Clive Palmer has sought federal environmental approval for a huge greenfield coal mine in central Queensland, which documents suggest could produce 33 per cent more coal than Adani’s controversial and delayed Carmichael mine.
Its viability depends on the construction of the Carmichael mine, or another mine with a rail link to the coast, adding weight to claims the Adani project could open the floodgates to significantly more coal mining in the Galilee Basin.
Environmentalists have called for the federal government to reject the new application out-of-hand, without a full assessment.
They pointed to the impact the mine would potentially have on climate change, freshwater springs, the Great Artesian Basin and threatened species in the area including the black-throated finch and koalas.
The Alpha North Coal Mine Project would be a series of open-cut and underground mines covering an area of 144,000 hectares, according to documents submitted to the federal Department of Environment and Energy by Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal.
That is equivalent to 24 times the area of Manhattan.
How much coal could it produce?
The project would be split into two mining areas, which documents submitted to the government suggest could each produce 40 million tonnes of coal per year.
The combined output of 80 million tonnes would therefore eclipse Adani’s peak of 60 million tonnes from the proposed Carmichael mine.
A spokesman for Waratah Coal denied the proposal was to produce 80 million tonnes per year, insisting the maximum output would be half that, but the company’s documents note “each mining area” – both the north and the south – would produce 40 million tonnes.
The documents do not outline how mining would proceed in each area and it remains possible that only one area would be mined at a time.
The spokesman said the mining timetable meant the total output would not exceed 40 million tonnes per year.
The documents also appear to confuse the name of the mine, sometimes referring to it as the “North Galilee Coal Mine Project” and sometimes as the “Alpha North Coal Mine Project”.
Waratah Coal’s website describes just half the project, and says that will produce 40 million tonnes of coal a year.
While coal from mines in the Galilee has usually been earmarked for China or India, those countries have been moving to end their reliance on imported coal.
Mr Palmer’s environmental application indicated the coal would be “predominately driven by developing south-east Asian markets”.
Five other mines proposed for the Galilee basin have received federal environmental approval, but all except Adani’s appear to have stalled.
One further mine has applied for approval, and is awaiting a decision.
Analyst at consultancy Energy & Resource Insights Adam Walters said “there are a lot of things that make this project very speculative”.
For one thing, the coal is relatively deep, he said.
But more importantly, he said it was unlikely there would be a market for coal from a new mine by the time Alpha North would come online in 2030.
The timing is important
Most of the other proposed mines in the Galilee started their approval process about a decade ago, Mr Walters said.
“That was before the Paris Agreement and they were proposed in the midst of the biggest coal export boom,” he said.
“Now you have even the International Energy Agency producing scenarios to say, ‘How do we keep to Paris?’
“One of them requires the phasing out of unabated coal generation until 2035. And this mine is looking to come online in 2030.
“If this is allowed into the EPBC (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act) planning system, it’s showing a massive failure of leadership because it is 100 per cent contrary to us successfully tackling climate change.”
‘Great Barrier Reef can’t afford Palmer’s monster mine’
The Federal Minister for Environment and Energy has the option to decide a proposal is “clearly unacceptable” and not put it through a full assessment process.
Imogen Zethoven from the Australian Marine Conservation Society said that was what the minister should do in this case.
“The minster should reject it outright. The Great Barrier Reef can’t afford Adani’s Carmichael mine, let alone Clive Palmer’s monster mine, after two unprecedented coral bleaching events,” she said.
The minister said that the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef is climate change, and on that basis this simply can’t be allowed to go ahead.”
Waratah Coal’s application recognised it would potentially have a significant impact on a number of protected species including the southern black throated finch, which is endangered and already significantly impacted by the proposed Carmichael mine.
Ecologist Dr April Reside from the University of Queensland is on the government’s black throated finch recovery team and said the mine would move the bird closer to extinction.
“The black throated finch habitat that is on the Carmichael mine footprint and the footprints of mines neighbouring it are, without doubt, the best black throated finch habitat that remains,” she said.
Waratah Coal says mine would have ‘positive impact’
A spokesman for Waratah Coal told the ABC the mine would have a positive impact on the climate, noting:
“With energy levels of Galilee coals being superior to other coals and therefore having a net positive impact on global warming by reducing the overall consumption of world coal.”
He also said the mine was predominantly underground, and so it “would have little, if any impact to black throated finch habitat” and that “the mine footprint and springs are geographically and geologically separated and would have little if any connectivity”.
In documents to the government, the company said its mine could cause contamination of surface water and erosion of natural waterways.
It also noted the open-cut mining might lower groundwater levels, as well as contaminate groundwater, which is relied on by surrounding farms.
The project has not gone through an environmental impact statement process yet. The company said when it did, it would propose measures to mitigate these potential impacts.
The Minerals Council of Australia said: “Any project proposal should be considered in the usual way under the prevailing laws and regulations for mine approvals.”
The office of the Federal Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg was contacted for comment.