Big Coal Eyeing Galilee Basin After Gina Rinehart Bags A Win In Supreme Court

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The Queensland Supreme Court has given a green tick to the second largest mine proposed for the Galilee Basin, mining magnate Gina Rinehart’s Alpha coal project, after it rejected community group Coast and Country’s challenge to the mine’s approvals yesterday.

The mine had been challenged over its impacts on ground water, climate change, and the state’s economy and is important because, like Adani’s ailing Carmichael coal mine, the massive project is seen as one of the few that would justify the capital expenditure required to develop rail infrastructure needed to transport Galilee coal to market.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld a decision made earlier this year in the Queensland Land Court, which Coast and Country had appealed after it recommended the state government reject applications for mining leases and environmental approvals unless new conditions were imposed.

Lawyers for Coast and Country argued that this recommendation was insufficiently “final” because the court had acknowledged inadequacies in the groundwater modelling for the mine, jointly owned by GVK and Hancock Coal, but failed to reach a conclusive position on whether the environmental damage was acceptable.

Yesterday, Justice Douglas found in the Supreme Court that the earlier decision to recommend approval only go ahead if further conditions were imposed by government to mitigate risks to groundwater was valid, and noted it could be challenged in the Land Court again if the eventual water conditions were seen to be unsatisfactory.

However it is possible that changes made by the Newman government, which Labor is yet to repeal after promising to do so ahead of this year’s election, could block those appeal rights for the massive project which would extract 32 million tonnes of coal each year.

GVK Hancock General Manager of External Affairs, Josh Euler, said the company is “pleased the court has clearly ruled that our project has continued to follow and comply with all regulatory and legal processes”.

Mining magnate and Australia's richest person, Gina Rinehart.

“This is a great day for Queensland as we can now get on with taking the next step towards creating thousands of jobs for the region and state,” he said.

But Central Queensland Grazier Bruce Currie, who was one of three farmers that brought the legal actions, said he was disappointed with the decision and that land owners have “had a gutful of governments and big coal fast-tracking these massive mines without proper process, and trampling on us and farming families along the way”.

“We’ve been trying for almost three years to have an honest conversation about the billions of litres of water GVK Hancock wants to take from our country, but from the start, all they’ve given us is the run-around,” he said.

Over its 30-year lifespan, the Alpha mine will drain 176 billion litres of water which would otherwise have flowed into the Burdekin River and Barrier Reef, and result in a ‘drawdown’ of water levels of up to 5 metres for a 20 kilometre radius, Coast and Country said. It will also leave a ‘final void’ 24 kilometres long.

The green group’s bid to have an existing environmental approval invalidated was also rejected yesterday, and Euler said “the next steps [for GVK Hancock]involve continuing to work with government to meet specific requirements that will allow for the grant of the mining lease for the Alpha Coal Project”.

That mining lease will be subject to the additional conditions on groundwater, which are as yet unknown, and Currie said it is vital that farmers don’t sit back “and allow permanent damage to groundwater supplies and the Great Artesian Basin”.

The case also reaffirmed an important precedent which holds that scope three emissions — those created by the transportation and eventual burning of the coal in third party countries — should not be taken into account when considering whether to grant an environmental approval.

Arguments made in court that the emissions should be taken into consideration because the resulting global warming would still impact Queensland’s environment, including the Great Barrier Reef, were also rejected.

If all of the nine mines proposed for the Galilee Basin go ahead as planned, according to a 2012 Greenpeace report, they will create 705 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, nearly double the 405 million tonnes Australia emitted in 2010.

The other major project proposed for the Galilee Basin, Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, has been plagued in recent weeks and months by the loss of its Federal approval, an exodus of major banks seeking to distance themselves from the controversial project, and embarrassing contradictions between the economic benefits it had promised and those its own experts were willing to testify to in court.

However GVK Hancock remains upbeat, with Euler stating that “once [Alpha’s] approvals are finalised we will execute coal off-take agreements with customers and finalise all financing arrangements in preparation for the commencement of construction”.

Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.

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