If one thing can be learned from the current saga surrounding approval for the Alpha Coal Mine in Queensland, it would be how diabolically bad things can get when approvals for major construction projects get caught up in political brawls.
The project, which involves development of a 30 Mtpa open-cut thermal coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin as well as a rail link to the nearby Abbott Point Coal Terminal and expanded port and materials handling capacity, has been dogged by controversy, with environmentalist fearing the mine and the associated expansion of the Abbott Point terminal will be the start of the process of turning the Great Barrier Reef into a coal ‘superhighway’.
The latest chapter in the debacle surrounds a report into the project handed down by the Queensland Coordinator-General last week.
Following receipt of that report, which gave conditional approval for the project, Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke launched a savage attack on the Queensland government, saying the report was incomplete and provided him with insufficient information on which to base an informed assessment.
“I was shocked to see the media statement from Deputy Premier [Jeff] Seeney today” Burke began, in a media statement last Friday – a response to an earlier statement from in which Seeney called on the federal government to ‘stop playing politics’ and ‘adhere to the Commonwealth-State Bilateral Agreement for environmental approvals’.
“In his media statement the Deputy Premier appears to have reneged on that [considering reopening the Co-ordinator General’s process to address the apparent shortcomings of the project approval assessment] and is now demanding that I deal with the report in its current, incomplete form and make my decision within 30 business days despite those deficiencies” Burke says.
“Make no mistake, if I were to deal with a report which does not fully address the environmental issues which I have a legal obligation to consider, then there are serious repercussions for the soundness of the decision which follows”.
Burke says that he does not want to get into a situation of a duplicate Commonwealth process, but also that it would be irresponsible if he were to base decisions on ‘a report which my department advises me is seriously deficient and which the report itself acknowledges is deficient’.
Burke is not the only one concerned about the apparent lack of rigour on the Queensland government’s process regarding the mine. Greenpeace campaigner John Hepburn has raised concerns about the proposal being ‘rushed through without proper security’ due to alleged political interference by Hancock Coal, the company behind the mine.
Seeney, for his part, has hit back, accusing Burke of playing politics. The Queensland’s Coordinator-General had carried out an extensive and exhaustive review of the project’s Environment Impact Assessment under the bilateral agreement for environmental approvals, he says. Furthermore, Seeney adds, with 128 conditions having been placed on the mine, it is hardly as though the development was given an automatic green light.
A mess of a process
Whoever is right, the political mud-slinging which has ensured over this incident is an outright debacle.
Furthermore, the saga does nothing to instil confidence in the current system. To many, this will highlight the need to clean up a broken federal-state approval system. Not only will such reform need to deliver a simplified process of approvals, as business groups have been lobbying for, it will also have to ensure greater transparency and a sufficient level of rigour in the process.
Significant projects in sensitive environmental areas will always be a source of controversy.
But political shouting matches amongst different levels of government do nothing to promote confidence in the current system.