New Zealand has more than 1,100 registered quarries. Some of these mined sites are small, rural operations, but a significant number are large and complex, and within a city’s urban boundaries.
As part of the resource consent application for a mining project, quarry operators are usually issued with a quarry management plan, which outlines what needs to happen to the landscape once mining has finished.
Most local government bodies require quarry operators to do little more than smooth the altered landscape, redistribute topsoil across these slopes, plant some new vegetation, and manage any onsite waterways to prevent surface erosion.
But restoring the ecology of an extracted site isn’t enough any more.
My research at the Horokiwi Quarry in Wellington explores how design-led remediation projects can restore the ecology of a mined landscape as well as creating new public landscapes that can be used for recreation.
Quarry management plans currently pay attention to returning the topography of a mined site to a “natural” condition during the remediation. Quarries and mines extract material from the earth, and by necessity alter the surface dramatically.
Often a large amount of material has to be removed first to access the desired aggregate material or rare mineral. Once remediation begins, this material is spread across the site to create a natural appearance, suitable for revegetation. The landscape is smoothed over, pits filled in, and topsoil distributed.
Likewise, the revegetation strategy remains relatively simple. Most remediation projects rely on spraying a seed-fertiliser-mulch mix over these freshly contoured slopes. In difficult conditions, this is often paired with manual planting to establish cover for pioneer species.
These strategies typically use regionally specific plants, ideally sourcing the seed stock from the area to help establish a robust and appropriate ecology.
These processes are all used to restore a site back to a “natural character”, but what this means is left undefined. The Resource Management Act (RMA), under which mining resource consent applications have to be made, says miners have:
…a duty to avoid, remedy or mitigate any adverse effect on the environment arising from an activity.
While the RMA does not define this natural character condition that is to be preserved or restored, it provides some guidance in the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement.
Here, natural character is determined to be underpinned by natural processes, elements and patterns. But as some planners and designers have made clear, this is still an unclear position.
The place where we are is the place where nature is not.
Most remedial works are successful from a biological point of view, leading to full or partial restoration of ecological processes. For example, the limestone quarry at Cape Foulwind has been relatively successful in its biophysical remediation. But the site is close to local communities and on a major tourist route, and could play a bigger role as a public space.
On the other hand, the remediation of the Mikonui Valley mine, on conservation land on the West Coast, has arguably been a failure, described as a “moonscape” by conservationists. The company paid a bond to the Department of Conservation to allow it to mine on public land, but it has not remediated the land to an acceptable degree, and likely never will.
Behind this is the larger issue that remediation was only seriously considered at the end of the extraction process. Doing so left little room for other design options.
Using their knowledge and skill sets could bring the extracted landscape significantly closer to a desirable outcome. It would also allow for new spaces, including parks, housing, recreation or ecological reserves.
This is an important shift for urban quarry sites. Establishing a design process that works in parallel with the extraction process would allow sites such as the Horokiwi Quarry to play a role in the public life of a city.
This large aggregate quarry has a remaining lifespan of 20-30 years, and presents an ideal case to develop remediation techniques that can bring the most out of this landscape.
The design proposal builds on the experience of a landscape of extreme scale and mass. Facilities such as sports fields, gathering spaces, relaxation and a mix of pathways all feed off the experience of the landscape.
At the same time, new ecological sites are established where appropriate to create a different relationship between visitors and the landscape.
Turning post-extraction landscapes such as the Horokiwi Quarry into public spaces confronts us with their scale and otherworldliness. It can change how we relate to the environment.
We have to remediate these sites in a way that moves us to recognise our relationship with extraction and consumption. This might not be pretty, but it is necessary.
Shaun Rosier, Practice-based PhD Researcher in Landscape Architecture, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington
The destruction of 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge sites in the Pilbara has created great distress for their traditional owners, seismic shockwaves for heritage professionals and appalled the general public.
The fallout for Rio Tinto has been profound as has the groundswell of criticism of Western Australia’s outdated heritage laws. A path forward must ensure a pivotal role for Indigenous communities and secure Keeping Places for heritage items. More broadly, we need more Indigenous places added to the National Heritage List, ensuring them the highest form of heritage protection.
In a state heavily dependent on mining, the model for this could follow the successful seven-year heritage collaboration I have been part of on-country with Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC) and Rio Tinto in the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga).
As Director of the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management at the University of Western Australia, I am funded to undertake research supported by Rio Tinto’s conservation agreement with the Commonwealth.
This Rio Tinto funding enables research documenting the significant scientific and community values of the archipelago, feeding into the management of this estate by MAC, who represent the local coastal Pilbara groups. It also resources Indigenous rangers and trains undergraduate students.
The Murujuga conservation agreements, made between the Commonwealth and both Rio Tinto and Woodside, were negotiated when the archipelago’s one million-plus engravings and stone features were added to Australia’s National Heritage List in 2007.
Murujuga is one of only seven Indigenous rock art places on the National Heritage List. There are 118 listings in total in Australia (only 20 of them Indigenous). Murujuga is the only listed Indigenous site here with a conservation agreement requiring industry to fund heritage protection.
Rio Tinto does not have a similar agreement with the traditional owners of Juukan Gorge, the Puutu Kunti Kurruma Pinikuru (PKKP) peoples — nor do any of the other Pilbara resource extraction companies with their host native title communities. These mining tenements are managed by a range of royalty agreements, which recognise native title rights but are flexible and require transparency.
Despite working closely with Rio Tinto, I have been dismayed by the Juukan incident and the fault lines it has revealed in Rio Tinto’s historically significant investment in heritage management and agreement-making with Aboriginal people.
Many of the changes in the WA Government’s new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020 are welcome: in particular, the recognition of native title, allowing “stop work orders” if an Indigenous community says mining work was begun without their permission, and increased penalties for damaging heritage.
But Aboriginal groups, including many in the Kimberley and south-west WA, fear the onus for this regulatory process will be passed onto them and — despite being the appropriate people to manage their own heritage — they will not be adequately resourced to do so.
The number of heritage sites likely to be at risk in the future will number in the thousands, given the current footprint of mining is a mere 1% of the planned expansion over the next century. A new paradigm is needed in managing heritage. There needs to be a process of identifying regionally significant landscapes and earmarking them for conservation before future development footprints are determined.
And there need to be more conservation agreements like the Murujuga one, with industry-funding heritage and conservation rather than just mining clearance work.
In the Pilbara, for instance, there are three national parks, Karajini, Millstream-Chichester and Murujuga, where mining cannot occur. But more are needed in other native title areas. They need to be resourced so Aboriginal heritage rangers can manage them, with appropriate facilities for tourists.
Mining compliance surveys, which “manage harm” to heritage are a significant economy for many Aboriginal communities.
But a number of Pilbara Aboriginal Corporations, including Wintawari Gurama, with whom I have developed a rock art research project, don’t want to just participate in the mining economy, which is tantamount to destroying their heritage.
They want to train local rangers, and document, record and manage their own heritage estates, enabling elders and young people to earn a living on country.
This approach is equally required in places like the Kimberley, where fracking could be the next resources “boom”.
These, too, could be funded by industry, becoming the focus of heritage tourism and ranger training, and hosting collaborative research on heritage, biodiversity and conservation.
The state government and industry stakeholders are funding the Murujuga Rock Art Strategy, which will monitor and assess emissions from nearby industry. There are, however, concerning plans to introduce new industry in the adjacent Burrup Industrial Estate. This is an issue, too, for the federal government, which has ultimate oversight of heritage on the national list.
In WA, the state government asserts that heritage can co-exist with industry. But this will only be possible if the state recognises heritage is non-renewable — just like the mineral wealth of this country.
In the next few weeks, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley will decide whether to approve a New South Wales quarry expansion that will destroy critical koala breeding grounds.
The case, involving the Brandy Hill Quarry at Port Stephens, is emblematic of how NSW environment laws are failing wildlife — particularly koalas. Efforts to erode koala protections hit the headlines last week when NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro threatened to detonate the Coalition over the issue.
Koala populations are already under huge pressure. A NSW parliamentary inquiry in June warned the koala faces extinction in the state by 2050 if the government doesn’t better control land clearing and habitat loss.
Ley could either continue these alarming trends, or set a welcome precedent for koala protection. Her decision is also the first big test of federal environment laws since an interim review found they were failing wildlife. So let’s take a closer look at what’s at stake in this latest controversy.
The NSW government gave approval to Hanson Construction Materials, a subsidiary of Heidelberg Cement, to expand the existing Brandy Hill Quarry in Seaham in Port Stephens.
The project would provide concrete to meet Sydney’s growing construction demands, as the state fast-tracks infrastructure projects to help the economy recover from COVID-19.
The approval came despite the known presence of koalas in the area. A koala survey report, completed on behalf of the developer in 2019, determined the project would “result in a significant impact to the koala”.
The report recommended the quarry expansion be referred to the federal Environment Minister under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999, for its potential impacts on “Matters of National Environmental Significance”.
The expansion site intersects habitat with preferred high quality koala feed and shelter trees. This habitat is established forest containing various key mature Eucalyptus trees, including the forest red gum and swamp mahogany.
The survey report didn’t propose any mitigation strategies to sustain the habitat. Instead, it suggested minimisation measures, such as ecologists to be present during habitat clearing, low speed limits for vehicles on site, and education on koalas for workers.
In support of a community grassroots campaign (Save Port Stephens Koalas), we produced an report on the effect of the quarry expansion on koalas. The report now sits with Ley ahead of her decision, which is due by October 13.
The expansion will clear more than 50 hectares of koala habitat. We found koalas breeding within 1 kilometre of the current quarry boundary, which indicates the expansion site is likely to destroy critical koala breeding habitat.
During the breeding season, male koalas bellow to attract females. Within 1km of the boundary we observed a female koala and a bellowing male koala 96m apart. A second male was reported bellowing 227m from the quarry boundary.
What’s more, the site expansion occurs within a NSW government listed Area of Regional Koala Significance. The expansion site actually has higher average koala habitat suitability than all remaining habitat on the quarry property.
CSIRO research from 2016 suggests koalas in Port Stephens can move hundreds of metres in a day and up to 5km in one month. Movement is highest during the breeding season. This potential for koalas to move away was a key reason the NSW government approved the expansion.
Koalas can move in to the remaining property to breed, or they can move away from it. But habitat outside the expansion site is, on average, lesser quality, and this is where the expansion would force the koalas to move to.
This habitat fragmentation would not only result in lost access to potential breeding grounds, but also further restrict movement and expose koalas to threats such as predation or road traffic.
Lastly, the expansion would sever a crucial East–West corridor koalas likely use to move across the landscape and breed.
It may seem surprising this destructive project was approved by the NSW government. But it’s a common story under the state’s protections.
The expansion approval is an example of how the NSW government relaxed the regulatory requirements for land clearing between 2016 and 2017. This led to a 13-fold increase in land clearing approvals, and tipped the balance away from sustainable development.
The expansion shines another spotlight on NSW’s poor biodiversity offset laws.
Biodiversity offsets involve compensating for environmental damage in one location by improving the environment elsewhere. Under the expansions approval, the developer was required to protect an estimated 450 hectares of habitat as offset.
But the recent parliamentary inquiry into NSW koalas recommended offsetting of prime koala habitat — such as that involved in the quarry expansion — be prohibited, which would mean not destroying the habitat in the first place.
The NSW decision also does not account for the Black Summer Bushfires which claimed 5,000 koalas and burned millions of hectares of koala habitat. The Port Stephens population was unburned but more than 75% of its habitat has been lost since colonial occupation. Securing this population is important for the overall security of koalas in the state.
Rejections under these laws are rare; just 22 of 6,500 projects referred for approval under the act have been refused. However, it’s not impossible.
Earlier this year Ley rejected a wind-farm in Queensland which threatened unburned koala habitat. If Ley gives full consideration to the evidence in our report, she should make the same decision.
Lachlan G. Howell, PhD Candidate | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle
The wild fires that have ravaged the US west coast, turning skies orange, are a lurid reminder that climate change looms ever larger as an economic threat.
This week has seen a flurry of announcements reflecting that reality.
New Zealand’s government has declared it will become the world’s first country to require its financial sector to report on climate risks.
A collaboration between Australian banks, insurers and climate scientists – the Climate Measurement Standards Initiative – has issued the nation’s first comprehensive framework to assess climate-related risks to buildings and critical infrastructure.
And another of Australia’s largest superannuation funds, UniSuper, has committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions from its investment portfolio by 2050.
UniSuper, the industry fund for university workers, is the third major Australian super fund to make such a commitment.
The first was HESTA, the industry super fund for health and community sector workers, in June. The second was CBus, the construction and mining industry super fund, last month. “The reality is that things are coalescing fast around us,” said Kristian Fok, CBus’ chief investment officer at the time.
While the superannuation industry remains very much in transition, analysis by ClimateWorks Australia and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute indicates a new determination among Australia’s 20 largest Registrable Superannuation Entity licensees to act on climate change risks.
These 20 licensees represent about 55% of all superannuation investments in Australia, worth a total of about A$2.7 trillion.
Along with the 2050 commitments by HESTA, CBus and UniSuper, another 13 funds are actively looking to reduce their portfolio’s emissions intensity. For example, Aware Super (formerly First State Super) announced in July it would divest from thermal coal miners and reduce emissions in its listed equities portfolio by at least 30% by 2023.
Only four of the 20 – Colonial First State, IOOF, Nulis and OnePath – still have no emissions reduction targets or activities.
This flurry of announcements reflects a changing context.
In the past, fund managers sometimes argued that, in a heavily regulated industry, their legal responsibilities prevented them from committing to emissions reductions. They were tasked, they said, with protecting their members’ finances, not guarding the environment.
Until about 2017, super funds tended to limit action to asking companies in which they owned shares to disclose their climate risks and to offering voluntary sustainable investment options to their members.
But since the Paris climate agreement in 2015, targets of net zero emissions by 2050 (or earlier) have been adopted by governments, businesses and investors. More than 100 countries and all Australian states and territories have net zero targets in place. So do some major companies, such as BHP and Qantas.
Many businesses now recognise the financial implications of global warming.
ANZ, for example, this month announced it expected the 100 biggest-emitting customers to have a plan to adapt to a low-carbon economy – something the bank’s chief executive, Shayne Elliot, said was simply “good old-fashioned risk management”.
This accords with the perspective of regulators, with Australian Prudential Regulation Authority regarding global warming not as a moral issue but one “distinctly financial in nature”.
This means asset managers are increasingly thinking about how more frequent and extreme weather events will devalue property and infrastructure. They are also thinking about the future worth of companies rusted to fossil fuels as the global economy shifts to net zero emissions.
Investors must also consider the possibility of litigation. For example, 24-year-old Brisbane council worker Mark McVeigh has taken the Retail Employees Superannuation Trust to court on the basis it has failed to protect his savings from the financial consequences of ruinous climate change.
Understandably, many funds are hesitant to commit to net zero emission portfolio targets without knowing how those targets might be achieved.
But by setting targets, super funds can create a norm that spurs investment in the ways and means to achieve those goals.
With the manifestations of that warming becoming ever more apparent, pressure will grow on super funds to make net zero pledges across their entire portfolios – and then to back these pledges with both interim commitments and detailed transition strategies.
As Kristian Fok says, change is coalescing fast. We’re seeing promising signs of the super funds responding. But we’ll need to see more yet.
Every few years, the idea that gas will help Australia transition to a zero-emissions economy seems to re-emerge, as if no one had thought of it before. Federal energy minister Angus Taylor is the latest politician to jump on the gas bandwagon.
Taylor wants taxpayer money invested in fast-start gas projects to drive the post-pandemic recovery. His government plans to extend the emissions reduction fund to fossil fuel projects using carbon capture and storage.
The government’s “technology investment roadmap”, released last week, said gas will help in “balancing” renewable energy sources. And manufacturers advising the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission want public money used to underwrite a huge domestic gas expansion.
Amid all these gas plans, there is little talk of the damage this would wreak on the climate. We need only look to Woodside’s Burrup Hub proposal in Western Australia to find evidence of the staggering potential impact.
By the end of its life in 2070, the project and the gas it produces will emit about six billion tonnes of greenhouse gas. That’s about 1.5% of the 420 billion tonnes of CO2 world can emit between 2018 and 2100 if it wants to stay below 1.5℃ of global warming.
This project alone exposes as a furphy the claim that natural gas is a viable transition fuel.
The Burrup Hub proposal involves creating a large regional hub for liquified natural gas (LNG) on the Burrup Peninsula in northern WA. It would process a huge volume of gas resources from the Scarborough, Browse and Pluto basins, as well as other sources.
We closely examined this proposal, and submitted our analysis to the WA Environmental Protection Authority and the federal environment department, which are assessing the proposal.
The likely scale of domestic emissions from the Burrup Hub will significantly undermine Australia’s efforts under the Paris climate agreement. To meet the Paris goals, Australia’s energy and industry sector can emit 4.8-6.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2018 and 2050. By 2050, the Burrup Hub would emit 7-10% of this.
Woodside’s investors are clearly concerned at the potential impact of the company’s emissions. On April 30 more than half its investors called on the company to set emission reduction targets aligned with the Paris agreement for both its domestic emissions and those that occur when the gas is burned overseas.
Woodside has claimed the proposed Burrup Hub project would help the world meet the Paris goals by substituting natural gas for coal. This claim is often used to justify the continued expansion of the LNG industry.
But in several reports and analyses, we have shown the claim is incorrect.
If the Paris goals are to be met, the use of natural gas in Asia’s electricity sector – a major source of demand – would need to peak by around 2030 and then decline to almost zero between 2050 and 2060.
Globally (and without deployment of carbon capture and storage technology), demand for gas-fired electricity will have to peak before 2030 and be halved by 2040, based on 2010 levels.
Our analysis found that by 2050, gas can only form just a tiny part of global electricity demand if we are to meet the Paris goals.
The electricity sector is the main source of global LNG demand at present. Emissions from gas-fired electricity production can be lowered by 80-90% by using carbon capture and storage (CCS), which traps emissions at the source and injects them underground. But this technology is increasingly unlikely to compete with renewable energy and storage, on either cost or environmental grounds.
As renewable energy and storage costs continue to fall, estimates of costs for CCS in gas power generation have increased, including in Australia. And the technology doesn’t capture all emissions, so expensive efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would be required if the Paris goals are to be met.
Beyond the Burrup proposal, Woodside says its broader LNG export projects will help bring global emissions towards zero by displacing coal. To justify this claim, Woodside cites the International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario. However this scenario assumes a rate of coal and gas use incompatible with the Paris agreement.
This problem is even starker at the national level. We estimate LNG extraction and production creates about 9-10% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. If we include exported LNG, the industry’s entire emissions would roughly equal 60% of Australia’s total emissions in 2017.
If the world implements the Paris agreement, demand for gas-fired electricity will likely significantly drop off by 2030. Technology trends are already pointing in that direction.
This creates a major risk that gas assets will become redundant. Australia will be unprepared for the resulting job losses and economic dislocation. Both WA and the federal government have a responsibility to anticipate this risk, not ignore it.
The Reserve Bank of Australia has warned of the economic risks to financial institutions of stranded assets in a warming world, and the Burrup Hub is a prime example of this.
The economic stimulus response to COVID-19 presents a major opportunity for governments to direct investments towards low- and zero-carbon technologies. They must resist pressure from fossil fuel interests to do the opposite.
In response to the claims raised in this article, Woodside said in a statement:
We support the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rises to well below 2℃, with the implicit target of global carbon neutrality by 2050. At Woodside, we want to be carbon neutral for our operations by 2050.
Independent expert analysis by ERM, critically reviewed by CSIRO, shows Woodside’s Browse and Scarborough projects could avoid 650 Mt of CO2 equivalent (CO2-e) emissions between 2026 and 2040 by replacing higher emission fuels in countries that need our energy.
This means every tonne of greenhousa gas emitted in Australia from our projects equates to about 4 tonnes in emissions reduced globally. To put that in context, a 650 Mt CO2-e reduction in greenhouse gas is equivalent to cancelling out all emissions from Western Australia for more than eight years.
To have reliable energy and lower emissions, natural gas is essential. As a readily dispatchable power source, gas-fired power is an ideal partner with renewables to provide the necessary system stability.
Woodside remains committed to realising our vision for the Burrup Hub, despite the delay to final investment decisions on the projects in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and rapid decline in oil prices. We believe these projects are cost-competitive and investable, with 80-90% of their gas reserves to be produced by 2050.
The Burrup Hub developments have the potential to make a significant contribution to the recovery of the West Australian and national economies when we emerge from the impact of COVID-19. They will provide thousands of jobs, opportunities for local suppliers and tax and royalty revenues to the state and Australia.
The fossil fuel lobby, led by the Minerals Council of Australia, seem pretty happy with the current system of environment laws. In a submission to a review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, it “broadly” supports the existing laws and does not want them replaced.
True, the group says the laws impose unnecessary burdens on industry that hinder post-pandemic economic recovery. It wants delays and duplication in environmental regulation reduced to provide consistency and certainty.
But for the fossil fuel industry to broadly back the current regime of environmental protection is remarkable. It suggests deep problems with the current laws, which have allowed decision-making driven by politics, rather than independent science.
So let’s look at the resources industry’s stance on environment laws, and what it tells us.
The Minerals Council’s submission calls for “eliminating or reducing duplication” of federal and state laws.
The fossil fuel lobby has long railed against environmental law – the EPBC Act in particular – disparaging it as “green tape” that it claims slows projects unnecessarily and costs the industry money.
On this, the federal government and the mining industry are singing from the same songbook. Announcing the review of the laws last year, the government flagged changes that it claimed would speed up approvals and reduce costs to industry.
Previous governments have tried to reduce duplication of environmental laws. In 2013 the Abbott government proposed a “one-stop shop” in which it claimed projects would be considered under a single environmental assessment and approval process, rather than scrutinised separately by state and federal authorities.
It’s true the federal EPBC Act often duplicates state approvals for mining and other activities. But it still provides a safety net that in theory allows the federal government to stop damaging projects approved by state governments.
The Commonwealth rarely uses this power, but has done so in the past. In the most famous example, the Labor party led by Bob Hawke won the federal election in 1983 and stopped the Tasmanian Liberal government led by Robin Gray building a major hydroelectric dam on the Gordon River below its junction with the Franklin River.
The High Court’s decision in that dispute laid the foundation for the EPBC Act, which was enacted in 1999.
In 2009 Peter Garrett, Labor’s then-federal environment minister, refused the Queensland Labor government’s proposed Traveston Crossing Dam on the Mary River under the EPBC Act due to an unacceptable impact on threatened species.
The Conversation put these arguments to the Minerals Council of Australia, and CEO Tania Constable said:
The MCA’s submission states that Australia’s world-leading minerals sector is committed to the protection of our unique environment, including upholding leading practice environmental protection based on sound science and robust risk-based approaches.
Reforms to the operation of the EPBC Act are needed to address unnecessary duplication and complexity, providing greater certainty for businesses and the community while achieving sound environmental outcomes.
Generally, the Minerals Council and other resources groups aren’t lobbying for the current system to be changed too much.
The groups support the federal environment minister retaining the role of decision maker under the law. This isn’t surprising, given a succession of ministers has, for the past 20 years, given almost unwavering approval to resource projects.
Countless more examples demonstrate how the current system works in the favour of mining interests – even when the industry itself claims otherwise.
The Minerals Council submission refers to an unnamed “Queensland open-cut coal expansion project” to argue against excessive duplication of federal and state processes around water use.
When approached by The Conversation, the Minerals Council did not confirm it was referring to the New Acland project. Tania Constable said:
The case studies were submitted from a range of companies, and are representative of the regulatory inefficiency and uncertainty which deters investment and increases costs while greatly limiting job opportunities and economic benefits for regional communities from mining.
The New Acland mine expansion is on prime agricultural land on the Darling Downs, Queensland’s southern food bowl. Nearby farmers strongly opposed the project over fears of damage to groundwater, the creation of noise and dust, and climate change impacts.
But the Minerals Council fails to mention that since 2016, the mine has been building a massive new pit covering 150 hectares.
When mining of this pit began, the mine’s expansion was still being assessed under state and federal laws. Half of the pit was subsequently approved under the EPBC Act in 2017.
Based on my own research using satellite imagery and comparing the publicly available application documents, mining of West Pit started while Stage 3 of the mine was still being assessed under the EPBC Act. And after approval was given, mining was conducted outside the approved footprint.
Despite these apparent breaches, the federal environment department has taken no enforcement action.
The Conversation contacted New Hope Group, the company that owns New Acland mine, for comment, and they refuted this assertion. Chief Operating Officer Andrew Boyd said:
New Hope Group strongly deny any allegations that New Hope Coal has in any way acted unlawfully.
New Acland Coal had and still has all necessary approvals relating to the development of the pit Dr McGrath refers to. It is also not correct to say that the Land Court alerted the Department of its powers to act with regards to this pit.
The Department is obviously aware of its enforcement powers and was aware of the development of the pit well before 2018. Further, the Land Court in 2018 rejected Dr McGrath’s arguments and accepted New Acland Coal’s position that any issues relating to the lawfulness of the pit were not within the jurisdiction of the Land Court on the rehearing in 2018.
Accordingly, the lawfulness of the pit was irrelevant to the 2018 Land Court hearing.
Dr McGrath also fails to mention that his client had originally accepted in the original Land Court hearing (2015-2017) that the development of the pit was lawful only to completely change its position in the 2018.
State and federal environmental laws work in favour of the fossil fuel industry in other ways. “Regulatory capture” occurs when government regulators essentially stop enforcing the law against industries they are supposed to regulate.
This can occur for many reasons, including agency survival and to avoid confrontation with powerful political groups such as farmers or the mining sector.
In one apparent example of this, the federal environment department decided in 2019 not to recommend two critically endangered Murray-Darling wetlands for protection under the EPBC Act because the minister was unlikely to support the listings following a campaign against them by the National Irrigators Council.
Recent ecological disasters are proof our laws are failing us catastrophically. And they make the mining industry’s calls to speed-up project approvals particularly audacious.
Both tragedies are driven by climate change, caused by burning fossil fuels. It’s clear Australia should be looking to fix the glaring holes in our green safety net, not widen them.
Water is a highly contested resource in this long, oppressive drought, and the coal industry is one of Australia’s biggest water users.
Research released today, funded by the Australian Conservation Foundation, has identified how much water coal mining and coal-fired power stations actually use in New South Wales and Queensland. The answer? About 383 billion litres of fresh water every year.
That’s the same amount 5.2 million people, or more than the entire population of Greater Sydney, uses in the same period. And it’s about 120 times the water used by wind and solar to generate the same amount of electricity.
Monitoring how much water is used by industry is vital for sustainable water management. But a lack of transparency about how much water Australia’s coal industry uses makes this very difficult.
Adani’s controversial Carmichael mine in central Queensland was granted a water licence that allows the company to take as much groundwater as it wants, despite fears it will damage aquifers and groundwater-dependent rivers.
Now more than ever, we must make sure water use by coal mines and power stations are better monitored and managed.
Mines in NSW and Queensland account for 96% of Australia’s black coal production.
Almost all water used in coal mines is consumed and cannot be reused. Water is used for coal processing, handling and preparation, dust suppression, on-site facilities, irrigation, vehicle washing and more.
Coal mining’s water use rate equates to a total consumption of almost 225 billion litres a year in NSW and Queensland, which can be extrapolated to 234 billion litres for Australia, for black coal without considering brown coal.
About 80% of this water is freshwater from rainfall and runoff, extracted from rivers and water bodies, groundwater inflows or transferred from other mines. Mines are located in regions such as the Darling Downs, the Hunter River and the Namoi River in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The other 20% comes from water already contained in tailings (mine residue), recycled water or seepage from the mines.
The burning of coal to generate energy is also a large water user. Water use in coal-fired power stations is even harder to quantify, with a report from 2009 providing the only available data.
Water is used for cooling with power stations using either a once-through flow or recirculating water system.
The water consumed becomes toxic wastewater stored in ash ponds or is evaporated during cooling processes. Water withdrawn is returned to rivers which can damage aquatic life due to the increased temperature.
Data on total water use by coal mines is not publicly available. Despite the development of Australian and international water accounting frameworks, there is no reporting to these standards in coal mine reports.
This lack of consistent and available data means water use by the coal industry, and its negative effects, is not widely reported or understood. The problem is compounded by complex regulatory frameworks that allow gaps in water-use reporting.
A patchwork of government agencies in each state regulate water licences, quality and discharge, coal mine planning, annual reviews of mine operations and water and environmental impacts. This means that problems can fall through the gaps.
An analysis of annual reviews from 39 coal mines in NSW, provided data on water licences and details of water used in different parts of the mine.
Although they are part of mandatory reporting, the method of reporting water use is not standardised. The reviews are required to report against surface water and groundwater licences, but aren’t required to show a comprehensive water balanced account. Annual reviews for Queensland coal mines were not available.
Collated water use — both water consumption and water withdrawal – showed coal mining consumes approximately 653 litres for each tonne of coal produced.
This rate is 2.5 times more than a previous water-use rate of 250 litres per tonne, from research in 2010.
Using this rate the total water consumed by coal mining is 40% more than the total amount of water reported for all types of mining in NSW and Queensland by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the same year.
NSW and Queensland coal-fired power stations annually consume 158,300 megalitres of water. One megalitre is equivalent to one million litres.
A typical 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power station uses enough water in one year to meet the basic water needs of nearly 700,000 people. NSW and Queensland have 18,000 megawatts of capacity.
Coal-fired generation uses significantly more water than other types of energy.
In total, coal mining and coal-fired power stations in NSW and Queensland consume 383 billion litres of freshwater a year – about 4.3% of all freshwater available in those states.
The value of this water is between A$770 million and A$2.49 billion (using a range of low to high security water licence costs).
They withdraw 2,353 billion litres of freshwater per year.
Coal mining is concentrated in a few regions, such as the Hunter Valley and the Bowen Basin, which are also important for farming and agriculture.
In NSW and Queensland, the coal industry withdraws about 30% as much water as is withdrawn for agriculture, and this is concentrated in the few regions.
Coal mining and power stations use water through licenses to access surface water and groundwater, and from unlicensed capturing of rainfall and runoff.
This can reduce stream flow and groundwater levels, which can threaten ecosystem habitats if not managed in context of other water users. Cumulative effects of multiple mines in one region can increase the risk to other water users.
A lack of available data remains a significant challenge to understanding the true impact of coal mining and coal-fired power on Australia’s water resources.
To improve transparency and increase trust in the coal industry, accounting for water consumed, withdrawn and impacted by coal mining should be standardised to report on full water account balances.
The coal industry should also be subject to mandatory monthly reporting and a single, open-access point of water data must be created. Comprehensive water modelling must be updated yearly and audited.
Coal water use must be managed in a holistic manner with the elevation of water accounting to a single government agency or common database.
Australia has a scarce water supply, and our environment and economy depend on the sustainable and equitable sharing of this resource.
Good news: COVID-19 is not the only thing going on right now!
Bad news: while we’ve all been deep in the corona-hole, the climate crisis has been ticking along in the background, and there are many things you may have missed.
Fair enough – it’s what people do. When we are faced with immediate, unambiguous threats, we all focus on what’s confronting us right now. The loss of winter snow in five or ten years looks trivial against images of hospitals pushed to breaking point now.
As humans, we also tend to prefer smaller, short-term rewards over larger long-term ones. It’s why some people would risk illness and possible prosecution (or worse, public shaming) to go to the beach with their friends even weeks after social distancing messages have become ubiquitous.
But while we might need to ignore climate change right now if only to save our sanity, it certainly hasn’t been ignoring us.
So here’s what you may have missed while coronavirus dominates the news cycle.
On February 6 this year, the northernmost part of Antarctica set a new maximum temperature record of 18.4℃. That’s a pleasant temperature for an early autumn day in Canberra, but a record for Antarctica, beating the old record by nearly 1℃.
That’s alarming, but not as alarming as the 20.75℃ reported just three days later to the east of the Antarctic Peninsula at Marambio station on Seymour Island.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned a global average temperature rise of 1.5℃ could wipe out 90% of the world’s coral.
As the world looks less likely to keep temperature rises to 1.5℃, in 2019 the five-year outlook for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was downgraded from “poor” to “very poor”. The downgrading came in the wake of two mass bleaching events, one in 2016 and another in 2017, damaging two-thirds of the reef.
And now, in 2020, it has just experienced its third in five years.
Of course, extreme Antarctic temperatures and reef bleaching are the products of human-induced climate change writ large.
But in the short time since the COVID-19 crisis began, several examples of environmental vandalism have been deliberately and specifically set in motion as well.
The Berejiklian government in New South Wales has just approved the extension of coal mining by Peabody Energy – a significant funder of climate change denial – under one of Greater Sydney’s reservoirs. This is the first time such an approval has been granted in two decades.
While environmental groups have pointed to significant local environmental impacts – arguing mining like this can cause subsidence in the reservoir up to 25 years after the mining is finished – the mine also means more fossil carbon will be spewed into our atmosphere.
Peabody Energy argues this coal will be used in steel-making rather than energy production. But it’s still more coal that should be left in the ground. And despite what many argue, you don’t need to use coal to make steel.
In Victoria, the Andrews government has announced it will introduce new laws into Parliament for what it calls the “orderly restart” of onshore gas exploration. In this legislation, conventional gas exploration will be permitted, but an existing temporary ban on fracking and coal seam gas drilling will be made permanent.
The announcement followed a three-year investigation led by Victoria’s lead scientist, Amanda Caples. It found gas reserves in Victoria “could be extracted without harming the environment”.
Sure, you could probably do that (though the word “could” is working pretty hard there, what with local environmental impacts and the problem of fugitive emissions). But extraction is only a fraction of the problem of natural gas. It’s the subsequent burning that matters.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the Trump administration is taking the axe to some key pieces of environmental legislation.
One is an Obama-era car pollution standard, which required an average 5% reduction in greenhouse emissions annually from cars and light truck fleets. Instead, the Trump administration’s “Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles” requires just 1.5%.
The health impact of this will be stark. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the shift will mean 18,500 premature deaths, 250,000 more asthma attacks, 350,000 more other respiratory problems, and US$190 billion in additional health costs between now and 2050.
And then there are the climate costs: if manufacturers followed the Trump administration’s new looser guidelines it would add 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the equivalent of 17 additional coal-fired power plants.
The challenges COVID-19 presents right now are huge. But they will pass.
The challenges of climate change are not being met with anything like COVID-19 intensity. For now, that makes perfect sense. COVID-19 is unambiguously today. Against this imperative, climate change is still tomorrow.
But like hangovers after a large celebration, tomorrows come sooner than we expect, and they never forgive us for yesterday’s behaviour.
Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Senior Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University
Amid coronavirus chaos, the Victorian government announced its decision earlier this week to lift the ban on onshore gas exploration, but also to make the temporary state-wide ban on fracking permanent.
This decision was made three years after an investigation found gas reserves in the state could be extracted without any environmental impacts, and new laws will be introduced to parliament for drilling to start in July next year.
The state government first introduced the moratorium (temporary ban) on onshore conventional and unconventional gas production in 2017, enshrined in the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990. It effectively made it an offence to either conduct coal seam gas exploration or hydraulic fracturing (fracking) until June 2020.
The ban was originally imposed amid strong concerns about the environmental, climate and social impacts of onshore gas expansion. But lifting the ban to allow conventional gas exploration while banning fracking and unconventional gas (coal seam gas), doesn’t remove these concerns.
The new laws seek to do two things: lift the ban on conventional onshore gas production, and to entrench a ban on fracking and coal seam gas exploration into the state constitution.
The government has stated it wants to make it difficult for future governments to remove the fracking ban. But this is highly unlikely to be legally effective. Unlike the federal constitution, the Victorian constitution is an ordinary act, and so it can be amended by another legal act.
The only way entrenching an amendment in the state constitution so that it is permanent and unchangeable is if it relates to the operation and procedure of parliament. And fracking does not do this.
This raises the spectre of a future government removing the fracking ban in line with an accelerating onshore gas framework.
The main difference between conventional gas and unconventional gas (coal seam gas) lies in their geology.
Conventional gas can generally be extracted without the need to frack, as gas can move to the surface through gas wells. To release unconventional gas, particularly shale gas, fracking is always required.
Fracking technologies risk water quality from ground disturbances, spills, the release of chemicals and other fluids, and the underground migration of gases and chemicals.
So lifting the conventional onshore gas ban while keeping the fracking ban will mean less risk to the environment. But extracting conventional gas is still risky.
Extracting conventional gas risks fugitive emissions. This refers to greenhouse gases, such as methane, that can escape into the atmosphere during mining fossil fuels, such as from equipment leaks, deliberate or accidental venting, or from gas flaring.
Precise measurements of the fugitive emissions from onshore conventional gas production are difficult to predict, but their effect on climate change is alarming.
The latest estimates indicate fugitive emissions account for approximately 6% of Australia’s national greenhouse gas emissions. Fugitive emissions also have about 27 times the greenhouse harming potential of carbon dioxide.
In 2017, the Australian Gas Industry argued well managed sites produce little fugitive emissions, and poorly managed sites were responsible for 75% of fugitive emissions.
This means any expansion of onshore conventional gas must be accompanied by strict management and regulation. But there’s no industry-wide code of practice in Victoria focused on reducing this emissions risk.
Even in the unlikely scenario of zero or limited fugitive emissions, expanding conventional gas exploration will still add to Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
The proposed laws follow the conclusions of a three-year study that reviewed the climate, environmental, economic and social impacts of gas exploration in Victoria.
The report suggested a slight increase in absolute annualised greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions would be proportionately increased by lifting the ban.
It also suggested expanding gas development would contribute between only 0.1% and 0.2% of Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, and that this wouldn’t affect Victoria’s 2050 net-zero target.
But 0.1% to 0.2% still amounts to releasing an additional 122,000 to 329,000 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent into the atmosphere.
What’s more, this assessment completely ignores emissions released through increased gas usage within the community. Globally, CO₂ emissions from natural gas use rose almost 200 million metric tons in 2019 and were responsible for two-thirds of the global emissions increase.
The report predicts 242 jobs, A$312 million in gross regional product and A$43 million in royalties for Victoria. But overall, gas prices in the east coast market won’t change.
The additional 128-830 petajoules (a joule is a measure of thermal energy and a petajoule is a million billion joules) that is potentially capable of being produced by lifting the moratorium will not be enough to address the forecast shortfall.
For the communities around the gas exploration sites, the report indicates the social impact of lifting the moratorium would be manageable.
The report indicates that 80% of the south-west and Gippsland communities – from more than 800 engagements with industry, farmers, local school students, and environmental community groups – either supported or tolerated onshore conventional gas development if noise or disturbances were appropriately addressed through regulation. But industry wide codes of behaviour are yet to be implemented.
Lifting the ban on onshore conventional gas in Victoria comes at a time when the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is profoundly important.
Climate change is accelerating. While gas may be an important resource as we transition to renewable energy, accelerating its production, particularly in the absence of stringent regulatory controls, comes at a very high price.