Australia will soon be home to one of the world’s biggest coal mines, now that the government has given its approval for the controversial project.
This week, Australia’s government approved the Carmichael mine, a project that’s backed by India’s Adani Enterprises. Environmentalists have staunchly opposed the mine, which will be located in central Queensland, because they say the increase in coal shipping that the mine will spur threatens the Great Barrier Reef. And, they say, the emissions that will come from burning the coal will contribute to the ocean warming and acidification that’s already threatening the reef.
“Carmichael would be a complete disaster for the climate and the Great Barrier Reef,” Greenpeace Australia campaigner Shani Tager said in a statement Thursday. “The federal government and Environment Minister should be in the business of protecting the Reef and the climate, not giving mining companies licence to destroy them. This project means more dredging in the Great Barrier Reef, more ships through its waters and more carbon emissions.”
The mine had been previously approved by the government, but a court temporarily overturned that approval in August, saying that Australia’s environment minister Greg Hunt didn’t take into account his department’s advice on how the mine would affect two species — the yakka skink and ornamental snake — when he granted approval. Now, Hunt says, the project will be 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,” Hunt said in a statement. “These measures must be approved by myself before mining can start.”
The conditions state that groundwater near the mine must be monitored. They also include a mandate that 119 square miles of habitat for the black throated finch must be protected. Lawyers had argued earlier this year that interests behind the mine had understated its impact on the endangered finch and other flora and fauna in the region. Those lawyers said that the environmental costs associated with the coal mine far outweighed the economic benefits that the government was touting.
“In the circumstances, the risks of this proposal are just too great to justify it, particularly in light of the dramatically reduced economic benefits and very questionable viability of it,” lawyer Saul Holt said in May.
The economic benefits of the mine have also been questioned. With the price of coal as low as it is — coal prices have dropped 52 percent since 2011 — investing in another mine doesn’t make sense, some have said.
“On a standalone basis, the economics just don’t stack up — I’m talking about costs and return on capital,” Daniel Morgan, global commodities analyst at UBS, told Reuters last year. “You’d need a price of about $100-$110 a [metric ton] for it to stack up.”
Experts have also challenged the Adani Group’s advertisments boasting the creation of 10,000 jobs in Queensland from the mine. An analysis from Adani’s economic adviser, however, found that the project would likely only create 1,464 net jobs.
Most of Carmichael’s coal will be purchased by India — a country that’s third in the world in terms of carbon emissions. India has struggled to bring power to the hundreds of millions in the country that don’t have access to it, but it’s also struggled with the choking pollution — and pollution-related deaths — that comes along with burning coal.
Australia, for its part, has come under fire recently for its treatment of the Great Barrier Reef. Earlier this year, a study found that dumping dredging waste near the reef, which is the most extensive coral reef system on earth, is causing major damage to the ecosystem. In May, Australia banned dumping dredging waste from new projects in the reef’s waters. But the reef has already lost half of its coral cover over the last three decades, and it faces additional threats from ocean acidification and warming.In July, the U.N. decided not to list the reef as “in danger,” but said that Australia must make significant progress on its conservation plan for the reef by 2016.