Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke – or as the Greens call him, Minister Against the Environment – on Monday signed conditional approvals for three new coal and coal seam gas (CSG) mines in New South Wales.
The three projects are Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine (despite Burke having said last week he would defer that decision for months), Idemitsu’s Boggabri coal mine expansion, and AGL’s 110 CSG wells in Gloucester (the first stage of a potential 330-well project). Together, they would result in 47 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. (To make matters worse, on the same day the NSW state government gave conditional approval to BHP Billiton’s Dendrobium coal mine expansion, and on Tuesday the Queensland government lifted a moratorium on shale oil.)
Burke says his decision is intended to cut the NSW government out of the process, after NSW Resources Minister Chris Hartcher leaked a confidential letter from Burke expressing an intention to approve the three projects. Burke claims his new approvals come with unusually stringent conditions:
For the areas that are not yet resolved, instead of giving a normal approval and say these are the conditions, I’ve said these further issues need to be worked through to my satisfaction before we know whether the project can actually go ahead. So it’s quite – even though it’s just being reported as approvals, it’s actually quite a different set of conditions to what would normally occur.
So are they approved or not approved? In Senate Estimates yesterday, when asked by Greens environment spokesperson Larissa Waters, environment department officials were unable to clarify the exact legal status. They also said the department was not investigating allegations that Whitehaven had misled them on biodiversity offsets.
Burke likes to appear to be sticking up for the environment, particularly when it involves criticizing the states, but I’m not aware of any project which he has ultimately rejected. He has approved several CSG projects. Despite recently assuring UNESCO he would not approve any projects that would have unacceptable impacts on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, Burke has done nothing to stop development there, instead approving one coal terminal and allowing seven others to enter the environmental assessment process. Although approvals often come with long lists of conditions, the government rarely makes any attempt to enforce those.
Australia’s environmental protection laws are inadequate. The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act does not contain a climate “trigger”, so the approval process for fossil fuel projects does not even account for the greenhouse gases emitted from their burning. Furthermore, on Friday the government refused to rule out proceeding with its delayed plan to delegate to the states its environmental protection powers under the EPBC Act. If Burke (rightly) thinks the states are so terrible on the environment, why is he going to give them his job?
Burke has had another recent disagreement with the NSW government: NSW has not yet agreed to incorporate into their environmental approval process advice from the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development, and last Thursday Burke gave them a week to declare their intention. This is another instance of faux concern from Burke, because the committee in question is toothless.
Burke says he considered advice from that committee when deciding on Monday’s approvals. The problem is the committee is already advising on specific project approvals before it has completed its general research on the impacts of CSG. Also, the committee is examining the impacts of CSG mining on water and salinity, but not on climate change, land use, health, and the environment. In any case, the government has refused to add a water trigger to the EPBC Act, and without a water trigger the Environment Minister cannot act on the committee’s advice. Bear in mind the federal government only set up the committee because of pressure from rural independents.
As I’ve discussed before, Labor (and the Liberals and Nationals) clearly intend to greenwash CSG and other fossil fuel industries to neutralize voter concern without seriously threatening the industries. To seriously address climate change, the Australian government must stop approving new fossil fuel projects full stop.