Is Greg Hunt the Minister for the Environment, or the Minister for Fossil Fuels?
It’s a fair question in the wake of his decision yesterday to approve one of the world’s largest coal mine, Carmichael, in central Queensland.
The mine will be built and operated by Indian mining corporation Adani – a company fined millions by the Indian government for environmental breaches.
The mine, if it is ever built, will export 160 million tonnes of coal to India every year. Once it gets to India, that coal will be burnt. Once it’s burnt, it will release hundreds of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
On some calculations, the carbon pollution from this single mine will represent a greater contribution to climate change than the entire annual emissions of New Zealand.
The government is, of course, trumpeting the decision, saying it will create 2,500 jobs in construction and 3,900 jobs once operational.
“The project, which was proposed and advanced under the previous state and federal ALP Governments, will have a resource value of $5 billion per annum over 60 years,” Greg Hunt said yesterday in a statement.
Not just that: “the project will provide electricity for up to 100 million people in India.”
Nowhere in Hunt’s media release does he mention greenhouse gas emissions or climate change. Because the coal will be burnt in another country, Hunt is pretending that it won’t affect the world’s climate.
It’s a measure of the stunted and warped nature of the environmental debate in this country that the climate change implications of such a massive project are barely being debated.
Indeed, much of the media coverage of the project’s approval process so far has focused on its vast depletion of underground water and the risks posed to the Great Artesian Basin.
These risks are certainly very serious. The government’s own Independent Expert Scientific Committee on coal seam gas and large mining projects has not ticked off on the approval.
Back in May, the Expert Committee raised a number of serious concerns about the project. It questioned Adani’s data, as well as the modeling it had used to predict groundwater effects.
Rather bluntly, the scientific experts warned of “important data gaps.”
“The Committee is not confident that the proponent’s groundwater model will be able to accurately predict responses to perturbation of the groundwater system arising from the proposed mine,” they wrote.
But hey – whatever! The Queensland and federal governments went ahead and approved the mine anyway.
Hunt has merely told Adani it must fix up its modeling in order for the mine to proceed.
“What we have to do now is to ensure there is a final modelling, that this is a prerequisite before there is further progress," he told the ABC’s Alison Carabine this morning.
Think of it as the precautionary principle in reverse: rather than wait until we find out what the effect of this giant mine on Queensland’s water basins will be, Hunt is giving the green light to Adani now, and telling the company it can do its homework later.
Then there are the concerns about the project’s impact on the Great Barrier Reef.
The coal will be transported by rail to the monster coal port being constructed at Abbot Point near Gladstone, and then will be shipped through the Barrier Reef on ships. Nothing could go wrong there, could it?
Hunt says no. “I don’t know how you say that it has an impact on the reef.”
Okay, Greg: let’s spell it out for you. Coal is made from carbon. Carbon warms the planet. Warmer water temperatures are killing the reef. It’s really that simple.
As that notorious bunch of extremist whackos, the Australian Government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, state on their website: “Rising sea surface temperatures will affect every aspect of the Great Barrier Reef.”
The Alice in Wonderland politics of climate in Australia has descended so far down the rabbit hole, it’s now hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t.
Hunt’s handsome economic impact figures, for instance, are essentially fantasies.
With the global price of thermal coal slumping in recent times, many coal mines in Australia are already operating at a loss.
US mining giant Peabody closed its Wilkie Creek coal mine in December, and is considering shuttering other mines in Australia as well.
Glencore has also shelved its Wandoan projet, and Lend lease has backed out of its coal terminal at Abbot Point.
Many financial analysts are now openly questioning whether Adani can ever make good on this project.
Tim Buckley from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis argues that the numbers don’t add up.
“You've got existing coal mines in Australia that are operating right next to a railway line, five times closer to the port than the Carmichael deposit,” he told the ABC this morning. “And yet the owners of those mines are proposing to close them down.”
Globally, the world has an oversupply of coal.
China is ramping up its domestic production of thermal coal, as is India and Indonesia. Indian demand for coal is certainly strong, but it will be offset by weaker demand from China, which is pushing ahead with ambitious green energy programs and has recently announced a “war on smog”.
Shimmering over the horizon is coal’s biggest threat: solar.
The dramatically falling costs of solar electricity generation mean that new solar will be cheaper than coal very soon. As solar PV cells get cheaper and cheaper, the entire business model of thermal coal mining will collapse.
Whatever you think of the business case for the Carmichael mine, the environmental case is non-existent.
Every reputable scientific body in the world agrees that global warming is real and accelerating, and that fossil fuel consumption is the cause.
Unless the world’s industries can rapidly move away from fossil fuels in the next decade, the planet faces devastating climate change.
It takes a particular type of blindness to ignore these stark facts.
Then again, only a special sort of Environment Minister can spend his first year in office dismantling Australia’s environmental protections.
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