly about A$90 per tonne.
“We cannot afford that, it is so expensive.”
More questions than answers remain
This renders the whole project even more bizarre. Why would the government put Australian taxpayers on the hook for a project likely to lose billions of dollars when the only clear beneficiaries are the family of Indian billionaire Gautam Adani and his Caribbean tax havens.
My view is that this project is a white elephant and will not proceed. Given the commitment by our elected leaders however, it may be that some huge holes in the earth may still be dug before it falls apart.
John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Charles Darwin University; Leigh-Ann Woolley, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Australian National University; Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University
Cats kill more than a million birds every day across Australia, according to our new estimate – the first robust attempt to quantify the problem on a nationwide scale.
By combining data on the cat population, hunting rates and spatial distribution, we calculate that they kill 377 million birds a year. Rates are highest in Australia’s dry interior, suggesting that feral cats pose a serious and largely unseen threat to native bird species.
This has been a contentious issue for more than 100 years, since the spread of feral cats encompassed the entire Australian mainland. In 1906 the ornithologist A.J. Campbell noted that the arrival of feral cats in a location often immediately preceded the decline of many native bird species, and he campaigned vigorously for action:
Undoubtedly, if many of our highly interesting and beautiful birds, especially ground-loving species, are to be preserved from total extinction, we must as a bird-lovers’ union, at no distant date face squarely a wildcat destruction scheme.
His call produced little response, and there has been no successful and enduring reduction in cat numbers since. Nor, until now, has there been a concerted effort to find out exactly how many birds are being killed by cats.
Counting the cost
To provide a first national assessment of the toll taken by cats on Australian birds, we have compiled almost 100 studies detailing the diets of Australia’s feral cats. The results show that the average feral cat eats about two birds every five days.
We then combined these statistics with information about the population density of feral cats, to create a map of the estimated rates of birds killed by cats throughout Australia.
We conclude that, on average, feral cats in Australia’s largely natural landscapes kill 272 million birds per year. Bird-kill rates are highest in arid Australia (up to 330 birds per square km per year) and on islands, where rates can vary greatly depending on size.
We also estimate (albeit with fewer data) that feral cats in human-modified landscapes, such as the areas surrounding cities, kill a further 44 million birds each year. Pet cats, meanwhile, kill about 61 million birds per year.
Overall, this amounts to more than 377 million birds killed by cats per year in Australia – more than a million every day.
Which species are suffering?
In a related study, we also compiled records of the bird species being killed by cats in Australia. We found records of cats killing more than 330 native bird species – about half of all Australia’s resident bird species. In natural and remote landscapes, 99% of the cat-killed birds are native species. Our results also show that cats are known to kill 71 of Australia’s 117 threatened bird species.
Birds that feed or nest on the ground, live on islands, and are medium-sized (60-300g) are most likely to be killed by cats.
It is difficult to put a million-plus daily bird deaths in context without a reliable estimate of the total number of birds in Australia. But our coarse assessment from many published estimates of local bird density suggests that there are about 11 billion land birds in Australia,
suggesting that cats kill about 3-4% of Australia’s birds each year.
However, particular species are hit much harder than others, and the population viability of some species (such as quail-thrushes, button-quails and ground-feeding pigeons and doves) is likely to be especially threatened.
Our tally of bird deaths is comparable to similar estimates for other countries. Our figure is lower than a recent estimate for the United States, and slightly higher than in Canada. Overall, bird killings by cats seem to greatly outnumber those caused by humans.
In Australia, cats are likely to significantly increase the extinction risk faced by some bird species. In many locations, birds face a range of interacting threats, with cat abundance and hunting success shown to increase in fragmented bushland, in areas with high stocking rates, and in places with poorly managed fire regimes, so cat impacts compound these other threats.
Belling the cat
The threatened species strategy also prioritised efforts to control feral cats more intensively, eradicate them from islands with important biodiversity values, and to expand a national network of fenced areas that excludes feral cats and foxes.
But while fences can create important havens for many threatened mammals, they are much less effective for protecting birds. To save birds, cats will need to be controlled on a much broader scale.
We should also remember that this is not just a remote bush problem. Roughly half of Australia’s cats are pets, and they also take a considerable toll on wildlife.
While recognising the many benefits of pet ownership, we should also work to reduce the detrimental impacts. Fortunately, there is increasing public awareness of the benefits of not letting pet cats roam freely. With such measures, cat owners can help to look after the birds in their own backyards, and hence contribute to conserving Australia’s unique wildlife.
We acknowledge the contribution of Russell Palmer (WA Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions), Chris Dickman (University of Sydney), David Paton (University of Adelaide), Alex Nankivell (Nature Foundation SA Inc.), Mike Lawes (University of KwaZulu-Natal), and Glenn Edwards (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) to this article.
John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Senior Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Leigh-Ann Woolley, Research Associate, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Associate Professor, Australian National University; Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University