SYDNEY, July 30 — The federal government has given the green light to Australia's biggest-ever coal mine — a vast and ambitious project featuring some six open-cut mines and up to five underground mines stretching 200 square kilometers — unleashing scorn and awe in equal measure, Tuesday.
The federal environment minister Greg Hunt has granted approval for the Carmichael Coal and Rail Project, with the go-ahead from the federal government to Indian coal company Adani Group, coming with no less than 36 environmental constraints to ease the anxieties of environmentalists.
The swag of conditions aimed at somehow reducing the impact the mega-mine will have on Australia's sensitive flora, fauna and a string of threatened ecosystems, may not be enough to silence fears here that the sheer scale of the project will have a detrimental effect on Australia's withering image as an environmentally conscious global partner.
The minister for the environment, Hunt, this week announced that the mine was subject to the 'strictest conditions that have ever been imposed,' on an Australian coal mine, including the goal of returning over 700 mega-liters of water back into the region annually.
Hunt has tried to deflect fears that the project will inevitably impact the Great Barrier Reef, as claimed by activists, saying the Carmichael mine will have a significantly positive effect on the region — adding 3,000 jobs during construction, and a further 4,000 permanent positions once it comes online.
The 16.5 billion AU dollars (USD 13.9 billion) giant west of the Queensland township of Rockhampton easily represents one of the largest mining operations in the world, eventually covering 200 square kilometers and, according to an Adani group spokesperson, producing up to 60 million tons of coal a year.
The mine, proposed for the Galilee Basin is one of Australia's richest coal reserves, and is expected to generate a tsunami of viable electricity every year over 60 years.
Hunt has come under widespread attack for lingering over the decision — approved by the Queensland government in June. He told Xinhua in a statement that he has repeatedly viewed the site to ' better understand the project' and to meet and allay the concerns of the community.
"(The Carmichael project,) which was proposed and advanced under the previous state and federal ALP governments, will have a resource value of 5 billion dollars per annum over 60 years."
"At full export capacity, the project is expected to contribute almost 930 million dollars to the… region's gross regional product and 2.97 billion dollars (USD 2.84 billion) to the (Queensland) economy each year for the next 60 years."
But with the federal government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott repealing a much-vaunted Carbon tax, Australia has put itself in the unenviable position of becoming a carbon-negative economy, drawing fierce local and international criticism.
Experts have warned the government that any number of restrictions or regulations will the not suffice to minimize such a project's impact on climate change, and Australia's essential and fragile groundwater flow.
Under the environmental assessment process, greenhouse gas emissions from construction and day-to-day mining operations are included, but not emissions from burning the coal for electricity.
Professor Roger Jones, a renowned climate expert at Victoria University, said the total emissions from the entire project (including burning the coal) could account for 4 percent of global emissions by mid century under a scenario designed to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
According to Queensland court records Professor Jones, testified that if "all coal mines under consideration for the Galilee Basin were operating," they would exceed 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite the strong economic benefits — not least the signal that foreign investment in dwindling mining projects here is still viable — environmentalists warn that these will all be rail- roared by dolorous environmental costs, with the world heritage Great Barrier Reef already under threat and the mine contributing to further bleaching of coral reefs, ocean acidification and contamination of sensitive water systems.
The Carmichael mine is the second project to be approved in the area, following GVK Hancock's Alpha Coal Project approved by the Labor government of Julia Gillard in 2012.
A further five coal projects are awaiting the green light. (PNA/Xinhua)