This month saw UNESCO express serious concerns about Great Barrier Reef management; Federal plans for the extension of marine parks; continuing disquiet about water quality in Gladstone Harbour; and a once-and-for-all decision about the dingo and the baby, putting the spotlight on the conservation vs tourism debate.
Within hours of posting Bimblebox 3: May update I heard the first rumours of the imminent approval of the Alpha Coal Project. On 29 May, Queensland's Co-ordinator General OK'd (with 29 conditions) this $6.4 billion plan for an opencast mine producing 30 million tonnes of coal a year for 30 years for Gina Rinehart's Hancock Prospecting and India's GVK Coal. The Alpha mine is just a few kilometres from Bimblebox (35 kilometres northwest of the town of Alpha).
This was the first of nine proposed Galilee Basin mines to be approved and did not bode well for Bimblebox. Just as I was imagining a domino effect, however, there began a spat between the Queensland State Government and Tony Burke, Federal Environment Minister, whose final permission is required before construction can begin (with an operational start planned for 2016). Mr Burke was incensed: the State had not considered Federal environmental regulations – concerning matters of national conservation significance – which they were supposed to do under a bilateral arrangement, and had thus produced a deeply flawed and 'dangerously deficient' approval. Instead of conforming to Premier Campbell Newman's desire to cut 'green tape', the process now required Federal intervention as well as the final green light.
We can only speculate how much politicking was going on here: Newman's action-packed fast-tracking of revenue-generating projects vs Burke's demonstration of what may be the last vestiges of Labor power.
The Queensland government reacted to being rapped over the knuckles by insisting on the 30-day limit for the Minister's final go-ahead, as stipulated under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Mr Burke responded by stopping the clock on the approval process. As tempers flared, the State Environment Minister, Andrew Powell, and Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney (who is also Minister for State Development, Infrastructure and Planning) flew to Sydney to meet Mr Burke to sort out their differences. In the meantime, back in Queensland, Campbell Newman addressed business leaders and environmentalists on one of his favourite topics, green tape.
'Our position continues to be that we are here to say "yes"', he said.
By the middle of the month, the Federal and State governments had allegedly revised the approval process, ostensibly to the satisfaction of both sides (and the mining companies?). As far as I can work out, the Feds will continue the processing of the Alpha Coal Project approval.
Dr Chris McGrath, senior lecturer in environmental regulation and litigation at the University of Queensland, believes the Queensland State Government has not got to grips with the approval process (see here). He is not the first to describe the naivete of the Newman government.
Much more worrying, however, given the extended timescale of the approval process, is the very real possibility that the Labor government will fail to win the next general election, which must be held by the end of November 2013. May all your gods help the environment once the LNP is in power nationally and in all resource-rich states of the Commonwealth.
Meanwhile, every few days I check Current EIS Projects on the Queensland Government's website to see if there has been any change of status of China First Coal – 'Supplementary report to EIS being prepared by proponent'. The efficacy of the approval process having been so undermined in recent weeks, are there any safe hands in which to place conservation management?
This post was last updated on 1 July 2012