Hunt’s strict conditions look good on paper

We all breathed a sigh of relief when Malcolm Turnbull successfully challenged Tony Abbott for the Prime Ministership of Australia. A more progressive and articulate individual like Turnbull would no doubt bring about a much needed shift in the government’s recalcitrant approach to dealing with climate change and environmental issues. Even the Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt appeared to soften his stance and began advocating the importance of a clean energy future. According to Hunt, there is now ‘no excuse’ not to embrace renewable technologies. He even asked ARENA (Australian Renewable Energy Agency) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to facilitate Australia’s transition to a low/zero carbon future.

Yesterday’s decision to re-approve Adani’s Carmichael mine by Minister Hunt in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, showed that we were both naive and misguided to think that there was a shift in the government’s approach to the environment and climate change. Regardless of how progressive the leadership seems to be, it appears that nothing will stand in the way of short-term economic gains. The Federal Government has even moved to amend the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) to ensure that such large projects are not delayed by litigation. In fact, it was Adani’s Carmichael mine that drew the government to undermine such an inherent democratic right.

Minister Hunt has justified his decision by stating that the approval has ‘36 of the strictest conditions in Australian history’. A closer examination of some of these ‘strict conditions’ indicates otherwise. For example, Adani is to return 730 million litres of water per annum to the Great Artesian Basin for the first five years of the mine’s operations. The problem is, the mine will require an estimated 297 billion litres of water per annum for operations. Significantly more than the amount being returned. Additionally, it is safe to assume that the quality of the water being returned to the Great Artesian Basin may not be the same. Considering that the mining licence is for 60 years, it can be argued that Minister Hunt’s ‘strict condition’ fails to properly address the magnitude of the mine’s potential impact(s) on water security.

Another ‘strict condition’, is that Adani is to set aside 31,000 hectares as offsets for mitigation against the impacts of the mine’s footprint. Further, Adani is to provide 1 million dollars over ten years towards the management of native flora and fauna. Of particular importance are habitats for the Yakka skink, the Ornamental snake and the Black throated finch. At a glance, this appears to be an excellent ‘counter-balance’, however, offsets often do not work, as nuanced features such as micro-climates, competition and food availability are extremely difficult to replicate. The sheer size of the mine (28, 000 hectares or seven times the size of Sydney harbour) is also a significant barrier to the flow of genetic material between many species living in the area. There are also no guarantees that the offset areas will remain untouched, given the Galilee Basin’s vast fossil fuel reserves. Indeed, a number of other so-called mega-mines are in the pipeline for the Galilee Basin. The cumulative impacts of these mines will be catastrophic both at a national and international scale.  

The ‘strict conditions’ do absolutely nothing to address the significant amounts of carbon dioxide emissions that will be generated from Adani’s coal mine. At peak operation, the mine is expected to export 60 million tonnes of coal to India per annum. Burning 60 million tonnes of coal will produce roughly 130 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum. Again, it is important to emphasise that the mine will operate for 60 years. The approval by Minister Hunt therefore not only undermines Australia’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gases, but also global efforts to curb dangerous climate change.

These so-called ‘strict conditions’ appears to do very little to protect the environment, or build community confidence that the government has made the correct decision.  Minister Hunt’s decision is a lightning rod that will attract much scrutiny and legal challenges are already being weighed by some organisations. More broadly, the approval of Australia’s largest mine is a reflection of a system that is broken when it comes to balancing economic development and protecting the environment for future generations. No doubt, those (such as myself) who thought that Turnbull would bring about a more progressive approach to environmental issues are now more wary of his government.

(The author would like to acknowledge Peter Foster for his help in proof reading this article and providing suggestions)

(The author would also like to credit Eric Vanderduys for the image of the Yakka Skink used as the feature image. It was originally published by the Guardian Australia which can be viewed here.)

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