Why the fight against Adani’s mega coalmine is far from over

August 6, 2015
Coral scientist Dr John 'Charlie' Veron dives for an underwater protest in the Great Barrier Reef.

Mining giant Adani’s plan for a mega coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin was dealt a near death blow on August 5 when the Federal Court set aside approval for the Carmichael licence.

The mine, if built, would be Australia’s largest, exporting up to 60 million tonnes of coal from the Great Barrier Reef coast every year. The federal environment minister gave the $16.5 billion mine and rail project approval in July last year. The current and former Queensland governments have been gung-ho in their support for the mine.

Activists, who had fought the proposal for three years, are also celebrating the Commonwealth Bank’s decision, announced on the same day, that it will no longer advise Adani on the mine.

The Mackay Conservation Group (MCG) mounted a legal challenge in January. It argued federal environment minister Greg Hunt had failed to take into account the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act when he granted approval.

Ellen Roberts, from the MCG, told Skynews on August 5 that the court’s decision was a “victory for land and water, biodiversity, the global climate and also for common sense”.

Sue Higginson, principal solicitor for the Environment Defenders Office NSW (EDO), said the court’s decision was based on the minister’s failure to take into account the conservation of two federally-listed vulnerable species — the Yakka Skink and the Ornamental Snake.

“The law requires that the minister consider these conservation advices so that he understands the impacts of the decision that he is making on matters of National Environmental Significance, in this case the threatened species”, Higginson said on August 5.

The lawsuit alleged a failure “to consider global greenhouse emissions from the burning of the coal”, but the court did not comment on this.

Hunt and Adani have been quick to play down the significance of the court’s decision. Hunt’s department acknowledged a “technical administrative matter” and said it was not necessary to revisit the entire approval process. Adani blamed Hunt’s office for the “technical legal error”.

The mine now does not have the legal authority to start construction or operate. Environmentalists expect Adani to reapply for a licence and Hunt will be only too happy to reapprove the application. This could take place in six to eight weeks.

Activists have pointed out that adjusting a “technical and administrative error” is not as simple as the department is making out, but the fact that the Queensland and federal governments are fully behind the mega mine means the fight to stop it for good remains.

Queensland government support

The Queensland Labor government remains a big supporter of the Adani mine, despite its own treasury having doubts. Information obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald shows the Queensland treasury did not believe Adani could finance the mega mine, even with taxpayers’ funds as promised by the former Liberal premier Campbell Newman, a pledge which came to light in June.

Mines minister Anthony Lytham, expressing his “extreme disappointment” at the court’s decision, said he hoped it would not delay the project for too long.

“There’s been a judicial review and I believe it’s a technical error, but we’re asking the federal government, we're asking the federal environment minister to sort this out as quickly as possible”, he told ABC News on August 6.

The Adani mine is the linchpin for the massive expansion of coalmining in the Galilee Basin. It includes a rail link and the expansion of a port as well as dredging and dumping of spoil on the Great Barrier Reef. Environmentalists have been waging an all-out campaign to prevent the Galilee Basin from being opened up to mining because if this one is approved, it will be easier for several others waiting for approvals — GVK-Hancock, AMCI/Bandanna and Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal.
The campaign against Adani involves local conservation groups and Aboriginal organisations, as well other key environmental agencies, such as 350.org, Greenpeace, Australian Conservation Foundation, Queensland Conservation Council, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, Getup!, Australian Marine Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund.

Activists’ concerns range from the conservation of endangered species and wetlands to the mine’s impact on groundwater, the Great Barrier Reef and climate change.

Environmentalists are also concerned with the planning process, which limits the community’s ability to have a say at the Environmental Impact Assessment stage and to raise objections at other stages. Also, the planning process does not take into account the social impact on communities affected by the development.

The campaign focus on the mine’s danger to the Great Barrier Reef has garnered widespread support locally, nationally and internationally. While US President Barrack Obama spoke of the need to preserve the Reef at the G20 Summit late last year, Adani’s CEO was stitching up a deal with Prime Minister Tony Abbott and former Premier Newman.

Focus on divestment

The other main focus of the campaign has been directed at the mega mine’s financial backers: 12 international banks have now said they will withdraw support. Only Standard Chartered, a British bank, is still prepared to finance Adani’s coal expansion.

In Australia, the campaign against the Commonwealth Bank to withdraw appears to have been successful. Actions outside Commonwealth branches and head offices, calling on people to close their accounts, and an occupation at its Melbourne Head Office, has had an impact. A survey of staff conducted in 200 branches across the country as part of the campaign last week found 73% opposed CommBank financing the Abbot Point coal port and Galilee Basin projects.

At this stage Adani has no legal approval for the mine and is not in a financial position to proceed. It has reportedly sacked staff in Brisbane, as well as engineering and construction contractors, using the approval delays as the excuse.

The EDO’s Higginson, who represented the MCG, has written to Hunt urging him to reconsider the mine’s application and in particular the exaggerated job figures Adani included in its environmental impact statement.

“What can happen from here is the minister can remake his decision and, of course, in remaking that decision he can approve the mine again following the proper legal procedures, or he can refuse the mine.

“That is the legal power open to the minister,” Higginson told the ABC on August 6. “If the Minster wants to reconsider approving the mine, there is a plethora of new evidence and information about that mine.”

Further legal challenges

Representatives for the Wangan and Jagalingou people, who have twice rejected Adani’s overtures, have lodged a case in the Federal Court.

Conservation group Land Services of Coast and Country is still waiting to hear a judgement from the Queensland Land and Environment Court on its objection to Adani’s mine. During the hearings in April and May, evidence presented showed Adani had inflated the number of jobs involved — from 1400 to 10,000 — as well as revenue to Queensland’s treasury — from $7.8 billion to $22 billion.

Activists know the campaign needs to be ratcheted up now to bury the Adani mine project for good. Action planned for outside Commonwealth banks from August 13 to 15 will go ahead, as well as the campaign to demand Hunt rejects any new application from Adani.

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