The time for developing new coalmines is over. Professor Samantha Hepburn, Director of Deakin’s Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, argues that Australia has experienced a “Dickensian moment” – and approval of the Adani coalmine is both economically unsound and morally indefensible.
Last night I watched “Our Planet,” a BBC program narrated by David Attenborough, who reviewed the facts of climate change. One particularly salient fact stands out. Before we started to burn coal, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was approximately 280 parts per million. Today, after so many years of burning coal to generate energy, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is over 400 parts per million. And our planet keeps getting warmer and warmer.
In Australia, profound frustration with our lack of action on climate change and, in particular, our failure to address one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions – the burning of fossil fuels – has given the proposed Adani coal mine in the Galilee Basin of Queensland unprecedented attention.
Adani was originally proposed as one of the largest thermal coalmines in the world. Approval of the mining title for Adani generated an enormous public outcry. It came at a time when the Federal and State Governments giving this approval were fully apprised of the global climate risk associated with burning coal.
They were aware that Australia’s emissions from fossil fuels continue to rise and that, based on the most recent quarterly inventory, are now six per cent above 2005 levels and increasing at around one per cent since 2014. Further, they were aware that under the current framework, our emissions are heading for an increase of nine per cent above 2005 levels by 2030, rather than the 15–17 per cent decrease in these emissions required to meet our Paris agreement targets.
As such, Australia’s emissions are set to far outpace an already insufficient 2030 target.
In 2015, the Federal Court response to the concerns raised by the Australian Conservation Foundation over the issuance of this mining title was, in part, a reflection of a weak governance framework. The court concluded that because the coal was being exported to India, and the emissions were occurring outside our jurisdictional boundary, it was too difficult to reach a “robust” conclusion as to whether they would actually contribute to an increase in global greenhouse gas emissions.
So, a new coal mine that burnt the coal in Australia might be a problem, but sending it offshore was acceptable – at least from the point of view of our national Environment Act. The awful irony of this was that Adani is adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, whose coral is being decimated by the warming of the ocean and changes in the PH level, which are themselves caused by global emissions.
Climate change does not adhere to jurisdictional boundaries.
Since the Federal Court handed down this decision in 2015, a lot has changed. Concern about climate change, energy and environmental governance, indigenous entitlements and the crucial importance of Australian water resources has rapidly mounted. People from all walks of life have voiced their concerns. Landowners, farmers, environmentalists, small businesses, urbanites, regional communities, children – people from all backgrounds – have protested.
The sentiment is appropriately encapsulated in the recent 2019 judgement of Chief Judge Brian Preston in the NSW Rocky Hill Coal Mine case, where His Honour refused to approve a new open cut coal mine because it came at the “wrong time” as “its coal product will increase global total concentrations of GHGs (Greenhouse Gases) at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally-agreed climate targets, is a rapid and deep decrease in GHG emissions.”
Astute politicians know this. Some have even given lip-service to it in the lead-up to a tight election. Most, however, are reluctant to discuss climate change and to talk about a changing coal market because they fear it will cost them votes. Coal has always been a stalwart of the Australian economy and resistance to change can be strong and, for wary politicians, is best avoided.
And what can be done anyway? Adani itself has stated that they are nearly ready to proceed. They already have the mining title. They do not have bank funding, but have indicated that they will “self-fund.” They have a water licence because a large new thermal coal mine uses a lot of water.
However, the Australian Conservation Foundation has challenged the decision of the Federal Environment Minister, Melissa Price, not to activate the water trigger under the national Environmental Act in issuing this licence. A decision on this challenge is yet to be handed down.
Politics and approvals
What Adani did not have, until very recently, was Federal Government approval of their groundwater management plan, which would enable them to carry out the activities authorised by the water licence. The groundwater management plan predicts how groundwater will respond to the operation of the coal mine. This approval was, ostensibly, based upon the accepted advice from CSIRO and Geoscience.
However, it is unclear exactly how this advice is incorporated into the approval, given that the election was called and the Government went into caretaker mode on the day that CSIRO was to be questioned about the report by the Senate Estimates Committee.
CSIRO states that its report examines whether elements of Adani’s proposed plans would be adequate to protect nationally-significant water assets. It called for a range of measures to protect water including: a substantial increase in early-warning monitoring between the mine and Doongmabulla Spring; use of deeper bores to monitor flows; and tightened corrective action triggers in order to activate immediate responses to unexpected groundwater impacts. Further, CSIRO recommended that two years after the commencement of coal extraction, the modelling be redone to ensure its accuracy.
Controversially, approval at the Federal level to the groundwater plan was given by Environment Minister Melissa Price just prior to the Government entering into caretaker mode. The Queensland Government has not yet signed off on the groundwater plan. Queensland’s Environment Minister, Leeanne Enoch, has indicated that she needs time to go through the CSIRO and Geoscience reports. This has prompted claims by the LNP candidates in Queensland that the State Labor Government is intentionally “delaying” the final approval. However, the Queensland Government is responsible, under a bilateral arrangement with the Federal Government, to conduct focused environmental assessment of any such plan. This is a crucially important process, given the national importance of water resources.
Additional approvals are also required before the mine can commence. Approval must be given to the black-throated finch management plan, given that this is an endangered species. The Queensland Government has rejected Adani’s plan because of its failure to clearly outline how loss of habitat and loss of seed due to cattle grazing is to be managed. This is a critical requirement given that the development of the mine site will result in the loss of one of the only remaining habitats for the finch.
Approval must also be given for the new rail corridor, which now involves plans for a smaller rail line (approximately 200 kms) to connect to the existing Aurizon network. Once these are received, Lucas Dow, the Adani Chief Executive Officer, has indicated that the mine will commence on a small scale and “ramp up” to a capacity for 27.5 million tonnes a year. The Queensland Government estimates that the life-span of the Adani coal mine is between 25-60 years. This, of course, fundamentally contravenes the dire IPCC warning that coal-fired electricity needs to stop by 2050 in order for global warming to stay within two degrees.
This does not just mean that burning coal for electricity must stop. It means all coal, including exports for burning, must stop.
The end of coal
At the global level, there are indications that a shift away from coal is already happening. In the prescient words of Andrew Vesey, the previous head of AGL, coal is dead.
Right now, mid-election Australia seems blithely unaware of this. But there are indications internationally. Recent data from Bloomberg and the International Energy Agency indicates that the global export market for coal is declining. India, for example, is actively working on a plan to terminate coal imports completely because it does not wish to use expensive imports.
Further, while coal is central to India’s political economy, micro-grids are increasingly recognised as a cheaper and more efficient method of providing electricity to villages because they encourage rural development through local investment and employment, as opposed to centralised coal models.
Recent industry statements also support a decline in coal. The coal giant Glencore Plc promised its investors that it would not increase production as it wants to be “resilient to regulatory, physical and operations risks related to climate change.”
Preparing for the end of coal as a source of electricity is imperative. Approving a new coal mine is clearly paradoxical, particularly one as controversial as the Adani coal mine. The supposed economic benefits it will provide are illusory because of the global changes to the market and because of the enormity of the impact of climate change upon the fossil fuel sector.
With this in mind, espousing the economic benefits of Adani for short-term political gain becomes morally reprehensible.
The Adani coalmine is inconsistent with global climate change imperatives. The Adani coalmine is inconsistent with water management imperatives and our growing understanding of the food/water/energy nexus. Understanding the linkages between fossil fuel-generated energy production from coal and its irreversible impacts upon food and water security is one of the critical issues for our future.
The Adani coalmine is inconsistent with Indigenous heritage. The Indigenous land use agreement between Adani and the traditional owners is symptomatic of the transactional fairness problems Indigenous communities face when negotiating with mining companies.
Members of the Wangan and Jagalingou people have challenged the validity of the Adani Indigenous land use agreement on the basis that the substantial majority amendment to the Native Title Act, an amendment that was rushed through by the Federal Government in 2017 to validate the Adani agreement, was unreasonable and unfair.
They argue that the amendment prevents a minority of native title claimants from objecting to the terms and conditions of a mining agreement, which will, by force of majority, extinguish their native title claim and irreversibly destroy their cultural and spiritual heritage. Their concerns have not gone unnoticed. In December, 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination wrote that if the Adani agreement does not have the free, prior and informed consent of all the Wangan and Jagalingou people, the project may infringe their human rights.
The “disconnect” must end
The time for developing new coalmines is over. The approval of the Adani coalmine is best explained as a Dickensian moment for Australia, sourced in our long affiliation with coal and our reluctance to accept the imperatives of change.
Coal-fired electricity is fundamentally incompatible with the imperatives of a modern world. With the recent release of the 2018 World Meteorological Organisation “State of the Climate Report,” we know that the physical, social and economic signs of climate change are becoming more visceral as record greenhouse gas concentrations drive global temperatures towards increasingly dangerous levels.
The impacts are no longer subtle. We have seen record sea level rises, exceptionally high land and ocean temperatures over the past four years and a dramatic increase in climate-related risks and impacts on human health and welfare, migration and displacement, food security, the environment, and ocean and land-based ecosystems. We have all seen the footage of the desolate polar bears, scavenging for food in the wake of ice and glacial melting. And we have witnessed the rise of climate activism across the world.
It is no longer possible to live in a world of social and regulatory disconnect. Burning coal overseas is just as bad as burning it in Australia. A fact that is not lost on the global business community. Coal is losing its dominance in the electricity sector. Even with clean technologies, coal is still the most significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally. Ultimately, although technologies may become more efficient and cheaper over time, coal’s dominance as a cheap form of energy is nearing the end.
With all of this in mind, approval of the Adani coalmine by the Federal and, in all likelihood, the Queensland Government, is not only economically unsound, it is morally indefensible.
Professor Samantha Hepburn
Deakin Law School