Coal mine project a test case for new Aussie PM

Rock singer Jimmy Barnes (centre) and Southern Highlands residents protesting in Sydney yesterday against a proposed coal mine in Sutton Forest. Canberra plans to make it harder for green groups to launch legal challenges.
Rock singer Jimmy Barnes (centre) and Southern Highlands residents protesting in Sydney yesterday against a proposed coal mine in Sutton Forest. Canberra plans to make it harder for green groups to launch legal challenges.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

All eyes on whether Turnbull will back law to curb green litigation

A controversial plan by Indian energy giant Adani to build Australia's biggest coal mine has been criticised over its impact on the environment in a stand-off that is shaping up as a test case for new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The A$16.5 billion (S$16.5 billion), 60-year project involves the construction of one of the world's biggest mines in the remote Galilee Basin in the state of Queensland.

The scale of the project is staggering: It involves building a 189km railway and an airport, creating one of the world's biggest coal ports and producing 60 million tonnes of coal a year from six open pits and five underground mines.

It is tipped to create 10,000 jobs in the region, producing coal to help fuel power stations across India.

But the project, due to begin exports in 2017, has run into a series of legal and environmental obstacles that threaten to delay it or scuttle it altogether.

Environmentalists claim it will threaten vulnerable species, damage the Great Barrier Reef and lead to large-scale carbon emissions.

In August, a conservation group won a court action against the project in a bid to protect two threatened species: the ornamental snake and the yakka skink, a rare lizard. The court ruled that the approval process had been flawed and Environment Minister Greg Hunt had not properly considered advice about the mine's impact.

The decision infuriated mining groups and former prime minister Tony Abbott, who said environmental lawyers had "sabotaged" the project.

Mr Abbott, a staunch advocate of coal mining, announced plans to change Australia's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to make it harder for environmental and community groups to launch legal challenges.

But Mr Turnbull, who ousted Mr Abbott as leader two weeks ago, is a proponent of action to tackle climate   change, and there is speculation that he may take a different approach.

According to a report in Fairfax Media last Saturday, government sources have said the crackdown on green litigation will be reconsidered by Cabinet and "would not survive in its current form". But a spokesman for Mr Hunt told The Straits Times "the government's position (on amending the legislation) has not changed".

An expert on Australian environmental and resources law, Professor Alex Gardner of the University of Western Australia, said efforts to block challenges by environmental groups could delay projects because there may be additional court battles over whether the groups should be allowed to take legal action. "These mines are enormous," he told The Straits Times.

"They are on a scale we have never seen before. Their impact on groundwater and the surrounding environment is significant... There are real reasons why groups would challenge those approvals."

Meanwhile, Adani has insisted it is committed to the mega-mine despite the delays in securing environmental approval. The company has already spent about A$3 billion on the project. 

Adani's Australian chief executive, Mr Jeyakumar Janakaraj, said Adani would look at "other options" for securing coal supplies, if the Galilee mine fell through or faced further big delays.

Adani is not the only firm facing obstacles. Yesterday, protesters demanded that Hume Coal company, owned by South Korean steelmaker Posco, pull out of a proposed coal mine in Sutton Forest, in New South Wales' Southern Highlands.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2015, with the headline 'Coal mine project a test case for new Aussie PM'. Print Edition | Subscribe