Australia’s Carmichael Coal Mine Folly

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Australia’s Carmichael Coal Mine Folly

Canberra is intent on seeing the controversial coal mine through.

Australia’s Carmichael Coal Mine Folly
Credit: Flickr / takver

During Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s recent official visit to India, beyond his meetings with his Indian counterpart and other dignitaries, he conducted a meeting that involved a subject that has been of great controversy in Australia for the past few years. In New Delhi, Turnbull met with Indian billionaire, Gautam Adani, to reassure him of his government’s support for Adani’s plans to build a AUD $21.7 billion (US $16.4 billion) coal mine in central Queensland.

Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine will be the largest coal mine in Australia upon its completion, and one of the largest in the world. It will include six open-cut pits and five underground mines, and is projected to provide 2.3 billion tonnes of coal over a 60-year period. The project has the capacity to create thousands of jobs for the region, and a large amount of taxes and royalties for both the Queensland and Federal governments. Construction is set to begin in August, with the first exports to begin in 2020.

The Australian government is keen to develop the country’s underpopulated northern regions, and sees the Carmichael mine as a key investment in northern Australia’s untapped potential. Due to this, Adani is currently waiting on approval for a AUD $900 million (USD $682 million) loan from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to construct the 400 kilometer rail line needed to transport coal to a shipping terminal on the Queensland coast.

Beyond the direct economic considerations, the mine is also seen as a potentially important component of Australia’s relationship with India, as the coal produced from the mine will be shipped to India to be processed and converted to energy for India’s domestic consumption.

However, the mine’s sheer scale, alongside the product it seeks to produce, has made it a highly controversial project. A well-funded and well-organized campaign has endeavored to prevent its approval over the past several years.

Environmental groups have tried numerous legal angles to prevent the mine’s approval, from challenges involving Australia’s international obligations to protect the UNESCO World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef, to the protection of local animal species like the yakka skink and the ornamental snake. Several challenges have also been launched by indigenous traditional owners of the central Queensland region, and as a result the government has proposed legislation to amend Native Title laws to make it more difficult for indigenous Australians to make these claims.

While these legal challenges have all been dismissed, the campaign to halt the mine has brought the health of the Great Barrier Reef into the public spotlight. There is now a considerable public concern to match the scientific concern, and a greater awareness of the potential damage that a coal mining endeavour of this magnitude could mean for the reef. There is the direct damage that may be caused to the reef through the significant expansion of the shipping terminal off Queensland’s coast that will be required to handle the volume of coal from the mine. However, there is also the secondary, more significant, damage that will come back to the reef through the increase in emissions the mine’s product will generate.  

It is estimated that the average annual amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) created from burning the coal produced by the mine would 79 million tonnes, the equivalent of the entire annual CO2 output of Malaysia or Austria.

Rising sea temperatures have caused coral bleaching along the reef, rendering it dull and unattractive. Continued warm sea temperatures will prevent the coral from regaining its vibrant colors, and will lead to the reef’s eventual death if the temperatures do not return to the levels required for coral to sustain and produce. This will in turn upset the entire reef ecosystem, with any number of unknown knock-on effects.

As the guardian of this environmental wonder and World Heritage Site, Australia has a responsibility to protect the reef’s existence, however this is not solely an environmental concern. Queensland’s tourism industry relies on the Great Barrier Reef, and its continued destruction would be a disaster for both the industry and the state’s economy.  

The reef generates around AUD $6 billion (US $4.5 billion) in economic activity from tourism annually, with much of the Queensland coast being economically reliant on the industry. Were the reef to no longer be the great tourist attraction that it is, the government’s plan to further develop northern Australia would be degraded with a dramatic loss of wealth and a potential exodus of people.

Aside from the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, rising sea levels are a direct existential threat to many of Australia’s Pacific Island neighbors. At the Pacific Island Forum in 2015, these states requested that the Australian government not approve any new coal mines, as the emissions from coal are known to be a cause in rising sea levels.

As the dominant regional actor, responsibility to relocate affected populations will fall to Australia should Pacific Island states become uninhabitable. Ignoring the requests of these states to consider their circumstances is also ignoring a future Australian problem.

While coal currently remains a necessary part of the world’s power generation, it has to be viewed as an industry on the decline, not on the incline. Australia’s attempt to base its relationship with India on fossil fuels is not future-oriented. Although India’s energy use is set to increase, the mine will be a short-term boost at best, and one that has the potential to dissolve quickly were India to find sustainable power generation more cost effective and environmentally sound. In fact, India has been investing heavily in solar development, including the world’s first solar powered airport in the southern city of Kochi, and the cost of delivery is rapidly falling. Projections indicate that India could be coal-free by 2050.

Australia is in search of a big ticket item to boost the relationship’s current underdeveloped status, and this short-termism may be viewed more as a “foot in the door,” However, Australian coal is expensive to produce and to transport, making it difficult to sell to an Indian public that not only requires cheap energy, but will politically punish any political party that presides over the increase in its cost. The quantities of coal that Australian politicians, the coal industry, and Adani himself would like to introduce into India may not be feasible if costs cannot compete with both local suppliers and the increasing potential of solar and other renewables.

However, these longer-term considerations do not seem to register in Australia’s current political climate. As with the prevailing global political norms, the Carmichael mine has become a proxy war for tribal political alliances, with public policy being dictated by cultural partisanship, rather than evidence-based analysis.

The continued existence of Turnbull’s Liberal Party is now almost solely built around opposing ideas that are considered inevitable to most. To them the coal industry is not a problem that requires an economically responsible weaning and a strategic pivot towards sustainable energy, but a wholesale good to be lauded and defended. In February members of the government, motivated by their desire to troll anyone they consider to be “the Left,” brought a lump of coal into Parliament to pass around and praise its virtues — an astonishing stunt that would have been seen as a heavy-handed parody were it a skit performed on a late-night comedy program.  

Yet beyond childish partisan theater, the current government seems to believe that the recent economic boom Australia experienced due to China’s rapid development and its hunger for Australian resources can simply be replicated in the world’s other rising giant, India. It’s more of a hope than a plan, and shows a lack of desire to actually become more intimate with India to discover where the two countries’ mutually beneficial long-term exchanges can be made.  

In an age of rapid technological and economic change the current projections for the uptake of renewable resources have the potential to be conservative, unable to cater for future technological breakthroughs. However, what is known is that the Carmichael mine is an investment in the past. It is project that pays no heed to Australia’s environmental responsibilities, is actively disdainful towards the concerns of Australia’s Pacific Island neighbors, is a short-term solution to the highly important Australia-India relationship, and has the potential to be a massive white elephant. The current Australian government is set to continue to embrace the project with great enthusiasm.