Adani’s finch plan is approved, just weeks after being sent back to the drawing board


Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; Don Franklin, Charles Darwin University, and John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University

The Queensland government has ticked off a crucial environmental approval for Adani’s Carmichael coalmine, bringing the contentious project a step closer to becoming reality.

It has approved Adani’s proposed management plan for the endangered black-throated finch, less than a month after the state’s environment department announced a delay in approval because the plan was judged to be inadequate.




Read more:
Why Adani’s finch plan was rejected, and what comes next


Four days after the May 18 federal election, in which the mine’s future was a prominent issue, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk called for an end to the delays and uncertainty.

In a statement issued today, the government said it has now approved a “strengthened” version of the plan, submitted by Adani earlier this week.

Under the revised plan, Adani has now committed to:

  • “establish enhanced understanding” of the finch, with the help of “appropriate population studies”

  • implement “appropriate monitoring protocols” to track the finch’s population over time

  • restrict grazing in nearby areas.

The only remaining state environmental approval for the project now is Adani’s groundwater management plan, on which a decision is due by June 13.

Bad plan caused the delays

As members of the scientific panel that reviewed the finch management plan, we can understand the Premier’s frustration. There is no excuse for such a poor plan to have been put forward for approval when the company has been aware for almost a decade that the land it wants to mine is home to the largest known remaining population of the black-throated finch.

There has already been ample time to undertake the studies Adani has pledged to carry out in the future. Had it done so before now, it could have put its claims to be able to manage the finch’s extinction risk on a much more solid footing.

As it is, the plan we reviewed made biologically improbable assumptions about the finch, while ignoring what is known about the finch’s precipitous decline so far. Under the plan, people with the curious title of “fauna spotter-catchers” were to find finches and move them “to suitable habitat adjacent to the disturbance, if practical” before the habitat is destroyed.

It sounds impractical, and will in all likelihood prove to be so. If the adjacent habitat already has finches, it is likely to be “full” and so won’t be able to support mining refugees. If it lacks finches, there is probably a very good reason.

The finch has been observed only a handful of times in just a tiny proportion of the area purchased for conservation purposes near the mine site. The finch has had more than 10,000 years to occupy and breed in the proposed conservation area that is supposed to offset the impact of the mine. It hasn’t, and it probably won’t.

As far as can be determined by overlaying the available maps, the proposed conservation area has a different geology and soil type. Adani has categorically failed to provide robust scientific evidence to demonstrate that the conservation reserve will adequately offset the loss of the finches and the habitat in the mined area. It has had more than 10 years to conduct the science to provide the evidence.



Meanwhile, before the existing habitat is mined, the plan had talked about grazing being used to control bushfire fuel loads and reduce the abundance of a weed called buffel grass. Yet grazing is thought to be the main reason the finches have disappeared from most of their once vast range – they once occurred from the Atherton tablelands to northern New South Wales.

The new plan is said to “restrict grazing” but no details are yet available. Under the original plan, the cattle would have got fat on the buffel grass pastures just as they did in all the places where the finch once lived.

Rigorous research

What must really frustrate the Queensland Premier is the contrast between Adani’s efforts with the black-throated finch and the much more rigorous work done by mining companies who find themselves in similar situations. Rio Tinto, for example, is currently funding high-quality research on two other birds, the palm cockatoo and red goshawk, ahead of its planned expansion of bauxite operations on Cape York Peninsula.

Vista Gold, meanwhile, funded research on stress levels in Gouldian finches long before mining was planned to begin at its Mt Todd goldmine in the Northern Territory.

In criticising Adani’s plan, we are not criticising mining. Like all Australians, we use the products of mining every day. We enjoy a high standard of living that is delivered partly by royalties from mining. We also understand that miners (and politicians) in Queensland want to see jobs created.

Most mining companies, however, provide jobs while willingly abiding by national and state legislation. They compromise where necessary to minimise environmental harm. And crucially, they commission research to demonstrate how they can mitigate damage well before that damage occurs, rather than when their operations are already underway.




Read more:
Does ‘offsetting’ work to make up for habitat lost to mining?


In contrast, the so-called research and monitoring that went into Adani’s finch plan seems only to conclude that more research is needed. After nine years, Adani did not even know the population size of the finch, how it moves around the landscape, or even what it eats.

Given the time available, this bird could (and should) have been among the best-studied in Australia. The management plan could then have been based on robust evidence that would show how best to safeguard the finch population.

Now the research and monitoring is a hurried add-on with no proof that the threat posed to the finch can actually be solved and an extinction averted. Given the high stakes involved, Australians might reasonably have expected something altogether more rigorous.The Conversation

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Don Franklin, Adjunct Research Fellow, Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why Adani’s finch plan was rejected, and what comes next



The black-throated finch is on the verge of extinction.
Brian McCauley/flickr, CC BY-NC

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University and April Reside, The University of Queensland

Adani’s plan to manage an endangered finch was rejected last week by the Queensland government, stalling progress on the Carmichael mine.

The mine would cover much of the best remaining habitat for the endangered black-throated finch. The Queensland government required Adani to commit to gathering more accurate finch population data, limit the cattle grazing in the finch conservation area and determine food availability throughout the year, before they could approve the plan.

The rejection is one of two outstanding environmental approvals required before Adani can commence work on the mine. The second is the plan to manage groundwater-dependent ecosystems, which the Queensland government has yet to come to a decision on.




Read more:
Unpacking the flaws in Adani’s water management plan


The federal government has been reported as “already approving” the finch plan. But legally, the Queensland government must determine whether the plan complies with the conditions of the environmental authority and, under the bilateral framework, the federal government must give due regard to this assessment.

What’s wrong with Adani’s plan?

Last Friday Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science decided not to approve Adani’s black-throated finch management plan because it does not fulfil certain basic requirements.

The decision is based on a detailed report from an independent expert panel.

The black-throated finch is on the verge of extinction, one of 238 threatened Australian birds.

The black-throated finch is experiencing habitat loss and degradation.
Steve Dew/flickr, CC BY



Read more:
For the first time we’ve looked at every threatened bird in Australia side-by-side


The greatest threat to the black-throated finch is habitat loss: it has disappeared from over 80% of its original range. Strong protection, and careful management, of its remaining habitat is crucial.

The finch, once found across north-eastern Australia, is now largely found on Moray Downs and surrounding properties, north-west of Clermont in central Queensland. A core part of the habitat is within the 28,000 hectare (ha) footprint of the Carmichael mine, where there are far more black finches than elsewhere due to the intact woodlands and a history of minimal livestock grazing.

It is expected the mines will disturb 50,977 ha of black-throated finch habitat, and that 34,156 ha will be completely cleared.

A total of 87 square kilometres of habitat will be destroyed through the creation of open pits, and a further 61 square kilometres may be degraded beyond repair due to the influence of underground mining on groundwater.

After habitat loss, the second greatest threat to the finch is cattle grazing, which destroys the grass seeds they need to survive. Yet Adani’s management plan for the black-throated finch involved grazing cattle on areas that are supposed to be devoted to conservation of the finch.

Instead of establishing a finch conservation reserve, the Adani plan proposed what was in effect a paddock. Providing a species management plan that effectively conserves finch habitat is a core condition of Adani’s mining licence.

State vs federal priorities

The Queensland government’s rejection of the plan brings into stark focus some of the problems with the existing environmental assessment framework.

The Adani plan includes cattle grazing, despite the threat to finch habitats.
Shutterstock

The environmental authority for the mining licence was approved by the Federal government. The environmental management plan for the finch did not, however, address core impact concerns. And yet this is the very reason that the plan was required from the outset. The inadequacies of the plan only became apparent because of the oversight of the Queensland government.

The federal government has not been proactive despite’s its mandate under our National environment act – the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation act. In fact, a recent analysis found the federal government has approved hundreds of projects to clear black-throated finch habitat over the last 18 years.




Read more:
Death by 775 cuts: how conservation law is failing the black-throated finch


There are clearly differences in priorities regarding the environment between a federal Liberal and a state Labor government. However, environmental assessment can only be effective if is not undermined by political agendas, and is grounded in scientific rigour and scrutiny.

A one-stop shop

At the federal level, any project likely to have a “significant impact” on a matter protected by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act must be referred to the federal environment minister.

If the minister decides the project impacts a matter of national environmental significance, he or she will then determine how to assess that project at the national level. Legislated options include: an environmental impact statement, a public environment report and public inquiry.

The federal government has entered into bilateral agreements with all state and territory governments. As a result, rather than the state and federal governments conducting separate assessment, the aim is to promote a single, focused environmental evaluation.

The Queensland government has entered into a bilateral assessment agreement with the Commonwealth government for Adani’s coal project, which effectively allows it to make an environmental assessment that the Commonwealth Minister will then take account of when deciding whether to grant approval.

This means that both the Queensland and the federal government are involved in the approval and assessment process environmental authorities and conditions, one of those being the management plan for the black-throated finch. In order to optimise outcomes they need to work together collaboratively.

Where to next?

The rejection means that Adani will now need to submit a new or revised plan that addresses the Queensland government’s concerns. In particular, Adani will need to limit cattle grazing in the conservation area, and gather more information regarding the availability of seed throughout the year.

This may take time but is critical, because in its current form, the plan does not meet the legal requirements for the Environmental Authority, which means that it cannot be approved at the state level.

Without state approval the Adani coal mine cannot proceed. The Queensland government has rigorously assessed Adani’s management plan by commissioning a report by an independent expert panel and then acting on the advice of this report.

This robust approach is crucial to the whole framework of environmental assessment. Genuine commitment to protecting endangered species and managing vital groundwater resources is vital if we want to reverse Australia’s dire trajectory of environmental decline.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University and April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.