SYDNEY • Australia yesterday approved a controversial Indian-backed project to build one of the world's biggest coal mines - despite conservationists' fears that it could threaten the Great Barrier Reef and vulnerable species while worsening global climate change.
The A$16.5 billion (S$16.6 billion) project at Galilee Basin in Queensland state has attracted fierce criticism from environmentalists. They say the development, which requires coal to be shipped to a port on the coast, risks the health of the World Heritage-listed reef and could destroy local habitats.
Critics have also warned that the mine - which they said could be as large as 28,000ha - would add to global warming, while supporters argue that it would create thousands of jobs and boost regional infrastructure.
Adani Enterprises has faced numerous hurdles in its bid to build the open-cut, underground coal mine, possibly Australia's largest. The approval process has already taken five years.
Conservationists yesterday flagged possible new legal challenges following the decision, which came two months after the Federal Court blocked the mine, largely in relation to two vulnerable reptiles - the lizard-like yakka skink and the ornamental snake.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt said the project had been approved subject to "36 of the strictest conditions in Australian history".
"The rigorous conditions will protect threatened species and provide long-term benefits for the environment through the development of an offset package," he said in a statement.
"These measures must be approved by myself before mining can start," he added, noting that he had the power to suspend or revoke the approval, as well as impose penalties if there was a breach of conditions.
Under the conditions laid down, all advice from an independent scientific committee must be implemented, 31,000ha of habitat for the southern black-throated finch will be protected and improved, and groundwater at a nearby wetland will be monitored.
Further, some A$1 million in funding over 10 years has to be allocated to research programmes that boost the conservation of threatened species in the Galilee Basin, located about 1,200km north-west of Queensland's capital of Brisbane.
The Indian conglomerate, which has accused activists of exploiting legal loopholes to stall the mine, welcomed Mr Hunt's decision and the "rigorous and painstaking conditions".
Adani said the mine would create 10,000 jobs and generate A$22 billion in taxes and royalties. The figures have been disputed by critics, who argue that a plunge in coal prices is making the development financially unviable.