Anti-coal activists protest in Sydney, Australia, on Nov. 26, 2009.
Anti-coal activists protest in Sydney, Australia, on Nov. 26, 2009. 
Credit: GREG WOOD

Even as China and the United States, the world’s biggest energy guzzlers, move away from carbon-belching coal, Australia has shown it is hell-bent on mining it.

The federal government announced Thursday it had approved a proposal by Indian mining company Adani to build one of the world’s biggest coal mines in the northern state of Queensland.

The $12 billion Carmichael project involves an open-cut and underground mine covering an area five times the size of Sydney Harbor, making it the largest coal mine in Australia. 

Up to 60 million metric tons of coal will be dug up and shipped out of Australia via the Great Barrier Reef every year if the project goes ahead.

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Green groups are outraged. They say the mine would produce more pollution than all of New Zealand's annual emissions and would be a “disaster” for the climate and environment.

The project was first approved in 2014, but was then temporarily blocked by the Federal Court in August after it found Environment Minister Greg Hunt had overlooked the mine’s potential impact on two threatened reptiles: the Yakka Skink, which is a type of lizard, and the Ornamental snake.

Hunt said Thursday the project, which also involves a rail link, would be "subject to 36 of the strictest conditions in Australian history.”

But environmental activists are not convinced.

"To approve a massive coal mine that would make species extinct, deplete 297 billion [liters] of precious groundwater and produce 128.4 million [tons] of CO2 a year is grossly irresponsible," Australian Conservation Foundation President Geoff Cousins said in a statement.

"At a time when the world is desperately seeking cleaner energy options this huge new coal mine will make the effort to combat climate change all the more difficult."

The Mackay Conservation Group said the mine "risks threatened species, precious ground water, the global climate and taxpayers' money."

“Hunt’s new conditions do not adequately deal with the seriousness of the implications of this mine,” the group said.

“Simply put, these impacts are very serious, and can’t be offset. The mine should have been refused.”

The decision to approve the project suggests Australia's environmental policy will not change course as much as some hoped under the new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who ousted his predecessor Tony Abbott last month.

Abbott was a fervent supporter of coal (as well as logging pristine forests and culling sharks), once describing it as “good for humanity.”

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Earlier this year, the government gave the go-ahead for a Chinese-backed coal mine in one of Australia’s most fertile farming regions, a decision which even the government’s own agriculture minister said was “absolute madness.”

The timing of the Carmichael decision is jarring, coming less than two months before the United Nations climate conference in Paris, which will seek a new global agreement on climate change that includes a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Australia is already one of the worst offenders when it comes to per capita carbon emissions, and its growing support for coal is likely to raise eyebrows at the meeting. 

It’s a position that is out of step with the United States and China, which are trying to reduce their reliance on coal in energy production.

Beijing is closing coal-fired power plants and shuttering thousands of small coal mines as it works to cut coal consumption and ramp up investment in renewable energy to reduce the toxic pollution choking many Chinese cities. Meanwhile, stricter environmental laws and huge reserves of cheap natural gas in the United States are fueling a move away from coal-fired power.

Such is the level of controversy surrounding the Carmichael project and concern about falling coal prices that banks are refusing to provide Adani the money it will need to turn the proposal into reality.

Australian lender National Australia Bank said last month it would not provide funding, joining more than a dozen banks around the world that have distanced themselves from the mine and rail proposal. Australia's Commonwealth Bank and Standard Chartered dropped their advisory roles to Adani in August.

If a couple of threatened species can't stop the mine from going ahead, then perhaps bank chiefs can. 

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