EXPERT REACTION: Federal Government grants Adani mine groundwater approvals
Organisation/s: RMIT University, The University of Queensland, The University of Newcastle, Griffith University
These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.
The Adani mine will potentially result in significant impacts on groundwater-dependent ecosystems in central Queensland, including the nationally protected Doongmabulla Springs Complex. Possible impacts include drying up of spring wetlands and reduced flows of groundwater to spring vents and pools, which could lead to irreversible ecological and cultural damage.
The management plan prepared by Adani to monitor and protect against such impacts in late 2018 was hampered by data gaps and scientific uncertainties, which resulted in the identification of serious short-comings in the plan’s assessment and management approach.
While the Environment Minister indicated that advice from the CSIRO suggests these problems have been addressed, the assessment process has been conducted behind closed doors, without opportunity for the public, communities and non-government scientists to independently critique and scrutinise the most recent version of the plan. Given the extraordinary ecological significance of the springs, the potential for irreversible impacts, and the scientific debate on this issue over the past five years, the mining company and minister must make public all of the relevant documentation and justification for the decision, and allow the independent community an opportunity to carefully examine the plan prior to further assessment by the Queensland government.
As it stands, Adani’s Black-throated Finch (BTF) Management Plan provides inadequate measures to manage for BTF. The major issues include:
- The plan has an over-reliance on setting aside BTF areas and increasing the habitat value of those areas as a conservation measure for BTF [known as offsets]. However, there is no obligation to prove habitat value has improved. The current work on offsets has shown that offsets have not provided habitat for BTF (Melton 2017). No loss or degradation of BTF should occur before it can be proven that offsets can be established where habitat value for BTF is enhanced.
- The management plan for BTF reads like a management plan for cows. Every effort should focus on conservation and retention of BTF. Grazing is the greatest threat to BTF habitat after land clearing, so should only be used where a management objective cannot be achieved through other means, and there is established science to show that grazing can increase the habitat value for BTF. Grazing has been shown to reduce habitat value for BTF, through degradation of the soil and ground cover and introduction of weeds. In particular, additional artificial water points should not be added in areas where there is grazing. Adding in additional water points to an area of BTF habitat where there is grazing is likely to be highly detrimental to the habitat value of an area.
- The plan states that: 'Adani will complete annual BTF habitat vegetation assessments at approved monitoring locations during May to maintain and where possible enhance BTF habitat' [pg 63]
Annual assessments are not sufficiently frequent to detect changes in ground cover that could severely impact the BTF. Particularly in dry conditions, land degradation could happen more quickly. Vegetation assessments should be done four times-a-year.
The Federal Government has provided another approval for the highly contentious proposed Adani Carmichael mine, this time granting approval for Adani's groundwater plan. But this does not signal a green light for Adani. It still faces further approvals challenges from the Queensland State Government. Most importantly, it faces a pending Federal Court appeal by Traditional Owners Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Family Council against the highly controversial Indigenous Land Use Agreement.
In short, after close to a decade of trying, Adani has failed to achieve policy or legal approvals. Nor has it secured a social license to operate, with most Australians opposed to the proposed mine, and growing demands for strong action - including energy transition away from fossil fuels - in response to the challenge of climate change.
The government’s go-ahead for the Adani mine illustrates the ‘new normal’. Decisions about major energy investments will continue to be highly contested. Economic benefits will be weighed against environmental costs at the local and global levels. That can cause decisions to be delayed or made incrementally as there is no simple and clear ‘answer’.
What decisions symbolise will become increasingly important. Decisions will speak to Australian voters, overseas investors and trading partners, with different messages to each one.
What is still missing is a strong sense of what the near-term alternatives are. How many cars or refrigerators would we need to forego buying – or ask the Indian middle class not to buy - to make the Adani mine or its alternative unnecessary? Where else would the supply of coal come from, and how well regulated would that setting be?
It is not clear what scientific advice informed the decision by the Coalition government to approve the proposed Adani Carmichael coal mine. What we do know is that at least one Coalition politician made a public threat to persuade the Minister to approve the mine before the government goes into caretaker mode. With all the opinion polls predicting that the Coalition government will be removed from office by the electorate, this looks suspiciously like a desperate act to lock the incoming ALP government into allowing the mine to go ahead.
The Paris agreement to slow climate change requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak very soon and then be reduced steeply. That means there should be no new coal mines or coal-fired power stations, anywhere. The Carmichael mine would not just be a tragic acceleration of climate change. It would also provide the infrastructure to encourage the opening of other coal mines in the Galilee Basin. Approving the mine is totally inconsistent with our obligation to the global community to help slow climate change.
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