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Deep impact from Queensland’s long pipeline of projects

Is there any way to stop a Queensland mine? Queensland-based freelance journalist Amanda Gearing investigates the effectiveness of an environmental impact statement (hint: not much).

Whistleblower Simone Marsh is to be commended for bringing into question the environmental impact assessment scheme in Queensland, which is supporting the headlong development of more than $70 billion in mines, railways, pipelines and port developments.

Common sense would dictate an environmental impact statement into a proposed mine or development would be undertaken to assess whether or not the project should proceed — a basic risk/reward assessment. But the EIS process in Queensland is actually designed to allow projects to go ahead with whatever conditions are necessary to mitigate and minimise the environmental risks.

Farmers in the fertile Felton Valley in Queensland discovered their naivety about the purpose of the EIS when a coal mine and petro-chemical plant were proposed a few years ago.

We thought our case would be the first mine to be stopped by an EIS,” farmer and former president of Friends of Felton Rob McCreath told Crikey. But local residents were shocked to discover no coal mine in Queensland has ever been stopped by an EIS and their prime food-producing farmland was not protected.

The mining companies draft the EIS terms of reference and employ consultants to write the EIS and, when it’s approved, the company monitors itself,” he said. “It’s totally rotten. It pretends to be a process to decide if projects should go ahead or not. But it isn’t.”

Mines and other developments have been awarded approval despite the EIS process, from national parks to at-risk and heritage-listed environments such as the Great Barrier Reef and even in the suburbs of cities, where gas miners are preparing to move in with drill rigs. And Queensland’s vast coal deposits, combined with the discovery of methods for mining the coal seam gas in those deposits, has spawned a “gas rush”.

ABC’s Four Corners this week exposed the pressure on Marsh to assess $38 billion in gas mining projects without having time or the basic data to make a proper assessment. Santos published full-page ads contseting her claims.

At stake now are another 31 significant projects in Queensland that are under EIS assessment. Many of them are very large and complex proposals that risk damage to the Great Artesian Basin from the drilling of thousands of gas wells, and damage to the fragile Queensland coastline bordering the Great Barrier Reef or adjacent islands and the seabed. Projects include:

  • LNG Santos gas mine to extend the already approved 2650 gas wells over 6900km2 of gas fields and add a further three gas fields to cover a total of 11,190km2 in the Bowen and Surat Basins
  • $15 billion Arrow (Shell) LNG plant at Curtis Island near Gladstone
  • $12 billion twin coal terminals at Hay Point with six rail loops and dredging of 13-15 million m2 of seabed to create up to eight offshore ship births
  • $8.1 billion Galilee Coal open-cut and underground coal mine near Alpha, and a railway line and new port at Abbot Point near Bowen
  • $7.1 billion Carmichael Coal mine and rail link north-west of Clermont
  • Uncosted 60 million tonne/year thermal coal mine 300km west of Mackay
  • $4.4 billion Gladstone Steel factory to produce 2.5 million tonnes/year near Gladstone
  • $4.2 billion underground and open-cut Kevin’s Corner coal mine to produce 30 million tonnes/year, 160km west of Emerald
  • $4.2 billion open-cut South Galilee Coal underground coal mine and onsite village, 12km from Alpha
  • $2.2 billion Yarwun Coal export terminal, 11km from Gladstone, to ship 25 million tonnes/year and potentially expanding to 50 million tonnes/year
  • $2 billion Central Queensland Integrated rail link from the Galilee Basin to Abbot Point and Hay Point
  • Uncosted Goonyella to Abbot Point rail line from Moranbah to Abbot Point near Bowen
  • $1.5 billion open-cut and underground coal mine (Byerwen Coal Project) west of Mackay
  • $1.5 billion deepwater harbour and six new ship berths; deepening and widening the shipping channels at the Port of Townsville and reclaiming 100ha of the harbour for new berths and bulk cargo storage and a rail loop
  • a $1.4billion dam near Taroom with a capacity of 888,000 megalitres and a pipeline to Dalby;
  • $1.25 billion 900MW coal-fired Galilee Basin Power Station near Alpha
  • $1.2 billion Fitzroy coal export terminal between Rockhampton and Gladstone
  • $1.12 billion open-cut thermal coal mine at North Surat, 3km from Taroom
  • $1 billion coal export terminal at Balaclava Island near Gladstone
  • Uncosted project for widening and deepening of the Cairns shipping channel in Trinity Inlet to accommodate mega-cruise ships
  • $700 million extension of Acland open-cut coal mine near Toowoomba to 7.5million tonnes/year, almost double the current production
  • $652 million open-cut thermal coal mine near Wandoan
  • $500 million underground Wongai Project coking coal mine to produce 1.5 million tonnes/year, a 20km conveyor and export coal terminal beside Cape Melville National Park at Princess Charlotte Bay near Cooktown
  • $434 million project to extend and build weirs at Eden Bann and Rookwood on the Fitzroy River near Rockhampton
  • $418 million new runway and air terminal at the Sunshine Coast Airport at Marcoola Beach
  • $400 million bauxite mine and port at Pisolite Hills, 50km from Weipa on Cape York
  • $400 million second channel 9km long and 200m wide in the Port of Gladstone to allow two-way shipping
  • $390 million marina at the Gold Coast with 390 marine berths and 290 dry berths at Harbour Island
  • $252 million extension at Shute Harbour Marina with 395 berths, a 109-room hotel, commercial precinct and 52-lot housing development
  • $160 million quarry in Tallebudgera Valley, Gold Coast covering 220ha and producing 2 million tonnes of rock/year
  • $76 million urban water supply Emu Swamp Dam at Stanthorpe.

Assuming all the proposed significant projects go ahead, it’s critical independent monitors be established to identify environmental damage caused by the simultaneous construction of onshore open-cut and underground mines and vast gas fields, pipelines and railway lines, port expansions and excavation of the seabed for shipping lanes and berths in several locations.

Rob McCreath believes the public could have more confidence in the EIS process if companies proposing developments were forced to pay a fee to the government, which then could employ independent scientists to assess projects in the best interests of the public.

As it is, a small army of environmental scientists will be needed to assess the combined environmental affects on wildlife of the current projects and how the developments are likely to affect flora and fauna, surface and underground water, marine environments and greenhouse gas emissions.

2
  • 1
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 4 April 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Common sense would dictate an environmental impact statement into a proposed mine or development would be undertaken to assess whether or not the project should proceed — a basic risk/reward assessment.

    In a command economy, maybe. But that’s not what we have. In anything remotely resembling a free economy, common sense would dictate that anyone can do anything they like, within certain limits. The function of EISs and the like is to set those limits. It’s not for a regulator to try to be second-guessing the ‘reward’ part of the equation.

    The naive expectation of ‘a process to decide if projects should go ahead or not’ is the most curious aspect of this story.

  • 2
    Rohan
    Posted Thursday, 4 April 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Like many people, this author has a woeful understanding of how development assessment works.

    An EIS can’t “stop” or allow a project. The purpose of an EIS is to detail exactly what a project involves, assess the likely impacts on people and the environment (air, noise, biodiversity, water, socioeconomic etc) and put forward a range of measures to avoid, minimise and offset these impacts.

    The relevant government departments will pick an EIS to pieces and ask developers to redo certain studies, provide more information, change the design of the project etc. After this information is provided the government ostensibly performs a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the impacts are ‘acceptable’ and the project should be approved.

    Where most people are deluded is that they think the problem is that the government/public service is hoodwinked by dodgy assessments and self-serving arguments from developers.

    This is absolutely false. The problem lies in the evaluation framework for measuring and weighing environmental and social costs against economic and social benefits (jobs, royalties, economic flopw-on and multiplier effects etc). If the government of the day (which would argue it is only a reflection of majority society at this point in time) is disposed to consider one job as being more valuable than, say, clearing 10 hectares of a critically endangered vegetation community, projects such as these will never be refused.

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