When it comes to Australia’s largest coal mine, the Abbott government has a difficult relationship with the truth. If you haven’t heard, Australia is under siege from a new kind of eco-warrior, one with a manual and money for legal challenges designed to endlessly frustrate economic development.At the centre of this battle is the proposed Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. The mega mine, led by Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, has had its federal environmental approval set aside. Why? Because a Queensland environment group – the Mackay Conservation Group – exercised its legal rights and used a federal court challenge to expose a flaw in the government’s assessment of that project.
The government now wants to remove those legal rights and hinder the ability of green groups to access the courts. The Parliament is clearly entitled to debate whether Australia’s environment laws are working as they were intended. But it should not be too much to expect that the government defend its position with arguments that have some semblance to the truth. To make its case to protect growth and jobs and stop “vigilante litigation”, ministers have repeatedly relied on inflated numbers, distortions and blatant inaccuracies about the Adani project to make their case. Here are some:
“This is a project that will create 10,000 jobs.” Prime Minister Tony Abbott, question time, Tuesday, August 18
This number, straight out of Adani’s press material, was challenged in a separate Queensland land court case in April this year by Adani’s own expert, Jerome Fahrer from ACIL Allen. Dr Fahrer conceded 1464 jobs would be created. What’s more, Adani has been laying off workers, as Fairfax Media revealed recently, including its project manager Parsons Brinckerhoff and most of the staff in its Brisbane office.
“This is a $20 billion investment.” Tony Abbott, question time, Tuesday, August 18
Many numbers have been pinned to the project and it is unclear where this one comes from. Adani’s own environmental impact statement puts the investment at $16.5 billion. Tim Buckley, of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, estimates a slightly smaller figure of $16 billion, which he says is the total amount Adani is likely to invest in Australia, including the $3 billion it has spent already.
It could be the Prime Minister is referring to an outdated environmental impact statement for Adani, when the company originally planned an even larger project. Under that plan, Adani promised $21.5 billion in capital investment over the life of the mine, but the decision to downsize the project was made in 2013.
“There has been a litany of challenges against a mine that in fact is going to power the lives of 100 million impoverished people in India.” Treasurer Joe Hockey, question time, Tuesday, August 18
Let’s break this one up. A litany of challenges. Adani itself is the subject of two – the Queensland land court case by Coast and Country and the successfully settled federal court challenge by the Mackay Conservation Group. Only the latter case relates to federal laws. More broadly, there have been three challenges to now abandoned plans to dump dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef and on the Caley Valley Wetlands, two of which have been withdrawn. On Tuesday, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane told ABC’s 7.30 that “project after project” in Australia was being held up in environmental courts. The Australia Institute has released data from a forthcoming study showing that of the 5500 projects that have been referred to the federal Environment Minister for approval since 2000, just 27 – that’s 0.5 per cent – have been the subject of third party legal appeals under federal environment laws.
Ministers have hailed the project as a solution to energy poverty in India, with Mr Abbott also telling Parliament this week it would power the lives of 100 million Indians for 50 years. Take a zero off that 50 and you’re getting closer to the mark. India’s energy minister has said the country aims to stop importing thermal coal within the next three years.
“If a vital national project can be endlessly delayed, if the courts can be turned into a means of sabotaging projects which are striving to meet the highest environmental standards, then we have a real problem as a nation.” Tony Abbott, August 7
As my colleague Michael West has repeatedly written, Adani’s biggest hurdle is not legal challenges by environment groups, but finance. The company would need the thermal coal price to roughly double for the project to be viable. Adani is yet to provide any substantial evidence of financial backing, with global banks turning the development down and the company’s relationship with the Commonwealth Bank and the UK’s Standard Chartered ending in recent weeks. Adani put the severing of these ties down to delays in government approvals. Add to that recent revelations by Fairfax Media that the Queensland government’s own Treasury officials raised serious concerns about the project’s viability and Adani’s corporate transparency, and you have a whole lot of problems that have nothing to do with a skink and a snake.