Local communities need more reassurance about the legacy left by coal seam gas wells


Tom Measham, CSIRO and Cameron Huddlestone-Holmes, CSIRO

One of the key questions any industry must consider is: what is left behind when it is finished. For coal seam gas (CSG), this question is crucial, considering the thousands of CSG wells that have already been drilled, not to mention the many more that could potentially be drilled in the future.

While most CSG wells will not be decommissioned until the later stages of a project, some wells are decommissioned earlier as they are no longer used for activities such as exploration, monitoring or production. This provides an opportunity to ask the key question: what does successful decommissioning of CSG wells look like?




Read more:
How coal seam gas is changing the face of rural Queensland


Australia has around 6,000 CSG wells in active production, mostly in Queensland, and a growing number of decommissioned wells. Our new research looks at perspectives on decommissioning at different stages of the life cycle, including places where the industry is winding down (Camden, New South Wales), where it is continuing (Chinchilla, Queensland), and where future CSG development has been proposed but not yet approved (Narrabri, NSW).

We held a workshop in each of these places, bringing together between 8 and 16 people from state agencies, industry and local community in each location.

Workshop participants agreed strongly on several key principles: that decommissioned wells should never leak; that they should not impinge on future land uses; and that they should be barely noticeable.

Across all workshops, the majority of government and industry representatives expressed strong confidence in the code of practice for each state. When decommissioned correctly, they argued, old CSG wells would not cause legacy problems and would not require further action.

In contrast, a majority of local community participants tended to lack confidence in these codes of practice, and said that clear information about well decommissioning was hard to access or understand. As a result, they had markedly less confidence in the decommissioning process.

Improving trust

Our results suggest that clear, easily accessible information about CSG well decommissioning would help reduce this divergence of views. Publication of factsheets by government, outlining the regulatory processes, who is responsible, ownership questions and what would happen if there were a long-term problem, would help to improve confidence in the decommissioning process.

Another way to improve trust would be for industry to provide plain language summaries of well completion and decommissioning reports, with local stakeholders given details on when, how and where to access them.

The ultimate authority to decide whether decommissioning and rehabilitation have been properly completed lies with the state regulator. Both Queensland and NSW have similar regulations for decommissioning of CSG wells, drawing on international experiences and lessons from past practice.

Decommissioning involves rehabilitating the surface around the well pad, and plugging and abandoning the well. Abandonment involves preventing the flow of gas or fluid with cement plugs placed throughout the well.

Consultation with landholders is required in both jurisdictions. Landholders declare whether they are satisfied with rehabilitation works, and can also negotiate to retain infrastructure such as fences or concrete slabs, if that suits their future objectives.

Regulators in both states require companies to make a deposit that covers the full costs of decommissioning, as a way of protecting against companies defaulting on their obligations.

Monitoring was another important issue raised through the workshops. Because the confidence held by government and industry representatives in the codes of practice was so strong and informed by lessons from decades of practice overseas, monitoring has not been seen to be required so far for decommissioned wells, after all steps in the code of practice were completed.

But local community members disagreed, arguing that ongoing monitoring of decommissioned wells is crucial to detecting and addressing any potential future problems. Instigating a program to monitor decommissioned CSG wells, with publicly accessible results, would go a long way towards addressing the concerns raised by residents and increasing confidence in the industry more broadly.




Read more:
Not getting a social licence to operate can be a costly mistake, as coal seam gas firms have found


Different stakeholders in the CSG industry will not necessarily see eye-to-eye on all aspects of how the industry is managed. That’s why understanding their different perspectives is an important step towards providing reassurance about the legacy left by coal seam gas wells.

These steps could include monitoring abandoned CSG wells and improved mechanisms to deal with public enquiries, questions and complaints.The Conversation

Tom Measham, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO and Cameron Huddlestone-Holmes, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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AEMO’s new electricity plan is neither a death knell nor a shot in the arm for coal



File 20180717 44088 1f95sl5.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Wil Stewart/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Lucy Percival, Grattan Institute and Tony Wood, Grattan Institute

Beholders of the Australian Energy Market Operator’s (AEMO) Integrated System Plan (ISP) see different futures for coal-fired generation: it’s either on the way out; or it’s going to be needed for decades; or perhaps even new coal plants should be built.

The report does have important implications for the future of all electricity technologies, including coal. But none of these simplistic perspectives captures the full flavour of the plan.




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What is the plan?

The Integrated System Plan is a comprehensive, systems-engineering assessment. Its goal is to identify the lowest-cost combination of investments and decisions over the next 20 years, to support Australia’s energy transition to a low-emissions future.

The assessment uses an economic model of the system that includes maintaining reliability, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, closing existing plants when they reach the end of their technical life, and adopting lowest-cost replacement technologies.

AEMO considers two emissions reduction scenarios: the first is based on Australia’s current target under the Paris Agreement (a 26-28% reduction below 2005 level by 2030). The second adopts a target closer to that recommended by the Climate Change Authority and assessed by CSIRO as a fast change scenario (a 52% reduction by 2030).




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In both scenarios existing coal-fired power stations close, either on their planned closure date (for those where such a date has been announced), or once they are 50 years old. Around 14 gigawatts (GW) of a total 23GW of coal-fired generation capacity will retire by 2040. As these plants close, a mixture of gas-fired generation, renewable energy, and storage (particularly pumped hydro) is projected to be the lowest-cost way to replace them.

The ISP is not technology-prescriptive, but it doesn’t include new coal-fired generators.

It is hardly surprising that the ISP supports maintaining the existing coal-fired generation facilities up to the end of their technical lives, to minimise costs. Coal-fired power stations represent big up-front capital investments that then produce relatively cheap electricity. But, like all such plants, they become increasingly expensive to operate and unreliable as they age. Keeping them operating beyond their technical life will become more expensive than replacing them with new generation. The ISP is closely aligned with the reliability requirements of the Finkel Blueprint and the National Guarantee to ensure closure is carefully planned.




Read more:
The true cost of keeping the Liddell power plant open


Improving transmission

Unfortunately for new coal investment, what will be more valuable in the future is much greater flexibility to deal with changes in supply and demand. Coal-fired power stations, existing or new, make their best contribution when they operate at very high levels – that is, 80-90% of the time. Upgrading transmission lines between states, can raise the occupancy level and lower the cost of existing power stations.

The NEM needs to transform to support widely distributed renewable generation. Historically, electricity has been generated by centralised, large power stations. New generation is likely to involve a mix of small and large renewable assets over much larger areas. This mix of generation technologies will require investment in the transmission network.

The central recommendation of the ISP is a three-stage development of the transmission network to support the new world of distributed energy and storage. The immediate stage is focused on transmission upgrades to address bottlenecks and connect regional renewable energy plants.

The second phase (2020-30) continues this approach and extends to connecting strategic storage initiatives – Snowy Hydro 2.0 and the Tasmanian Battery of the Nation.




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The third stage (2030-40) further augments interstate transmission and included intrastate connections for renewable energy zones (REZ) located in regional Australia.

The ConversationThe ISP provides a hard-nosed engineering and cost assessment of what our energy system needs. It applies neither an accelerator nor a brake to the closure of existing coal-fired power stations. We need more of this approach and less ideology if we really want to see a lowest-cost, reliable and low-emissions future for Australia.

Lucy Percival, Associate, Grattan Institute and Tony Wood, Program Director, Energy, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New coal doesn’t stack up – just look at Queensland’s renewable energy numbers



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As the name suggests, Windy Hill near Cairns gets its fair share of power-generating weather.
Leonard Low/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Matthew Stocks, Australian National University and Andrew Blakers, Australian National University

As the federal government aims to ink a deal with the states on the National Energy Guarantee in August, it appears still to be negotiating within its own ranks. Federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg has reportedly told his partyroom colleagues that he would welcome a new coal-fired power plant, while his former colleague (and now Queensland Resources Council chief executive) Ian Macfarlane urged the government to consider offering industry incentives for so-called “clean coal”.

Last month, it emerged that One Nation had asked for a new coal-fired power plant in north Queensland in return for supporting the government’s business tax reforms.

Is all this pro-coal jockeying actually necessary for our energy or economic future? Our analysis suggests that renewable energy is a much better choice, in terms of both costs and jobs.




Read more:
Solar PV and wind are on track to replace all coal, oil and gas within two decades


Renewables and jobs

Virtually all new generation being constructed in Australia is solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind energy. New-build coal power is estimated to cost A$70-90 per megawatt-hour, increasing to more than A$140 per MWh with carbon capture and storage.

Solar PV and wind are now cheaper than new-build coal power plants, even without carbon capture and storage. Unsubsidised contracts for wind projects in Australia have recently been signed for less than A$55 per MWh, and PV electricity is being produced from very large-scale plants at A$30-50 per MWh around the world.

Worldwide, solar PV and wind generation now account for 60% of global net new power capacity, far exceeding the net rate of fossil fuel installation.

As the graph below shows, medium to large (at least 100 kilowatts) renewable energy projects have been growing strongly in Australia since 2017. Before that, there was a slowdown due to the policy uncertainty around the Renewable Energy Target, but wind and large scale solar are now being installed at record rates and are expected to grow further.

Left axis/block colours: renewable energy employment by generation type in Australia; right axis/dotted lines: installed wind and large-scale solar generation capacity.
ABS/Clean Energy Council/Clean Energy Regulator, Author provided

As the graph also shows, this has been accompanied by a rapid increase in employment in the renewables sector, with roughly 4,000 people employed constructing and operating wind and solar farms in 2016-17. In contrast, employment in biomass (largely sugar cane bagasse and ethanol) and hydro generation have been relatively static.

Although employment figures are higher during project construction than operation, high employment numbers will continue as long as the growth of renewable projects continues. As the chart below shows, a total of 6,400MW of new wind and solar projects are set to be completed by 2020.

Renewable energy projects expected to be delivered before 2020.
Clean Energy Regulator

The Queensland question

Australia’s newest coal-fired power plant was opened at Kogan Creek, Queensland in 2007. Many of the political voices calling for new coal have suggested that this investment should be made in Queensland. But what’s the real picture of energy development in that state?

There has been no new coal for more than a decade, but developers are queuing up to build renewable energy projects. Powerlink, which owns and maintains Queensland’s electricity network, reported in May that it has received 150 applications and enquiries to connect to the grid, totalling 30,000MW of prospective new generation – almost all of it for renewables. Its statement added:

A total of more than A$4.2 billion worth of projects are currently either under construction or financially committed, offering a combined employment injection of more than 3,500 construction jobs across regional Queensland and more than 2,000MW of power.

As the map below shows, 80% of these projects are in areas outside South East Queensland, meaning that the growth in renewable energy is set to offer a significant boost to regional employment.

Existing and under-construction (solid) and planned (white) wind and solar farms in Queensland.
Qld Dept of Resources, Mines & Energy

Tropical North Queensland, in particular, has plenty of sunshine and relatively little seasonal variation in its climate. While not as windy as South Australia, it has the advantage that it is generally windier at night than during the day, meaning that wind and solar energy would complement one another well.

Renewable energy projects that incorporate both solar and wind in the same precinct operate for a greater fraction of the time, thus reducing the relative transmission costs. This is improved still further by adding storage in the form of pumped hydro or batteries – as at the new renewables projects at Kidston and Kennedy.

Remember also that Queensland is linked to the other eastern states via the National Electricity Market (NEM). It makes sense to build wind farms across a range of climate zones from far north Queensland to South Australia because – to put it simply – the wider the coverage, the more likely it is that it will be windy somewhere on the grid at any given time.

This principle is reflected in our work on 100% renewable electricity for Australia. We used five years of climate data to determine the optimal location for wind and solar plants, so as to reliably meet the NEM’s total electricity demand. We found that the most cost-effective solution required building about 10 gigawatts (GW) of new wind and PV in far north Queensland, connected to the south with a high-voltage cable.

Jobs and growth

This kind of investment in northern Queensland has the potential to create thousands of jobs in the coming decades. An SKM report commissioned by the Clean Energy Council estimated that each 100MW of new renewable energy would create 96 direct local jobs, 285 state jobs, and 475 national jobs during the construction phase. During operation those figures would be 9 local jobs, 14 state jobs and 32 national jobs per 100MW of generation.

Spreading 10GW of construction over 20 years at 500MW per year would therefore deliver 480 ongoing local construction jobs and 900 ongoing local operation jobs once all are built, and total national direct employment of 2,400 and 3,200 in construction and operations, respectively.

But the job opportunities would not stop there. New grid infrastructure will also be needed, for transmission line upgrades and investments in storage such as batteries or pumped hydro. The new electricity infrastructure could also tempt energy-hungry industries to head north in search of cheaper operating costs.




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The government is right to fund energy storage: a 100% renewable grid is within reach


One political party with a strong regional focus, Katter’s Australia Party, understands this. Bob Katter’s seat of Kennedy contains two large renewable energy projects. In late 2017, he and the federal shadow infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese took a tour of renewables projects across far north Queensland’s “triangle of power”.

The ConversationKatter, never one to hold back, asked “how could any government conceive of the stupidity like another baseload coal-fired power station in North Queensland?” Judging by the numbers, it’s a very good question.

Matthew Stocks, Research Fellow, ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, Australian National University and Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: how do we make hydrogen from coal, and is it really a clean fuel?


Jessica Allen, University of Newcastle

Energy giant AGL this week unveiled plans to produce hydrogen power at its Loy Yang A coal station. But how do we transform coal, which is often thought of as simply made of carbon, into hydrogen – a completely different element?

In fact, coal is not just made of carbon. It also contains other elements, one of which is hydrogen. But to get a lot of hydrogen, the coal needs to be “gasified” rather than burned, creating compounds that can then be reacted with water to make hydrogen. This is where the majority of hydrogen comes from in this case – not from the coal itself.




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What is coal made of?

In simple terms, coal is a mixture of two components: carbon-based matter (the decayed remains of prehistoric vegetation) and mineral matter (which comes from the ground from which the coal is dug). The carbon-based matter is composed of five main elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur.

You can think of coal’s formation process as a progression from biomass (newly dead plant matter) to charcoal (almost pure carbon). Over time, the oxygen and some hydrogen are gradually removed, leaving more and more carbon behind.

Brown coal thus contains slightly more hydrogen than black coal, although the biggest difference between the two is in their carbon and oxygen contents.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/HUgdy/2/

What is gasification?

We can understand gasification by first understanding combustion. Combustion, or burning, is the complete oxidation of a fuel such as coal, a process that produces heat and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide itself cannot be further oxidised, and thus is the non-combustible end product of the burning process.

In gasification, however, the coal is not completely oxidised. Instead, the coal is reacted with a compound called a gasification agent. Gasification is endothermic, which means it doesn’t produce heat. Quite the opposite, in fact – it needs heat input to progress. Because the resulting gas is not fully oxidised, that means it can itself be burned as a fuel.

So how do we make hydrogen?

Now we know the key concepts, let’s start again at the start. To produce hydrogen from coal, the process begins with partial oxidation, which means some air is added to the coal, which generates carbon dioxide gas through traditional combustion. Not enough is added, though, to completely burn the coal – only enough to make some heat for the gasification reaction. The partial oxidation also makes its own gasification agent, carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide reacts with the rest of the carbon in the coal to form carbon monoxide (this is the endothermic gasification reaction, which needs heat input). No hydrogen yet.

Carbon monoxide in the gas stream is now further reacted with steam, generating hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Now we are making some hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be run through an on-site fuel cell to generate high-efficiency electricity, although the plan at Loy Yang A is to pressurise the hydrogen and ship it off to Japan for their Olympic showcase.

Making hydrogen from coal.
J. Allen

Brown coals are generally preferred for gasification over black coals for several reasons, which makes the brown coal of Victoria’s Latrobe Valley a good prospect for this process.

The main reason is that, because of the high oxygen content of this type of coal, it is less chemically stable and therefore easier to break apart during the gasification reaction. Plus there is a small boost from the hydrogen that is already present in the coal.

Hydrogen produced in this way is not a zero-emission fuel. Carbon dioxide is emitted through the combustion and thermal decomposition reactions, and is also a product of the reaction between carbon monoxide and water to make hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

So why bother making hydrogen?

When hydrogen is used as a fuel, it releases only water as a byproduct. This makes it a zero-emission clean fuel, at least at the point of use.

Producing hydrogen from coal in a large, central facility means pollution control can be put in place. Particulates, and potentially carbon dioxide, can be removed from the gas stream very efficiently.

This is not possible on a small scale, such as hanging off the back of your car. Road transport currently emits dangerous levels of pollutants in our cities every day.




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Gasification processes that use hydrogen fuel cells on site can substantially increase their efficiency compared with traditional coal-fired power. However, depending on the end-use of the hydrogen, and subsequent transport processes, you might be better off in terms of energy output, or efficiency (and therefore carbon emissions), just straight-up burning the coal to make electricity.

But by using gasification of coal to make hydrogen, we can start building much-needed infrastructure and developing consumer markets (that is, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) for a truly clean future fuel.

The ConversationI predict that hydrogen power will be zero-emission one day. It can be made in a variety of ways through pure water splitting (including electrolysis, or through solar thermochemical and photoelectrochemical technologies, to name a few). It’s not there yet in terms of price or practicality, but it is certainly on its way. Boosting development of the hydrogen economy through production from coal in the meantime is, in my book, not a terrible idea overall.

Jessica Allen, Researcher and Lecturer in Low and Zero Emission Energy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Nationals should support carbon farming, not coal


Andrew Hopkins, Australian National University

National Party MP George Christensen has invited other Nationals to join the recently formed pro-coal “Monash Forum”. But is coal in the best interests of their rural constituents, particularly farmers?




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The pro-coal ‘Monash Forum’ may do little but blacken the name of a revered Australian


Farmers stand to lose from any weakening of the government’s climate change policies. That is why farmers and their political representatives should be concerned about a current review of the government’s greenhouse gas reduction policy.

What is at stake here is the strange-sounding idea of carbon farming. To explain this idea takes several steps, so bear with me.

The policy under review is a legacy of the Abbott era. As prime minister, Tony Abbott abolished the carbon tax and replaced it with an Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF). The ERF was to be used to pay businesses to reduce their carbon emissions, or to capture and sequester (store) carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.




Read more:
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As it turns out, most of the funding has gone to rural enterprises that have developed various farming projects that qualify for funding – hence the term, carbon farming.

For example, these projects include:

  • regenerating native forest on previously cleared land
  • changed farming practices to allow for crop stubble retention
  • capturing and destroying the methane from effluent waste at piggeries.

How does carbon farming work?

To make it all work, the government first created the system of Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs). This system commodifies the outputs of carbon farming, so these can be traded.

In this system, a carbon farmer must show either a reduction in emissions, or carbon sequestration (or ideally both), according to clearly specified criteria. The government will then issue (free of charge) one credit for every tonne of carbon dioxide (CO₂) – or CO₂ equivalent – abated in this way. Farmers can then sell these credits, thus receiving a direct financial return for their efforts.

The primary buyer of ACCUs at the moment is the government, via its Emissions Reduction Fund. Farmers (individually or as collectives) who want to embark on carbon farming projects are asked to nominate a price they would need to make it profitable for them to go ahead with the project. Through a reverse auction, the fund selects the lowest-price proposals.




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In this way, the government gets the greatest carbon abatement for the least money. Successful bidders embark on their projects knowing that they have a guaranteed price for their carbon abatement outcomes. There is nothing magical or mystical about it. It is simply the price at which the buyer and sellers of carbon credits find it mutually advantageous to do business.

The average price paid at the last auction round was A$12 per tonne of CO₂ abated. This is the current carbon price in this particular market.

The Safeguard Mechanism

A second potential set of buyers of carbon credits was created by the Safeguard Mechanism, introduced by the Abbott government. This caps emissions from big industrial emitters in order to to ensure that abatement achieved by the ERF is not offset or cancelled out.

The cap is set at whatever the maximum emission rate from the emitter has been. So it is not designed to reduce emissions from these big emitters, but simply to hold them to current levels.

The scheme covers just over 150 facilities, which are responsible for about half of Australia’s emissions. Emitters that go over their limit can remain in compliance by buying enough carbon credits to compensate for their “excess” emissions and surrendering these to government.




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Australia’s biggest emitters opt to ‘wait and see’ over Emissions Reduction Fund


This policy is now beginning to bite. The government has just announced that in the first period for which the policy has been in effect, some 16 large emitters were in excess and had to buy 448,000 carbon credits to remain in compliance. Among the biggest buyers were:

  • Anglo Coal’s Capcoal mining operations
  • Glencore’s Tahmoor Coal
  • Rio Tinto’s Alcan Gove aluminium operations
  • BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Coal/BM Alliance.

These companies bought their credits from carbon farmers who abated more carbon then they had calculated, and so had a surplus left over for sale.

But what is most interesting is the price that excess emitters were willing to pay for the surplus credits. Most of the sales were in the region of $14-15 per tonne (T), but the price rose to $17-18/T as the deadline approached.

This means that the price spiked at 50% higher than the most recent ERF auction price of $12/T.

Commentators describe this as a secondary market, and the price in this market is exciting news for carbon farmers. According to Australian Carbon Market Institute CEO Peter Castellas, “Australia now has a functioning carbon market.” Carbon farmers – who make up an increasing proportion of the Nationals’ constituency – will do well if this market expands.

One way to develop the market would be to slowly lower the caps on big emitters so they must either buy more carbon credits or find ways to reduce their own emissions.

From this point of view, there is good reason to progressively and predictably reduce the emissions allowed under the Safeguard Mechanism.

The current review

Here’s where we get to the current review. As already noted, the Safeguard Mechanism does not seek to reduce emissions from big emitters. In fact, it allows for an increase in emissions to accommodate business growth. Nevertheless, big emitters are still unhappy.

The government’s review is a response to business concerns. An initial consultation paper has proposed making it easier to raise the cap on a company’s emissions as its activity grows.




Read more:
An Emissions Reduction Fund could work, if well designed


If the rules are altered in this way, the demand for carbon credits may stall, and even decline, bringing to an end to this promising new source of revenue for farmers.

That is why members of parliament with rural constituencies should take note. Rural MPs should not sit by and allow the government to respond to the interests of the coal industry and other lobby groups.

The ConversationCarbon farming depends on reducing the caps under the Safeguard Mechanism, not raising them. This would also be a step in the direction of achieving the emissions reduction target to which Australia agreed at the Paris meetings in 2015.

Andrew Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Latest twist in the Adani saga reveals shortcomings in environmental approvals



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Adani faces court over allegations of concealing the amount of coal water released in Caley Valley Wetlands last year.
Ian Sutton/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

It was reported this week that the federal Environment Department declined to prosecute Adani for failing to disclose that its Australian chief executive, Jeyakumar Janakaraj, was formerly the director of operations at a Zambian copper mine when it discharged toxic pollutants into a major river. Under the federal Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act, Adani is required to reveal the environmental history of its chief executive officers, and the federal report found Adani “may have been negligent”.

The revelations come as Adani faces down the Queensland government in the planning and environment court, over allegations the company concealed the full amount of coal-laden water discharged into the fragile Caley Valley Wetlands last year.

These concerns highlight some fundamental problems with the existing regulatory framework surrounding the long term utility and effectiveness of environmental conditions in upholding environmental protections for land impacted by mining projects.

How effective are environmental conditions?

In 2016, the federal government granted Adani a 60-year mining licence, as well as unlimited access to groundwater for that period.

These licences were contingent on Adani creating an environmental management plan, monitoring the ongoing impact of its mining activities on the environment, and actively minimising environmental degradation.

But are these safeguards working?

In 2015 Advocacy group Environmental Justice Australia reported several non-compliance issues with the Abbott Point Storm Water Dam, such as pest monitoring, weed eradication, establishing a register of flammable liquids, and implementation of the water monitoring plan.

More recently, in late 2017, significant amounts of black coal water were discovered in the fragile Caley Valley Wetlands next to the mine. Adani stands accused of withholding the full extent of the spill, redacting a laboratory report showing higher levels of contamination.

Adani seems to have released coalwater into the wetland despite it being a condition of its environmental approval that it takes sufficient care to avoid contamination. Its A$12,000 penalty for non-compliance is relatively small compared with the company’s operating costs.

In this instance, the environmental conditions have provided no substantive protection or utility. They have simply functioned as a convenient fig leaf for both Adani and the government.

Who is responsible for monitoring Adani?

Adani’s proposed mine falls under both state and federal legislation. Queensland’s Environmental Protection Act requires the holder of a mining lease to plan and conduct activities on site to prevent any potential or actual release of a hazardous contaminant.

Furthermore, the relevant environmental authority must make sure that hazardous spills are cleaned up as quickly as possible.

But as a project of “national environmental significance” (given its potential impact on water resources, threatened species, ecological communities, migratory species, world heritage areas and national heritage places), the mine also comes under the federal Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Federal legislation obliges Adani to create an environmental management plan outlining exactly how it plans to promote environmental protection, and to manage and rehabilitate all areas affected by the mine.

Consequently, assessment of the environmental impact of the mine was conducted under a bilateral agreement between the both the federal and state regulatory frameworks. This means that the project has approval under both state and federal frameworks.

The aim is to reinforce environmental protection however in many instances there are significant problems with a lack of clear delineation with respect to management, monitoring and enforcement.

Does the system work?

Theoretically, these interlocking frameworks should work together to provide reinforced protection for the environment. The legislation operates on the core assumption that imposing environmental conditions minimises the environmental degradation from mining. However, the bilateral arrangement can often mean that the responsibility for monitoring matters of national environmental significance devolves to the state and the environmental conditions imposed at this level are ineffectively monitored and enforced and there is no public accountability.

Arguably, some environmental conditions hide deeper monitoring and enforcement problems and in so doing, actually exacerbate environmental impacts.

For example, it has been alleged that Adani altered a laboratory report while appealing its fine for the contamination of the Caley Valley Wetlands, with the original document reportedly showing much higher levels of contamination. The allowable level of coal water in the wetlands was 100 milligrams. The original report indicated that Adani may have released up to 834 milligrams. This was subsequently modified in a follow-up report and the matter is currently under investigation.

If established, this amounts to a disturbing breach with potentially devastating impacts. It highlights not only the failure of the environmental condition to incentivise behavioural change, but also a fundamental failure in oversight and management.

If environmental conditions are not supported by sufficient monitoring processes and sanctions, they have little effect.

Environmental conditions are imposed with the aim of managing the risk of environmental degradation by mining projects. However, their enforcement is too often mired by inadequate andopaque enforcement and oversight procedures, a lack of transparency and insufficient public accountability  

The ConversationWhile the Queensland Labor government considers whether to increase the regulatory pressures on Adani, by subjecting them to further EPBC Act triggers such as the water resource trigger or the implementation of a new climate change trigger, perhaps the more fundamental question is whether these changes will ultimately improve environmental protection in the absence of stronger transparency and accountability and more robust management and enforcement processes for environmental conditions attached to mining projects.

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.