SYDNEY • Australia yesterday approved the construction of a controversial coal mine near the Great Barrier Reef, paving the way for a dramatic and unfashionable increase in coal exports.
The Queensland state government said it had accepted a groundwater management plan for the Indian-owned Adani Carmichael mine - the last major legal hurdle before construction can begin.
The project, fiercely debated for almost a decade, comes as investors and even energy companies are moving away from fossil fuels amid concern about the climate.
Opponents warn it will create a new generation of coal exports - destined for India and China - contributing to further degradation of the planet.
The open cut mine is slated to produce up to 60 million tonnes of coal a year, boosting Australia's already vast exports by around 20 per cent. Coupled with the construction of a railway link, it could open up a swathe of Queensland to further exploitation and new mining projects.
"If all the coal in the Galilee Basin is burnt it would produce 705 million tonnes of climate pollution each year, which is more than 1.3 times Australia's annual pollution from all sources, including cars, industry, energy and agriculture," said the Australian Conservation Foundation.
In the emissions stakes, Australia is a minnow compared to the bellowing economies of the United States and China.
But its role as the world's largest coal exporter gives the country outsized influence in the climate stakes.
Conservationists also say the mine threatens local vulnerable species and means coal will have to be shipped from a port near the World Heritage-listed Barrier Reef.
Supporters say the mine will bring thousands of much-needed jobs to rural Queensland.
Adani indicated construction work would begin within days and last around two years, allowing the first lump of coal to be sold around 2021. "We are looking forward to getting going," said local company executive Lucas Dow.
Yesterday's decision draws a line under a rancorous debate, which reached boiling point during the recent Australian general election.
That vote took place amid discussion of brutal droughts, floods and wildfires that had highlighted the country's susceptibility to climate change.
Victory for the incumbent conservative Liberal Party had virtually assured the project would go ahead.
In Queensland, voters swung hard to the government, fearing a Labor government would curb mining projects and cost them jobs.
Still, debate is likely to continue - and some believe the mine is not yet a certainty. While the Queensland state approval will permit preliminary construction, the firm must obtain some federal approvals before it can begin extracting coal.
The company will also still have to contend with low coal prices and a global shift to renewable energy, which could make the project less profitable.
Financing has already been a problem, with the company rejected by many fossil-fuel-wary institutions and forced to fund itself.