Reef in peril as new Qld Government waves through Abbot Point expansion

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The new Queensland Government has approved the expansion of the Abbot Point coal port, smoothing the way for the massive expansion of coal mining in the Galilee Basin, and increasing the risk of runaway climate change and the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. Lachlan Barker reports.

[Read Lachlan Barker's previous stories on Abbot Point.]

THE QUEENSLAND GOVERNMENT has changed, but it seems not much else has. Those fighting to protect the Great Barrier Reef from the destruction to be wrought upon it by the expanded coal loader port at Abbot Point were at first heartened by the removal of the Newman Government in Queensland.

However, it now appears that the new Labor Government of Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk love coal and the mining thereof every bit as much as their predecessors, as this week they cleared plans for Adani and GVK Hancock to press ahead with their plans to expand the Abbot Point port, near Bowen, south of Townsville, to allow for the opening up of the Galilee Basin coal fields.

Announcing the decision, new State Development Minister Anthony Lynham reportedly said (via Reuters):

"It's vital to Queensland. It's 4000 jobs just from the two mines — the Adani mine and the GVK mine."

When I read that, at first I thought it was an archived story and that Lynham, a name unfamiliar to me, was a member of the former Newman Government; that somehow a story from last year had accidentally resurfaced on the wire.

But no, sadly it seems that the Palaszczuk Government are not opposed to the destruction of the one of the seven great natural wonders of the world.

And just to make it clear to us that this was, sadly, not just a bad dream, the Queensland premier herself, was reported in the same story as saying:

"I've always said I support the responsible and sustainable development of the Galilee Basin and Abbot Point, and the agreement we've reached demonstrates that."

T2 area is where dredge spoil will be dumped under the new plans (Image by Qld Government via abc.net.au)

But is the project sustainable? The answer is no — neither economically nor environmentally.

The economics for the Galilee don't stack up, at least under current and foreseeable market conditions. Investment bank UBS estimated that thermal coal (the coal is used in energy generation) out of the Galilee would have to be sold for US$110 a tonne for the Galilee fields to be operated profitably. However, the price of thermal coal has been dropping steadily since the peak in 2008, and currently sits at US$65. The industry average production costs for thermal coal in Australia is US$74 a tonne. The price fell below this mark in July 2014 and has since dropped further every month since. The most recent fall, in February, 2015, was 1.1% down to US$65.79. The price is so low because of oversupply of thermal coal on the world market, further highlighting the madness of opening new coal mines.

On the global environmental front, opening the new mines of the Galilee is close to suicidal. A recent analysis points out that if the world wishes to stay below 2o C warming, 80% of the world’s coal reserves have to stay in the ground. If we dig it up and burn it, then further levels of climate change fury will be visited upon the world’s meteorology. The Galilee Basin contains one of the largest known stores of coal in the world and there are plans in place for nine new "mega-mines".

As environmental scientist Sonya Duus said in The Conversation:

'The likely climate impacts from the opening of the Galilee Basin are both significant and are currently unaccounted for in Australia’s assessment and approval processes. If all the projects go ahead, the annual emissions from burning Galilee Basin coal would amount to around 130% of Australia’s current total annual emissions. It’s enough to make you question our governments’ commitment to cutting global emissions.'

Beyond all that, it seems the new Queensland Government has also decided to overlook the murky probity and governance issues hanging over the project's owner – giant Indian conglomerate Adani – in its haste to wave through this project within their first month in power. In February this year, Fairfax published a story calling into question the governance of Adani and describing a complex web of offshore companies, through and around which the entity known as Adani operates.

At one point, the Fairfax investigative team said this:

Fairfax Media is not suggesting there is anything illegal about Adani's complex corporate structure. But its use of offshore, low-tax jurisdictions in relation to its Australian operations, and the apparent uncertainty about ownership of the Abbot Point Port lease, raise questions about the ability of the public to scrutinise a project of such huge economic and environmental significance.’

With no certainty over who, or which, company was the real proponent for Adani’s operations in Australia, then a prosecution for environmental damage is likely to be difficult, if not almost impossible.

Indeed, an expert I interviewed about the Maules Creek coal mine and its destruction of Leard Forest in NSW said:

‘Yes, it’s fine to have offsetting and environmental regulations, but if the company mines for five years, then goes belly up bankrupt, then the EPA or whoever wishes to prosecute for any damage done, has no one to put in the dock, as the company doesn’t exist anymore. Then the landscape has been destroyed and no one will ever be punished for it.’

This would appear to be a real danger with Adani and Abbot Point.

The Greens are particularly concerned with this state of affairs and announced, announcing via press release that they are calling on the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) to investigate the ownership of the Abbot Point coal port and Carmichael coal mine projects.

Greens Senator Larissa Waters stated in this release that investigation of the matter was urgent:

I’ve written to ASIC seeking an urgent investigation into which entity owns these massive projects threatening our Reef and climate.’  

Media revelations have exposed inconsistencies in Adani’s reporting of its ownership structure to regulators in India and Australia.

The government needs to know exactly which entity and which individuals are responsible for these projects in order to hold them to account for the likely environmental damage they are set to inflict. 

The Palaszczuk and Abbott governments are bending over backwards to ensure that Adani can turn our Great Barrier Reef into a shipping highway for climate-destroying coal. 

They appear to be handing over the safety of the Reef to shell companies registered in Singapore and the Cayman Islands.

Both Labor and the Liberals so are wedded to coal, rather than transitioning to renewables, that they’re looking the other way on Adani’s murky ownership and taxation arrangements.

They’re also ignoring Adani’s appalling environmental and social track record overseas, which includes breaching Indian environmental laws on port management and devastating Indian communities reliant on fishing.

So with the congratulatory bouquets in Premier Palaszczuk’s office barely beginning to fade, the Palaszczuk Government seem to be showing themselves no better than their predecessors at protecting the Reef and the climate of the planet.

Environmentalists were hopeful during the Queensland election campaign, thinking they had received signals that if Labor were elected they would put the kybosh on the Abbot Point expansion.

Now, however, it seems that all that was really promised was that taxpayer funds wouldn’t be spent on the project, which the Government does seems to be following through on.

But the project itself – with all the lovely, though mythical, money that the Palaszczuk Government believes will start rolling in – is back on the agenda and going gangbusters once more.

So strap on your battle armour if you wish to protect the Reef and the planet, as it's once more unto the breach.

Lachlan Barker blogs at cyclonecharlie88.blogspot.com.au. You can follow him on Twitter @cyclonecharlie8.

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