Readers of media reports on the Queensland government’s go-ahead late last week for the Caval Ridge coal mine in Queensland could be forgiven for thinking that the BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) project will be carbon free.

BMA’s plan is to mine and export at least 165 million tonnes of coal over the next 30 years from the $4 billion project. When the Queensland Treasurer, Andrew Fraser, and the Infrastructure and Planning Minister, Stirling Hinchliffe, announced the government’s decision, it was not surprising that their  media release didn’t mention the prodigious carbon dioxide emissions from producing and burning Caval Ridge coal.

Of the five main online Australian media reports  — on NineMSN, an AAP story run by The Sydney Morning Herald, one by an SMH staff reporter and two by the ABC (one a short online story and another on the evening TV news — none even suggested that there was an issue with the mine’s carbon emissions. Instead, the reporting was largely confined to reporting the themes raised in the government’s media release: jobs, earnings and the imposition of some conditions on the project approval. Only one included comments from anyone else and even then it was a BHP Billiton spokeswoman.

However, a minute’s search on the BHP Billiton website reveals that the company has  calculated (see page 18) that over the mine’s 30-year lifespan the project will add  add 466 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent to the global atmosphere. Of that, only a little over 19 million tonnes will be emitted directly or indirectly in Australia.

The remaining 446.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, representing 95% of total emissions from the project and its products, will spew into the atmosphere from steel plants scattered around the world. (For the sake of comparison, Australia’s total carbon emissions in 2009  amounted to 537 million tonnes, excluding those from land use and forestry activities.)

It is unsurprising that the Queensland government have given the Caval Ridge project the thumbs up, but the final approval for the project will rest with the next federal government.

While Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have pledged to cut emissions by a meagre 5% by 2020, they have studiously avoided discussing the obvious fact that the crucial first step to decarbonising the global economy will be to curtail the current coal burning binge.

While the odds are that whichever major party forms government will approve the project, supporting new coal mines and powered stations is fast becoming as popular as being seen defending the tobacco or asbestos industries. And at last count, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) identified another 69 coal projects wending their way down the corporate and government decision making pipeline. As the coal boom rolls on there is every likelihood that whichever party forms government after Saturday’s election will be dogged by controversy over their support for the coal industry.

The question remains though, whether the carbon-free reporting on the Caval Ridge Project will be the norm or the exception. After all, the export coal boom currently under way represent Australia’s greatest contribution to global warming and one that many in the community expect to be fully informed about.

Bob Burton is a freelance journalist based in Hobart and the author of Inside Spin: the dark underbelly of the PR industry (Allen & Unwin, 2007).