Has Australia learned nothing from Paris?
President (of the Land Court) Carmel MacDonald kept us waiting 10 minutes yesterday. If I'd have been her, I, too, would have preferred to drink tea in my rooms rather than come to the bench and announce the most ludicrously bad decision, just two days 'after Paris'.
Within seven minutes, and without a shred of emotion, she told us that she was recommending that the relevant Queensland government departments grant mining leases and environmental approvals for Adani's Carmichael Mine in the Galilee Basin, but with additional conditions to improve the survival prospects of the endangered Black-throated Finch and the Doongmabulla Springs.
She may have made her decision last week, or several weeks ago. She may even have known since the last day of the case, back in the autumn*. Unless she lives in a sealed box, however, she cannot have missed the salient point from COP21. One may have been disappointed by the absence of a concrete commitment to keep coal in the ground, or the vague aspirational statements of intent all the countries of the world agreed to in the final agreement, but there was an overwhelming impression of the coal industry's days being well and truly numbered. Hence this headline in The Guardian this morning (below).
Europe's chief coal lobbyist is concerned about the bad press his industry has been getting lately. You and I, of course, haven't looked at the science and worked out for ourselves that more coal mines will mean the world warms by degrees less than comfortable; no, we've been 'brainwashed' by the United Nations' lies about climate change, and bullied by the 'mob rule' of world governments (what, all of them?) and protestors at the climate summit.
He can't know much about Australia, this chap, otherwise he'd be confident that we wouldn't let the United Nations tell Australia what to do. About the Great Barrier Reef; or the massive coal mines that will transform the Galilee Basin if both state and federal governments continue to get their way.
How they do this is by basing the framework used by resource companies to obtain approvals on outmoded (input-output) economic models based on 'best' assumptions that often lead to overstated economic benefits rather than a true cost-benefit analysis of real-world social, economic and environmental impacts that are harder to assess. Member MacDonald drew attention in her comments to the inflated numbers of jobs the Carmichael mine would create claimed initially by Adani, and their similarly enhanced estimates of royalties that might flow to the Queensland treasury.
Unfortunately, however, she did not accept that declining demand for thermal coal would make the Carmichael mine economically unviable.
Community action such as that brought by Land Services of Coast and Country in this case is often criticised by the right wing of politics as merely delaying tactics on the part of rabid greenie/leftie fringe activists rather than the legitimate concerns of conservationists in a country with a long history of land clearance and degradation that has impacted severely on biodiversity. The research of expert witnesses in this instance performed a necessary part of the assessment process as new information about the Black-throated Finch's range, as well as the inadequacies of surveying done by Adani's ecology team, came to light. The birds' core habitat, formerly believed to be further east, would be destroyed by the mine, and Member MacDonald's recommendations for additional monitoring – by the appropriate people, that is the Black-throated Finch Recovery Team (BTFRT) – underlies her concern about the 'serious or irreversible environmental damage to the continued survival' of the BTF.
Similarly, she noted that groundwater modelling should have included the ecologically important Doongmabulla Spring Complex. This exemplifies other flaws in the approvals framework which include insufficient scope of baseline studies, limited ecological field work, and inadequately researched potential biodiversity offsets.
Arguably the most contentious part of the Land Court's findings was that greenhouse gas emissions produced by countries importing and burning Galilee Basin coal had been correctly excluded from an assessment of the Adani mine's environmental impact. This was justified by what its critics call the drug dealer's defence: that is, if Adani don't supply Indians with coal, someone else will. This is a specious argument if ever there was one. By the time a suitable alternative supplier was found, there is more than a distinct possibility renewable sources of energy will be on stream, rendering the burning of coal unnecessary; and/or the price of coal will have fallen to such a level as to render exporting it an undesirable option.
Member MacDonald's overall conclusion that the mine should be approved seemed particularly inappropriate following as it did what is claimed to have been a ground-breaking climate conference, during which, unfortunately, Australia's reputation as a reluctant climate change activist was further enhanced rather than allayed. It is not, of course, the Land Court's place to make a course correction on behalf of the Australian government. Neither was it likely that the President of the Land Court would stick her neck out like Member Smith did in the Alpha case. Hence the huge disappointment of conservationists hoping for an early sign of a much-needed change of mindset in Canberra.
Despite Ms MacDonald's efforts, Adani do not yet have the go-ahead. The Queensland government has not approved the project and the Federal government's re-approval faces appeal in the Federal Court by the Australian Conservation Foundation. Let's hope sense soon prevails in a country with a hell of a lot of catching up to do.
Photo of Black-throated Finch courtesy of Kim Maute, BTFRT (Black-throated Finch Recovery Team)
* for the background to this case, see also Another little bird, Leaky aquitards, A model of imperfection, Hope springs eternal, Waxing lyrical and BTF?, from this blog in April 2015; and Would members of the public please leave the Court, A financial folly and Not the end of the matter from May 2015