Adani beware: coal is on the road to becoming completely uninsurable



Insurers have to protect themselves against foreseeable risks. For insurers of fossil fuel projects, those risks are growing.
Shutterstock

John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

The announcement by Suncorp that it will no longer insure new thermal coal projects, along with a similar announcement by QBE Insurance a few months earlier, brings Australia into line with Europe where most major insurers have broken with coal.

US firms have been a little slower to move, but Chubb announced a divestment policy in July, and Liberty has confirmed it will not insure Australia’s Adani project.

Other big firms such as America’s AIG are coming under increasing pressure.

Even more than divestment of coal shares by banks and managed funds, the withdrawal of insurance has the potential to make coal mining and coal-fired power generation businesses unsustainable.

As the chairman and founder of Adani Group, Gautam Adani, has shown in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, a sufficiently rich developer can use its own resources to finance a coal mine that banks won’t touch.




Read more:
Echoes of 2008: Could climate change spark a global financial crisis?


But without insurance, mines can’t operate.

(Adani claims to have insurers for the Carmichael project, but has declined to reveal their names.)

Why are insurers abandoning coal?

By the nature of their business, insurers cannot afford to indulge the denialist fantasies still popular in some sectors of industry. Damage caused by climate disasters is one of their biggest expenses, and insurers are fully aware that that damage is set to rise over time.

Even so, a sufficiently hard-headed company might choose to work both sides of the street – continuing to do business with fossil fuel companies, while also writing more expensive insurance against climate damage.

The bigger problem insurers face is the risk of litigation holding fossil fuel companies responsible for climate-related damage. For the moment, this is a potential rather than an immediate risk.

As US insurer AIG, yet to announce a divestment policy, has observed:

Based on our monitoring, while the overall volume of litigation activity has increased, past litigation seems to have largely been unsuccessful on numerous grounds including difficulties in determining and attributing fault and liability to a particular company, and the judiciary’s deference to the political branches of government on questions relating to climate change.

Recent development suggest these difficulties will be overcome.

It’s becoming easier to finger climate culprits…

Until recently, the most immediate problem facing potential litigants has been demonstrating that an event was the result of climate change as opposed to something else, such as random fluctuations in climatic conditions.

Scientific progress on this “extreme event attribution problem” has been rapid.

It is now possible to say with confidence that climate change is causing an increase in both the frequency and intensity of extreme weather and weather-related events such as extreme heatwaves, drought, heavy rains, tropical storms and bushfires.

The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society has highlighted three extremes in 2016 that would not have occurred if not for the added influence of climate change:

  • a persistent area of unusually warm water that lingered off the Alaskan coast, causing reduced marine productivity and other ecological disruptions

  • the extreme heatwave that happened in Asia, killing hundreds and destroying crops

  • the overall global atmospheric heat record set that year.

…and to allocate liability

The second line of defence against climate litigation that has held so far is the difficulty of imputing damage to the companies that burn fossil fuels.

While it is true that all weather events have multiple causes, in many circumstances climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels has been a necessary condition for those events to take place.

Courts routinely use arguments about necessary conditions to determine liability.

For example, a spark from a power line might cause a bushfire on a hot, dry, windy day, but would be harmless on a wet cold day. That can be enough to establish liability on the part of the company that operates the power line.

These issues are playing out in California, where devastating fires in 2017 caused damage estimated at US$30 billion and drove the biggest of the power companies, PG&E, into bankruptcy.

As a result there has been pressure to loosen liability laws, leaving the cost of future disasters to be borne by Californians in general, and their insurers.

Lawyers will be looking for someone to sue.

Adani is a convenient target

The question facing potential litigants is whether any single company contributes enough to climate change to make it meaningfully liable for particular disaster.

Adani’s Carmichael mine provides a convenient example.

Adani says the 10 million tonnes of coal it plans to mine will produce only 240,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, but this is semantic trickery. The firm is referring only to so-called “scope 2” emissions associated with the mining process itself.

When the coal is burned it might produce an extra 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, amounting to about 0.05% of global emissions.

A 0.1% share of the damage associated with the California fires is US$15 million, enough to be worth suing for. Other similarly sized mines will face similar potential liabilities.

Once a precedent is established, any company in the business of producing or burning fossil fuels on a large scale can expect to be named in a regular stream of suits seeking substantial damages.

When governments are successfully sued…

The remaining line of defence for companies responsible for emissions is the history of courts in attributing climate change to decisions by governments rather than corporations.

In the Netherlands, a citizen action group called Urgenda has won a case against the Dutch government arguing it has breached its legal duty of care by not taking appropriate steps to significantly restrain greenhouse gas emissions and prevent damage from climate change.

The government is appealing, but it has lost every legal round so far. Sooner or later, this kind of litigation will be successful. Then, governments will look for another party that can be sued instead of them.

…they’ll look for someone else to blame

Insurance companies are an easy target with deep pockets. Despite its hopeful talk quoted above, AIG would find it very difficult to avoid paying up if Californian courts found the firms it insured liable for their contributions to a climate-related wildfires or floods.

This is not a message coal-friendly governments in the US or Australia want to hear.

But the decision of Suncorp to dump coal, just a couple of months after the re-election of the Morrison government, makes it clear that businesses with a time horizon measured in decades cannot afford wishful thinking. They need to protect themselves against what they can see coming.




Read more:
Explaining Adani: why would a billionaire persist with a mine that will probably lose money?


The Conversation


John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

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

Can Scott Morrison deliver on climate change in Tuvalu – or is his Pacific ‘step up’ doomed?



Pacific leaders don’t want to talk about China’s rising influence – they want Scott Morrison to make a firm commitment to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Tess Newton Cain, The University of Queensland

This week’s Pacific Islands Forum comes at an important time in the overall trajectory of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s very personal commitment to an Australian “stepping up” in the Pacific.

To paraphrase the PM, you have to show up to step up. And after skipping last year’s Pacific Islands Forum, Morrison has certainly been doing a fair amount of showing up around the region, with visits to Vanuatu and Fiji at the beginning of the year and the Solomon Islands immediately after his election victory.

Add to this his recent hosting of the new PNG prime minister, James Marape, and it is clear there has been significant energy devoted to establishing personal relationships with some of the leaders he will sit down with this week.

An ‘existential threat’ to the region

Regional politics and diplomacy in the Pacific are not for the faint of heart. It’s clear from the tone of recent statements by Foreign Minister Marise Payne and the minister for international development and the Pacific, Alex Hawke, that there is some disquiet ahead of the Tuvalu get-together.

And with good reason. For some time, the leaders of the region have been becoming increasingly vocal about the lack of meaningful action from Canberra when it comes to climate change mitigation.




Read more:
Yes, Morrison ‘showed up’ in the Pacific, but what did he actually achieve?


Most recently, ten of the Pacifc Islands Development Forum (PIDF) members signed the Nadi Bay Declaration, which advocated a complete move away from coal production and specifically criticised using “Kyoto carryover credits” as a means of achieving Paris targets on reducing emissions.

While this body does not have the regional clout of the Pacific Islands Forum, its membership includes key players, notably Fiji, Tuvalu, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, whose leaders have all spoken out strongly on the need for stronger action on climate change.

In a speech last month, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama urged his fellow Pacific leaders to withstand any attempts to water down commitments on climate challenge in the region and globally.

Bainimarama’s warning: ‘Our region remains on the front line of humanity’s greatest challenges’

Bainimarama is attending this year’s Pacific Islands Forum for the first time since 2007, and has already made his presence felt. Earlier this week, he urged Australia to transition as quickly as possible from coal to renewable energy sources, because the Pacific faces

an existential threat that you don’t face and challenges we expect your governments and people to more fully appreciate.

Losing credibility on its ‘step up’

Given the state of Australia’s domestic politics when it comes to making climate change action more of a priority, it is hard to see how Morrison can deliver what the “Pacific family” is asking for.

The recent announcement of A$500 million to help Pacific nations invest in renewable energy and fund climate resilience programs is sure to be welcomed by Pacific leaders. As is the pledge for A$16m to help tackle marine plastic pollution.

But none of this money is new money – it’s being redirected from the aid budget. And it does not answer the call of Pacific leaders for Australia to do better when it comes to cutting emissions.

An aerial view of Funafuti, the most populous of Tuvalu’s country’s nine atolls.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Why does this matter? Because it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the inability – or refusal – to be part of the team when it comes to climate change is undermining Australia’s entire “Pacific step-up”.

If Morrison, and the Australian leadership more broadly, want to reassure Pacific leaders that Australia’s increased attention on the region is not just all about trying to counter Chinese influence, this is where the rubber hits the road.

This is not about whether China is doing better when it comes to climate change mitigation than Australia. The Pacific has greater expectations of Australia, not least because Australian leaders have been at pains to tell the region, and the world, that this is where they live – that Pacific islanders are their “family”.

And for Pacific islanders, if you are family, then there are obligations. This week, as has been the case previously, Pacific leaders will make clear that addressing climate change is their top priority, not geopolitical anxieties over China’s increasing role in the region.




Read more:
Everything but China is on the table during PNG prime minister’s visit


There is little doubt that Australia’s “Pacific step-up” is driven by concerns about the rising influence of China. But Morrison knows better than to voice concerns of that type – at least in public – while in Tuvalu.

Numerous Pacific leaders have made it clear that as far as they are concerned, partnerships with Beijing (for those that have them) provide for greater opportunity and choice.

While they welcome renewed ties with traditional partners like Australia and New Zealand, they maintain a “friends to all and enemies to none” approach to foreign policy. That is unlikely to change any time soon.

Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga has warned Australia that its Pacific ‘step up’ could be undermined by a refusal to act on climate change.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Will Tuvalu prove a turning point?

Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga may well be hoping that when Morrison sees for himself how climate change is affecting his country, he will be so moved personally, he will shift Australia’s stance politically.

Indeed, on arrival in the capital of Funafuti this week, leaders are being met by children sitting in pools of seawater singing a specially written song “Save Tuvalu, Save the World”.

So what can Morrison realistically be expected to achieve during the summit? He will be able to demonstrate Australia’s commitment to other issues that are important to regional security, such as transnational and organised crime and illegal fishing.

He can also hope the personal relationships he has cultivated with Pacific leaders deliver returns by way of compromise around the wording of the final communique, if only to avoid a diplomatic stoush.

But if there is no real commitment to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, he will leave plenty of frustration behind when he returns to Australia.The Conversation

Tess Newton Cain, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Political Science & International Studies, The University of Queensland

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

Australia Institute analysis adds to Pacific pile-on over Morrison’s climate policy


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

An analysis from The Australia Institute accuses Scott Morrison of planning to exploit a “pollution loophole” equivalent to about eight years of fossil-fuel emissions from the rest of the Pacific and New Zealand.

The “loophole” is using Kyoto credits to help the government meet its emissions reduction target.

The progressive think tank issued its salvo ahead of the Pacific Island Forum in Tuvalu, which Morrison is attending and starts today.

Anxious to sandbag the Australian government against criticism over its climate policy from island countries, for which the climate change issue is major, Morrison has announced Australia is redirecting $500 million of the aid budget over five years to go to “investing for the Pacific’s renewable energy and its climate change and disaster resilience”.

But Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga quickly said the money should not be a substitute for action.

“No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse not to do the right thing,” he said on Tuesday.

“Cutting down your emissions, including not opening your coal mines, that is the thing we want to see,” he said.

Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said this week: “I appeal to Australia to do everything possible to achieve a rapid transition from coal to energy sources that do not contribute to climate change”.

Morrison said on Tuesday: “Australia’s going to meet its 2030 Paris commitments. Australia’s going to smash its 2020 commitments when it comes to meeting our emissions reduction targets. So Australia meets its commitments, and we will always meet our commitments. And that is a point that I’ll be making again when I meet with Pacific leaders.”

Morrison confirmed before the election that Australia would use credits from overachieving on its Kyoto 2020 targets to meet its 2030 emissions reduction target.

The Australian Institute said: “If Australia uses this loophole, it would be the equivalent of about eight times larger than the annual fossil fuel emissions of its Pacific neighbours.”

Australia intends to use 367 Mt of carbon credits to avoid the majority of emission reductions pledged under its Paris Agreement target. Meanwhile the entire annual emissions from the Pacific Islands Forum members, excluding Australia, is only about 45 Mt.

The institute’s director for climate change and energy, Richie Merzian, said the government’s plan to use Kyoto credits was an insult to Pacific islanders.

“You can’t ‘step up’ in the Pacific while stepping back on climate action,” he said.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

With the LNP returned to power, is there anything left in Adani’s way?


Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

After months of “start” and “stop” Adani campaigning, the coalmine is poised to go ahead following the surprise success of the Coalition government at the federal election.

So is anything still stopping the coalmine from being built?

Australia has a federal system of government, but states own coal. This means the Queensland Labor government is responsible for issuing the Adani mining licence.

And there are suggestions pressure is mounting in the state Labor party for the final approvals to be passed.

Strategists have argued the state government must approve the Adani mine if they are to be re-elected next year. One of the reasons Labor lost votes in Queensland may have been because of perceived delays in the approval process by the Queensland Department of Environment and Science.




Read more:
View from The Hill: It’s the internal agitators who are bugging Scott Morrison on Adani


Now, Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has appointed her coordinator-general to oversee the remaining approvals. In a press conference, she said:

I think that the community is fed up with the processes, I know I’m fed up with the processes, I know my local members are fed up with the processes … We need some certainty and we need some timeframes — enough is enough.

But what has “delayed” the state government so far is its legal duty to make sure the coalmine has an effective plan to manage matters of environmental significance.

Before the election, the federal government already approved two controversial environmental plans – the groundwater management plan and the finch management plan. The only thing left now is for the Queensland Labor government to give its nod of approval.



Not ‘delay tactics’, but a legal duty

The federal government does not have jurisdiction over state resources unless the project impacts matters of national environmental significance.

And the Adani mine is one such project. The mine would remove the habitat of an endangered species and significantly impact vital underground water resources.

This means the project needed to be referred to the federal government.

The aim of this referral was to make sure the environmental assessment process would sufficiently prevent or reduce irreparable damage to the environment.




Read more:
Traditional owners still stand in Adani’s way


Generally, in a bilateral arrangement, the federal government authorises the state to conduct an environmental assessment. And this is the framework that has informed the Adani project from the outset.

This is our rule of law, and one that’s in the public interest.

So any suggestion the Queensland government engaged in “delay tactics” when they were carrying out these critical legal responsibilities is inaccurate and misconceives the fundamental legal responsibilities that underlie this process.

There are two more approvals left

There are two outstanding approvals required for the environmental conditions to be satisfied: the black-throated finch environmental management plan and the groundwater environmental management plan.

The habitat of the endangered black-throated finch must be protected.
Steve Dew, CC BY

Black-throated finch

The Queensland government rejected the black-throated finch management plan submitted by Adani last month. This was because the plan did not constitute a management plan at all.

If the finch’s habitat is destroyed by the coalmine, then it’s necessary to outline how this endangered species will be relocated, and how this relocation will be managed.

But the Adani management plan does not do this. Rather than setting up a conservation area for the finch, the Adani plan proposed establishing a cow paddock, which would destroy the grass seeds vital for the survival of the finch.

Clearly this plan does not comply with the environmental condition attached to its licence.




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


Groundwater management

The Queensland Department of Environment and Science is currently reviewing the groundwater management plan and have sought further advice from Geoscience Australia and CSIRO.

Adani must address how the mine will impact the threatened Doongmabulla Springs in the Great Artesian Basin. This involves creating a groundwater model capable of estimating how much groundwater levels will decrease when water is used to extract the coal.




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


This is important because the basin is a water supply for cattle stations, irrigation, livestock and domestic usage. It also provides vital water supplies to around 200 towns, which are entitled to draw between 100 and 500 million litres of water each year.

Any impact on the underground aquifers that feed into the Great Artesian Basin would not only be devastating for the environment, but also for all the communities that rely on its water resources.

The original groundwater model submitted by Adani was not “suitable to ensure the outcomes sought by the EPBC Act conditions are met”.

It’s unclear whether Adani’s resubmitted groundwater model still under-predicted the impact because the further submissions made by Adani have not been subjected to extensive review at the federal level.

Great care needs to be taken to ensure the expert advice from CSIRO and Geoscience is properly heeded.

The mine may cause the Doongmabulla Springs to cease flowing.
Lock the Gate Alliance/Flickr, CC BY

The Adani mine is an outlier in the global coal community

The approval of the Adani coalmine comes at a time when the global community is rapidly moving away from coal.

Germany, a pioneer of the mass deployment of wind and solar power generation, announced the phaseout of its 84 coalfired plants.

Britain has just had its first week without coal-fired electricity, and this new energy mix has rapidly become the “new normal”.




Read more:
How to transition from coal: 4 lessons for Australia from around the world


But the international coal market is variable. India’s consumption is expected to rise by the end of 2023, but their aim is to reduce coal imports. And China’s coal consumption is projected to fall almost 3%, largely due to the country’s ambitious clean energy plans. What’s more, coal is in decline in the United States and across Europe generally.

The global economy is de-carbonising. As global warming accelerates and cleaner energy options gain more traction, coal will inevitably decline even further.

A hasty post-election approval of the outstanding environmental plans for Adani coalmine would not only conflict with our domestic legal framework, but also the broader imperatives of the international community.The Conversation

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

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

Nothing but truthiness: Adani and Co’s post-truth push for the Carmichael mine


Benedetta Brevini, University of Sydney and Terry Woronov, University of Sydney

This article is part of an ongoing series from the Post-Truth Initiative, a Strategic Research Excellence Initiative at the University of Sydney. The series examines today’s post-truth problem in public discourse: the thriving economy of lies, bullshit and propaganda that threatens rational discourse and policy.

The project brings together scholars of media and communications, government and international relations, physics, philosophy, linguistics and medicine, and is affiliated with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), the Sydney Environment Instituteand the Sydney Democracy Network.


“Post-truth”, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year, selected as a hallmark of the times in the US and UK. (Macquarie Dictionary chose “fake news” as its 2016 Word of the Year.)

Yet post-truth politics and “truthiness”, a term Stephen Colbert coined in 2005, are not solely British and American phenomena. “Truthiness” is rampant in Australia too. The debate about the proposed Adani Carmichael mine in central Queensland shows how truthiness has become part of Australian political discourse.

How can a coal mine be subject to a regime of “truthiness”? A decision to build a greenfield megamine would appear to come down to the facts, with the known harms weighed against the potential benefits. Yet we can identify three distinct traits in official discourses around the Adani mine that show truthiness at work.

Appeal to emotion and ‘gut feelings’

First, “truthiness” replaces a reliance on facts with appeals to emotion and a logic of “gut feelings”.

One of the champions of this form of logic is Tony Abbott. As prime minister, he faced criticism from environmentalists after opening a coal mine and declaring:

Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world.

Earlier in 2014, he had said that “it is our destiny in this country to bring affordable energy to the world”.

In addition to the feel-good narrative of coal as national saviour, politicians have argued that Australia’s coal will help the world solve environmental problems, rather than making them worse.

An excellent example of this reasoning comes again from the former prime minister on his visit to India in September 2014. There, echoing the Adani chief executive, Abbott argued that the Carmichael mine could improve Indian living standards and cut carbon emissions by providing “clean coal”.

Using this same emotional logic, the government later told parliament that opening the southern hemisphere’s largest coalmine would actually cut carbon pollution.

Create doubt about facts – or make them up

A second component of “truthiness” is the practice of deliberately presenting empirical facts as debatable, uncertain or political – or simply lying. The best examples of lying are the claims of the mine’s benefits to Queensland and Australia.

Most common are references to the number of jobs the Carmichael mine will provide to the Queensland economy, where the employment situation is portrayed as desperate.

For instance, Queensland federal MP Michelle Landry claimed:

The Adani Carmichael coalmine offers up to 10,000 new jobs, mainly in Queensland; A$20 billion of investment in Australia; and power, to build the living standards of 100 million people in India.

In fact, Jerome Fahrer, who prepared an economic assessment of the Carmichael mine for Adani, admitted in court that it will create an average of 1,464 direct and indirect jobs over the life of the project. Yet virtually every mine supporter has since 2014 repeated an incorrect figure of 10,000 new jobs. They include the prime minister, the attorney-general and federal and state Liberal and National Party MPs.

Another prominent tactic used to cast unwanted facts as debatable or doubtful is to generate oxymorons that promote contradictory messages.

Mining corporations in Australia – and globally – use the term “sustainable mining” to describe projects that provide jobs. Politicians have adopted this; Anthony Lynham, Queensland’s minister for natural resources and mines, declared:

This government strongly supports the sustainable development of the Galilee Basin for the jobs and economic development that it will provide for regional Queensland.

Perhaps the most pernicious oxymoron used by mine supporters is “clean coal”. To counter the claim that Galilee Basin coal is “clean”, The Australia Institute cites estimates by Adani and India’s Ministry of Coal that it “is only 10% above the average quality of domestic Indian thermal coal in terms of energy content”. This is because “the ash content of Carmichael coal is estimated to be 26% – more than double the average of 12% for Australian thermal coal”.

The institute also notes that transporting the coal inevitably creates extra pollution.

Smear without evidence

Third, to construct truthiness, statements that are not scientific, logical or fact-based have proliferated in the political debate about the Adani mine. Politicians have constantly reframed the term “activist” to connote an enemy of both the mine and the national interest. MPs have called members of green groups economic saboteurs, “vigilantes”, “terrorists” and “extremists”.

This narrative casts environmentalists not only as economic enemies of Australia, but opposition to the mine as a form of terrorism. In parliament, Queensland LNP MP George Christensen described legal action to stop the mine as “an act of ecoterrorism”. He continued:

Their lies, misinformation, slander and the frivolous legal action attacking a company for the sake of furthering an ideological cause can only be described as terrorism if you look at the criminal code.

The accusations of “eco-terrorism” and “sabotage” had no foundation in fact whatsoever. These claims were not linked to actual illegal activities by environmental groups opposed to the mine.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk summarised perhaps the most pernicious claim by mine proponents when she told parliament:

Queensland taxpayers will not be funding any infrastructure for this project. Stringent conditions will be enforced to safeguard landholders’ and traditional owners’ interests.

To keep Queensland taxpayers from funding the mine’s infrastructure, the burden will fall instead on Australian taxpayers via the Commonwealth government’s proposed $1 billion loan from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to Adani. This will fund rail lines from the mine to the coast.

Nor have the rights of the traditional owners of the mine site been respected or upheld. The state and federal governments and courts have denied all legal challenges from the Aboriginal people most affected by it.

The primary purpose of dissecting the arguments in favour of the Carmichael mine is to demonstrate the complexity of “truthiness” regimes. None of these discursive forms – gut feelings, spin and the politicisation of unwanted facts, or even outright lies – are enough on their own. Rather, these strategies overlap, intersect and reinforce each other.

The effect is to create an overarching “truthiness” regime that presents new megamines as desirable, inevitable and essential to maintain Australia’s national destiny. In response, a more complex and multi-pronged approach will be needed to convince the voting public that coal mining is not good for Australia, its economy, or the globe.


The ConversationYou can read other articles in the series here.

Benedetta Brevini, Senior Lecturer in Communication and Media, University of Sydney and Terry Woronov, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Sydney

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

How our research is helping clean up coal-mining pollution in a World Heritage-listed river



Image 20170329 1674 1tkl166
The Wollangambe River’s canyons are loved by adventurers.
Ben Green

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

The Wollangambe River in New South Wales is a unique gift of nature, flowing through the stunning Wollemi National Park, wilderness areas and the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains. It’s an adventure tourism hotspot, with thousands of people clambering through the river’s majestic canyons each year.

So it was with a sense of irony that bushwalkers noticed unnatural flow and discolouration in the river and suspected it was pollution. In 2012 they contacted Western Sydney University, which has since conducted ongoing investigations.

The pollution was traced back to the Clarence Colliery, owned by Centennial Coal. Our recent research confirms that this is one of the worst cases of coal mine pollution in Australia, and indeed the world.

For four years I and other researchers have been investigating the pollution and its impacts on the river. The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has verified our findings. In exciting news, the mine was in March issued a revised environmental licence, which we believe is the most stringent ever issued to an Australian coal mine.

This is appropriate given the conservation significance of the river and the current scale of the pollution. We are now hopeful that the pollution of the Wollangambe River may soon be stopped.

Water pollution damages the river and its ecology

The Clarence Colliery is an underground mine constructed in 1980. It is just a few kilometres from the boundary of the Blue Mountains National Park.

Clarence Colliery and Wollangambe River.
Ian Wright

Our research revealed that waste discharges from the mine cause a plume of water pollution at least 22km long, deep within the conservation area. The mine constantly discharges groundwater, which accumulates in underground mines. The water is contaminated through the mining process. The mine wastes contributed more than 90% of the flow in the upper reaches of the river.

The EPA regulates all aspects of the mining operation relating to pollution. This includes permission to discharge waste water to the Wollangambe River, provided that it is of a specified water quality.

Our research found that the wastes totally modified the water chemistry of the river. Salinity increased by more than ten times below the mine. Nickel and zinc were detected at levels that are dangerous to aquatic species.

We surveyed aquatic invertebrates, mostly insects, along the river and confirmed that the mine waste was devastating the river’s ecology. The abundance of invertebrates dropped by 90% and the number of species was 65% lower below the mine waste outfall than upstream and in tributary streams. Major ecological impacts were still detected 22km downstream.

We shared our early research findings with the NSW EPA in 2014. The authority called for public submissions and launched an investigation using government scientists from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. Their study confirmed our findings.

Progress was interrupted when tonnes of sediment from the mine were dislodged in 2015 after heavy rainfall and the miner and the EPA focused on cleaning the sediment from the river. This incident has resulted in the EPA launching a prosecution in the NSW Land and Environment Court.

We recently compared the nature and scale of pollution from this mine with other coal mine pollution studies. The comparison confirms that this is one of the most damaging cases of coal mine water pollution in Australia, or internationally.

Even 22km below the waste outfall, the Wollangambe is still heavily polluted and its ecosystems are still degraded. One of the unique factors is that this mine is located in an otherwise near-pristine area of very high conservation value.

New licence to cut pollution

The new EPA licence was issued March 1, 2017. It imposes very tight limits on an extensive suite of pollutant concentrations that the mine is permitted to discharge to the Wollangambe River.

The licence covers two of the most dangerous pollutants in the river: nickel and zinc. Nickel was not included in the former licence.

The new licence now includes a sampling point on the river where it flows into the World Heritage area, about 1km downstream from the mine. The licence specifies vastly lower concentrations of pollutants at this new sampling point.

For example, the permitted concentration of zinc has been reduced from 1,500 micrograms per litre in the waste discharge, in the old licence, to 8 micrograms per litre.

It can be demoralising to witness growing pollution that is damaging the ecosystems with which we share our planet. This case study promises something different.

The actions of the EPA in issuing a new licence to the mine provide hope that the river might have a happy ending to this sad case study. The new licence comes into effect on June 5, 2017.

The ConversationOur current data suggest that water quality in the river is already improving. We dream that improved water quality, following this licence, will trigger a profoundly important ecological recovery. Now we just have to wait and see whether the mine can improve its waste treatment to meet the new standards.

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

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

Australia’s climate bomb: the senselessness of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine



Image 20170412 25901 1dwfgjv

AAP/Lukas Coch

David Holmes, Monash University

Veteran environmental campaigner and former Greens senator Bob Brown has previously pointed to Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine as the new Franklin River of environmental protest in Australia. Yet the future of this “climate bomb” hangs in the balance. The Conversation

The ongoing contest over the mine’s approval is about to get very heated. Some of the final decisions are to be made very soon.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared that native title claims would not impede the approval process, and that Adani would press ahead with its plans to seek A$1 billion in funding for the rail line needed to transport coal to Abbot Point for export.

The consequences of going ahead with the mine are almost incalculable. This is not simply because of the emissions it will produce, but from the fact it promotes and normalises the insanity that coal can still be “good for humanity”.

Here’s my list of the ten most-absurd things about the Adani mine.

1) As the largest coal mine in the Australia when completed, Adani will legitimise the idea of mining all of the coal in the Galilee Basin. If extracted and burnt, this will get the world one-third of the way toward 2℃ of global warming.

The Adani mine alone will see up to 2.3 billion tonnes of coal extracted from an area five times the size of Sydney Harbour over 60 years. This is equivalent to putting out 7.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases. The global budget is now less than 500 billion tonnes in order to have an 80% chance of keeping global average temperature rise to less than 2℃.

2) The mine lies adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. The heaviest risk to the reef’s future is a continued increase in greenhouse gases.

You couldn’t invent a greater insult to the beloved reef than begin mining operations that amount to an affront to those who have begun to mourn for its imminent death.

3) After years of bashing renewables as unviable without government subsidy, contemplating a $1 billion subsidy to the mine by the Turnbull government is quite perverse.

Fossil-fuel companies already receive $2,000 in rebates and subsidies for every $1 they donate to Australia’s major political parties. So, this additional subsidy makes a mockery of any serious attempt to tackle climate change.

4) With climate-change-induced extreme weather events exacting billions of dollars of damage across Australia, and especially in Queensland, the idea that public money would be used to increase these damage bills by injecting even more energy into the world’s climate system by accelerating greenhouse gas emissions is absurd.

Cyclone Debbie – a category-four cyclone – actually impacted on the areas of the mine itself, and delivered more peak rainfall than Cyclone Yasi, which was a category-five cyclone only six years ago. Since 2006, insurers have paid more than $6.8 billion in cyclone- and flood-related claims in Queensland alone. Debbie is expected to add another $1 billion.

5) That the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund could be used to subsidise the mine is in contempt of any claim to responsible climate – and financial – policy. That such a fund could be so directly controlled by so few people and have such enormous impact on greenhouse concentrations is a travesty.

6) The argument that the royalties from the mine would benefit Australia are not supported by the recent revelations that Adani has set up an elaborate network of subsidiaries and trusts which are ultimately owned and controlled from the tax haven of the Cayman Islands.

7) That the Queensland Labor government could buy into a jobs campaign around the mine when renewable technologies can carry the promise of even more jobs, and without risk to the Great Barrier Reef that is threatened by the dredging associated with the mine, and therefore is a danger to the tourism industry, is outrageous.

Adani’s own consultants have suggested the mine would produce fewer than 1,500 full-time jobs. This amounts to a public subsidy of $683,000 per job.

8) Adani’s argument that somehow the mine will be lifting Indians out of poverty is a PR disguise for a company that has been accused of blatant human rights abuses.

This argument, invented by the now-failed Peabody Energy and most famously popularised by Bjorn Lomborg, has also been a favourite of Coalition MPs. This argument is thoroughly patronising – not simply because India itself has declared renewables to be more important than coal, but because it is the oppressive legacy of colonialism that under-developed third-world countries in the first place.

9) The desperate plea by Resources Minister Matt Canavan, mounted in the face of a greater lunacy, that the coal Adani would export is “clean coal” that would actually cut emissions, has been dismissed by analysts at the International Energy Agency.

10) To commit to a mine that it supposed to run for 60 years as the price of coal continues to be devalued in the face of investment moving to renewables is business suicide.

It does not even take account of what the world’s climate will be like in 35 years. With the equator in a permanent heatwave and so much more storm-feeding energy in the system, coal won’t just be the new tobacco. It will become the grim reaper we see in our rear-view mirror.


With thanks to Tahnee Burgess for research assistance on this article.

David Holmes, Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies, Monash University

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