Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University; Adam Lucas, University of Wollongong; Craig Froome, The University of Queensland; Katherine Lake, University of Melbourne; Lynette Molyneaux, The University of Queensland, and Matthew Currell, RMIT University
Adani’s Carmichael coal mine yesterday received the green light from federal environment minister Greg Hunt for the second time.
In a media release Hunt said that the approval comes with 36 of the strictest environmental conditions imposed in Australia. Final approval is pending Adani’s submission of a groundwater strategy to the federal environment department.
The approval also includes a rail link from the mine to the Queensland coast as a “precautionary measure to provide investment certainty”.
Below, our experts respond.
Samantha Hepburn, Professor, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University
Federal Minister Greg Hunt has reapproved the Carmichael Coal Mine in the Galilee Basin, following the decision of the Federal Court in August to set it aside.
The statement of reasons sets out that potential impact such a mine might have on the integrity of the coral reef systems in the Great Barrier Reef cannot be proven given the distance between the mine and the reef. Some heed is given to water impacts and endangered species.
All advice from the independent scientific committee is to be implemented; conservation of threatened species is to be improved through the creation of a A$1 million research program and groundwater management and monitoring plans for water within the Doongmabulla Springs area are required.
In the statement the minister accounts for greenhouse gas emissions from building and running the mine, however concludes that accounting for emissions from burning the coal is “speculative”. It concludes that these emissions will be controlled under international regulations. Greenhouse gases were a significant aspect of the original Federal Court application by the Mackay Conservation Group.
In ignoring the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from burning the coal (presumably on the formalistic basis that consideration is an indirect rather than an explicit requirement under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act), the Federal Minister indicates his preparedness to completely disengage with global climate change imperatives. If we are to stay under 2℃ of warming, coal is an obsolete resource. The strategic issue for Australia (and the globe) is how to manage the termination of existing coal plants and accelerate the shift to lower carbon intensive energy sources.
Knowing what we do about the imperatives of climate change, approving a vast new coal plant on the eve of the Paris climate change talks, in complete disregard of its significant greenhouse gas implications, is unethical and, at a global level, indefensible.
Katherine Lake, Research Associate, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environmental Law, University of Melbourne
Minister Hunt’s reapproval of the Carmichael mine is not surprising, given the government’s record for supporting mining and resources projects in Australia.
While the mine itself is contentious on environmental and economic grounds, the Federal Court’s earlier decision was very narrow and did not consider the climate change consequences of the proposed mine, as requested by the Mackay Conservation Group. The outcome was procedural, in that it required the minister to reconsider the conservation advice for the Yakka Skink and the Ornamental Snake, which are both threatened species impacted by the Carmichael project.
This follows other legal precedents in Australia where the courts have overturned major projects based on procedural grounds, but the climate change impacts of major developments are yet to be considered by the Australian courts.
Adam Lucas, Senior Lecturer, Science & Technology Studies Program, University of Wollongong
Adani needs A$16 billion to construct a coal-dedicated rail line from the Galilee Basin to its expanded port facility at Abbott Point. Fourteen of the world’s leading financial institutions have so far refused to bankroll the project.
The company revealed its intentions to focus on domestic mining and renewable energy in an August earnings statement to investors, and reportedly has begun discussions with landowners in the Bowen Basin to build a large-scale solar plant there. Although Adani itself appears to be losing interest in Carmichael, the Federal Minister for the Environment seems determined to see the project go ahead, even though it is both economically unviable and environmentally irresponsible.
Lynette Molyneaux, Researcher, Energy Economics and Management Group, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland
International coal prices are declining, the Australian dollar is declining and Greg Hunt has given the environmental go-ahead for the Carmichael Mine. Gautam Adani might be smiling, along with his shareholders who must be hoping that the go-ahead for Carmichael might provide a boost to Adani Enterprises and Adani Power stock values, which are well off their highs. Languishing share prices have never been ideal for companies seeking to raise billions of dollars for risky, international projects with vocal opponents so there may still be a way to go before Adani and his shareholders are able to really smile about their opportunities in Australia.
Coal transported from the Galilee Basin to Abbott Point and then to India, is never going to be cheap, it’s just likely to be cheaper than originally expected. It certainly won’t translate into cheap electricity for India’s poor. India’s state electricity utilities are already subsidising electricity for the poor by charging rates that are below cost using very cheap Indian coal. Who will subsidise the additional cost required to fuel the power stations with more expensive Galilee Basin coal?
Craig Froome, Clean Energy Program Manager, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland
The Carmichael Mine project is again back on the table after receiving government consent, but one must question when or whether it will actually proceed. While Hunt has stated that it has been approved with the most stringent environmental requirements, is the market able to justify another coal mine?
Existing mines are reducing production and there have been announcements of job losses in many of the different mining sectors which would lead to the conclusion that the mine may be immediately mothballed.
We also have to consider that countries such as India, which would be the major destination for the coal, have come out publicly and stated that they intend to stop coal imports within three years. One would think that it would take at least this long for the mine to become operational.
While Australia still has considerable coal reserves and existing coal-fired power generators will not close before they are literally worn out (we only have to look at Hazelwood as an example), most countries that have relied on coal-driven electricity generation are seeking alternatives to meet increased demand, which in many cases is falling as energy efficiency measures kick in.
There is a future for the coal sector, but it is certainly not as rosy as it was, nor will it probably ever be again.
Matthew Currell, Lecturer in Hydrogeology, School of Environmental Engineering, RMIT University
The Carmichael mine, if constructed, is estimated to involve the extraction of approximately 12 gigalitres (billion litres) of groundwater. This is a very large amount of water – equivalent to about half of the yearly water extracted by two and a half thousand active coal seam gas wells in Queensland’s Surat and Bowen basins.
The mine does not have the consent of the traditional owners of the region, who have expressed deep concerns over the impact the mine would have on the landscape in the Wangan and Jagalingou country. In particular, the springs and streams that are fed by groundwater and support the ecological environments of the area are likely to be significantly affected.
The mine would cause large groundwater drawdowns, which would impact flows in the Carmichael river and in the Mellaluka Springs complex. The Doongmabulla Springs complex may also be affected; while the minister has imposed conditions of maximum allowable drawdown at these springs, the impacts are still uncertain and may not immediately manifest. Land subsidence is also expected to be significant – up to 5.5m over an area of nearly 8000 hectares.
Many of the groundwater modelling predictions about connections between shallow and deep aquifers, surface water features and the adjoining Great Artesian Basin are still uncertain. The minister’s approach of commissioning research to understand these issues would be a welcome step if it were to be conducted prior to the mine being given approval. However as in many recent cases, this sequence appears to be in the wrong order.
Samantha Hepburn, Professor, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University; Adam Lucas, Senior Lecturer, Science & Technology Studies Program, University of Wollongong, University of Wollongong; Craig Froome, Global Change Institute – Clean Energy Program Manager , The University of Queensland; Katherine Lake, Research Associate at the Centre for Resources, Energy and Environmental Law, University of Melbourne; Lynette Molyneaux, Researcher, Energy Economics and Management Group, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, and Matthew Currell, Lecturer in Hydrogeology, School of Environmental Engineering, RMIT University