Coal among the corals
Magnate Gautam Adani wants to open a huge mine in Queensland to supply millions of Indians with energy. The environmental impact would be devastating.
- Sunday, 11 March 2018
On a sweltering day in December 1848, the Artemisia landed in Moreton Bay, delivering the ﬁrst batch of free British settlers to Queensland. Sixty years had passed since the First Fleet (11 vessels commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip of the Royal Navy of George III) had landed in Australia following James Cook’s exploratory expedition. And ten years after their arrival in Moreton Bay, the ﬁrst British settlers began to head inland towards the scorching heat and hostile terrain north of Queensland. Some of them, equipped with incredible determination, ended up settling in the vicinity of Galilee Basin, a semi-desert area of 250,000 square miles in what Australians refer to as the Outback that separates the impenetrable Simpson Desert from the coast that faces the Great Barrier Reef.
In that remote area of northeast Australia, cattle farmers found vast expanses for their herds. A prime example is the Moray Downs cattle station. Located 1,300km north of Brisbane, it is one of the historic properties of the renowned Acton family (who originally arrived from Ireland and have built a beef cattle empire in Australia over the centuries). Moray Downs covers an area of over 120,000 hectares and has one particularly special feature: one-third of the land is situated on top of deposits of thermal coal, the cheapest fuel source for generating electricity. In 2012, the Acton group sold the land to the Indian multinational Adani Group. The group’s owner, business magnate Gautam Adani, intends to create a colossal open-cast coal mine on the site, which has been given the name Carmichael mine. The mine would be the largest in Australia, and perhaps the world.
The Adani project involves the intensive exploitation of around 30,000 hectares of virgin territory in the Galilee Basin, the construction of a railway network that would connect the mine to the deepwater coal port of Abbott Point on the Coral Sea, and the consumption of vast quantities of water for the extraction and processing of the coal. The project, which is worth $16 billion (€13.1bn), has yet to receive support from either Australian or international banks. Given the environmental implications of the project, they are concerned about damaging their reputations. But the venture immediately received the blessing of the federal government and the state government of Queensland, both under the former conservative Liberal party leadership and later under the progressive Labor party. Both administrations were enticed by the possibility of 10,000 new jobs promised by the Indian magnate (which could help them to win over electors in the Sunshine State) as well as the huge investments in construction for the railway network and the preservation of the marine ecosystem.
As for the imposing Carmichael mine that the Adani Group aims to build in the Galilee Basin, the pit alone would be 40km long and 10km wide. And Carmichael is by no means the only mining project that is already in the implementation phase. A report by Greenpeace has claimed that a further 90 projects related to the construction of coal mines in New South Wales and Queensland are currently being considered by state and federal governments. The Australian mineral boom has profoundly altered the original geomorphology and hydrography of the territory. It began in order to support the industrial development of the large Asian powers: Japan in the 1960s, China at the beginning of the 21st Century and India today. This partly explains the presence of the Indian multinational Adani Group in Australia. If, as seems likely, New Dehli proceeds with the plan to construct an additional 370 new coalﬁred power stations, the Carmichael mine will provide low-cost energy to over 100 million Indians.
It appears, however, that the environment will be paying a high price for these commercial operations. According to a study by the think tank Australia Institute, the mine in the Galilee Basin would produce almost 80 million tonnes of CO2 each year, more than the entire amount produced by countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. That would eﬀectively cancel out all of the commitments made by Canberra concerning the reduction of emissions outlined in the Paris Agreement. Australia is the secondhighest producer of CO2 per capita in the developed world, and 80% of the energy produced in the country is derived from coal. Furthermore, the estimated duration of the project is 90 years. The total coal extracted over the length of that cycle would be approximately 2.3 billion tonnes, and emissions of CO2 would be 4.7 billion tonnes. In short, the project represents an ecological disaster that would go on for decades. And the criticism of the Adani project from environmental campaigners and a growing proportion of the Australian public does not stop there.
Coal extraction and processing requires the intense use of water reserves. In order to operate at full capacity, it is estimated that the mine would utilize over 12 billion litres of water each year from the local water table. Meanwhile, Australia is in the grip of a perennial water crisis. One of the 36 parameters established by the federal government in order to safeguard the environment demands that the Adani Group return 750 million litres of water per year to the water table. That measure is not enough to satisfy environmental protection organisations or environmental campaigners. Finally, there are also negative consequences for the Great Barrier Reef oﬀ the coast of Queensland. For the Australian coal to reach India, it will need to be transported via sea. This means the construction of a railway network of around 200km in length from the Carmichael mine to Australia’s northernmost coal port, Abbott Point. The implications for the environment are numerous: hundreds of cargo ships, in addition to those already operating in the area, would transit through the Great Barrier Reef, increasing the likelihood of its extinction. In 2011, the coal port in Abbott Point passed into the hands of Mandra Port, a company that belongs to the Adani Group. Abbot Point is currently relatively small. In order to manage far larger volumes of traﬃc, it would require an enlargement that would pose various risks to the environment, especially due to the one million cubic metres of heavy sediment that would be deposited on the sea bed a mere 20km away from the Great Barrier Reef. Then there is the construction of the special railway line to transport the coal, which would create a further scar across territory that includes the rare ecosystems present in the Galilee Basin and the indigenous ﬂora and fauna found of this particular part of Australia. Adani also seems intent on constructing an airport just a few kilometres away from the mine in order to facilitate the transport of nonresident employees.
Representatives of the Wangan and Jangalingou aboriginal peoples, the native owners of the territory of the Galilee Basin, are also among those opposed to the construction of the Carmichael mine. The development of the mine risks not only destroying the natural environment and some sacred aboriginal sites but also cancelling out thousands of years of traditions, laws and culture.
Work on the construction of the mine was due to begin in October, but the launch ceremony was postponed, apparently due to concerns about the weather. A new date has yet to be determined. Meanwhile, the banks continue to shun invitations to ﬁnance the Adani project, the latest refusal having recently arrived from China.