Queenslanders can’t challenge giant coalmine’s dangerous water grab

Proposed area for the mine

The Queensland Labor government has made a law denying conservation groups or local landholders the possibility to challenge destructive ground water exploitation by a 200-square-kilometre thermal coalmine, one of the world’s largest, proposed on country along the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the “Carmichael” mine of the Indian conglomerate, Adani, which has an appalling environmental record in India and abroad. As ADANI praised the Queensland government for exempting their project from hastily enacted new water licensing laws, green groups claimed the government has betrayed voters and put the Great Barrier Reef at risk.


The effect is that the public, be they conservation groups or local landholders, won’t have any submission or appeal rights on groundwater licences relating to the Adani Carmichael mine,” said Jo Bragg, CEO of Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) Queensland.


The Australian Marine Conservation Society Great Barrier Reef campaign director, Imogen Zethoven, said the government was giving Adani "special treatment".


"The government was elected on the basis it would protect the reef but now it is adding to the reef's woes by hastening one of the world's largest coal mines which will fuel more coral bleaching and threaten the 69,000 jobs that depend on a healthy reef," she said.


“The Palaszczuk Government has now granted Adani a special exemption, which will keep the public in the dark. Adani will now be exempt from public notification and community objection rights for their application to use Queensland’s precious groundwater, effectively fast-tracking this destructive mine that will supercharge global warming. Global warming is putting the Great Barrier Reef in grave danger."


Australian Greens Deputy Leader and Senator for Queensland, Larissa Waters, said the Greens “are outraged that the Queensland Labor Government has caved in to Adani”.


“Queensland Labor were elected to ‘save the Reef’ but instead they’ve caved in to big coal creating loopholes to put Adani’s Reef-destroying mega-mine on the fast track. With this decision the Queensland government is condemning the Reef to worse bleaching and jeopardising the 70,000 jobs it provides.


“This government should honour its commitment to voters and invest in job-rich, clean energy that doesn’t drive dangerous global warming, trash groundwater or place our already fragile Reef in further jeopardy.”


The new groundwater laws have triggered mixed reactions from Queensland farmers and mining companies.


Farmer Bruce Currie said he was disappointed the government watered down the laws. "We have to get water licenses, we have to pay for water, and we are giving these mining companies free water and the long-term destruction of our long term water supplies." But other farmers welcome some aspects of the new rules.


Environmental groups, independent researchers and agricultural groups are concerned the mine will take too much water out of the local water supply and dry up aquifers necessary to sustain farming over the Great Artesian Basin, one of the largest subterranean aquifer systems in the world, hugely important to Australia’s food production.


The mine in central Queensland (see illustration) will use approximately 12 billion litres of water each year, as estimated in a report by an Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam gas and Large Mining Developments, a report which was ignored by both Adani and the Queensland state government.


Groundwater expert Matthew Currell at Melbourne’s RMIT University said because of its sheer size, the Carmichael mine would have a significant impact on groundwater levels and flow, streamflow dependent on groundwater and sensitive springs in the Great Artesian Basin.


The Wangan and Jagalingou Aboriginal people, who have a native title claim over 30,000 sq km of central Queensland, including the area Adani wants to mine, have fought the plan from the beginning and have several court cases running. They say the mine would “rip the heart out of our country” and destroy their culture.


The mine, which will produce up to 60 million tonnes of coal each year for electricity production in India over 60 years, will include six open cut mines and up to five underground mines over 200 square kilometres, or seven times the area of Sydney Harbour.


The Carmichael mine is the fourth coal project to be approved in the area, and at least five more are awaiting approval.


Professor Roger Jones, climate expert at Victoria University, said the total emissions from the Carmichael mine (including burning the coal) could account for 4% of global emissions by midcentury under a scenario designed to keep warming below 2C, contributing between 0.011-0.027C to warming.


Jones, who testified as an expert witness in the Queensland Land Court against another coal mine, said if all coal mines under consideration for the Galilee Basin were operating they would exceed 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.


To pass the groundwater legislation early in the morning politicians in their pyjamas and various states of undress were rushed back to the chamber just before 3am when a vote was called.


Cook (northern Queensland) MP Billy Gordon, an Aborigine, expelled from Labor, now an independent, was the deciding vote in getting the legislation over the line, voting with the government after approving the amendments which will affect Adani and other advanced projects. “Jobs are important to regional and remote Queensland and I’d like to think the government will send a message to investors, North Queensland is open business,” Gordon said.


The changes to the original bill mean that Adani will need to seek a water licence for the Carmichael Mine but that process won’t be open to legal challenges from greens groups.


Instead a panel will review the mine application based on testing done for the company’s battle with the land court.


This process is expected to provide certainty for Adani and also allow the application to pass through quickly without further delay.


In its original form the legislation had alarmed the resources industry and regional leaders, who were concerned adding an additional roadblock to the Adani project would pave the way for a fresh string of lengthy legal battles. But new amendments have addressed these concerns, providing an easy path for the Carmichael project to overcome its last major roadblock.


“This will be achieved by allowing associated water licence applications to be exempt from public notification, if the mining project has already been through an EIS process and a Land Court objections hearing in which objectors tested the groundwater modelling undertaken by the project proponent with expert evidence of their own,” the responsible minister said.


“This exemption will only apply if the Land Court process was completed prior to the introduction of the Bill.” The Adani project has been through the Land Court and it is expected the panel will be able to approve its water licence quickly.


Deputy Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington criticised the eleventh hour move by the government.


“Labor’s hypocrisy on the Adani mine has been astounding and they should be condemned for creating untold angst and uncertainty as they pander to the green movement,” she said.


“She [Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk] has been saying she wants the Adani project to proceed and yet allowed greenie ministers in her Cabinet to introduce job destroying legislation that would tie the project up in green lawfare. Why did it take her so long to end the uncertainty for the resources sector?”


Earlier this month, the Queensland Government announced invoking special powers to help progress the Adani’s project by giving it special ‘prescribed project status’.

Queensland-based regional leaders have strongly demanded the state and federal governments clear the project without any further delays.

In an open letter published in major newspapers around the state several mayors and business leaders said, “It’s time to get Adani’s Galilee projects going—no more red tape, no more delays”.

“We can’t afford new roadblocks or delays including new water legislation that activists can exploit in new court ­appeals to kill this project,” the letter said.

“With six years of multiple approval processes and multiple court reviews, this project has the most stringent environment conditions ever. That includes detailed water modelling and coordinator–General and federal approvals that have been reviewed and upheld by government,” the letter said.

“Enough is enough. Anything more at this late stage in approvals is just red tape and duplication,” it noted.

Adani’s spokesperson said, “Adani welcomes the support of the local communities that will directly benefit from the Carmichael mine and associated projects through jobs.”

The Indian mining giant has said it plans to start construction of the $21.7 billion project in Australia in the third quarter of 2017, after six years of legal delays over environmental approvals.

“The company is moving ahead, having already invested more than 3.3 billion dollar to date.”


More background:

Fact Check: The Coal Wars
An increase in the coal price and Prime Minister Turnbull’s apparent change of view means the Coal Wars are back. A review of some of the key claims at the heart of the Australian coal debate.


Wangan & Jagalingou People urge construction contractor to back off

Wangan Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council urge potential construction contractors not to get involved in the mine.


Ecologists make four environmental arguments against the mine

Ecologists see four good reasons why the mine should not go ahead: Climate change, the Great Barrier Reef, water, threatened species.


Australia's coal politics are undermining democratic and Indigenous rights
Can Australia achieve fair and open decision-making when big coal players are involved? The case of Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine suggests the answer is no, and Indigenous land owners are bearing the brunt.