For the past two weeks the Prime Minister and his Environment Minister have been saying the approval process for the Shenhua Mine has been through the most rigorous scientific evaluation in history and the Abbott Government had apparently imposed strict conditions that were without precedence.

Defending his decision, Mr Hunt said the Federal approval is “subject to 18 of the strictest conditions in Australian history”. It had also been subject to four expert reviews and two reviews by the Independent Expert Scientific Committee.

“There will be no impact on the availability of water for agriculture,” Mr Hunt said.

Tony Abbott said that "As all the science tells us, it's not going to have an impact on the water table. And frankly, if it's not going to damage the farming areas, if it is going to bring billions of dollars’ worth of economic activity and hundreds of ongoing jobs, I think we should say 'let's go with it."

But was this assessment based on real science or just “political science”? 

Today Minister Hunt is telling us that he is adding yet another process which makes a farce of both his original assurances and the Prime Minister’s echoing statements.

Greg Hunt has form. He visited the Liverpool Plains with Barnaby Joyce just days before the NSW State election to announce that he was “stopping the clock” on the mine approval process.  Unsurprisingly, he announced after the election that he was approving the project.

The approval process is revealing more chaos and dysfunction within the Abbott Government.  Following the March stunt, farmers and their families are likely to see this latest announcement as no more than a cruel hoax.


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  • Roland Gotthard
    commented 2015-07-24 12:30:27 +1000

    The water table being lowered by 2 metres does not mean that agriculture will cease and all plant life will cease, rendering the liverpool plains a desert.

    Your misconception is that the water table is what plants draw upon to sustain themselves. In reality, if the water table is at ground level, you will have water sitting at the surface of the ground. This is called a lake, or if it is unconfined, it is a creek or river. You will note that trees grow upon hillsides and creeks run in the bottom of valleys; in this case the water table is not at surface on the side of a hill. If trees need a water table, they would not grow anywhere except along creeks and rivers, likewise also crops.

    In any case, your figures are not borne out by even a casual reading of the EIS summary which states;

    “Within 10 km of the Project Boundary, 35 bores are predicted to experience maximum groundwater level reductions of greater than or equal to 0.1 m. Of these, four bores adjacent to the Southern Mining Area have a maximum predicted drawdown between 1.0 m and 1.4 m. These predicted groundwater level reductions are below the minimal harm criteria of 2 m as defined in the Aquifer Interference Policy.”

    I take it you got the 30m draw down figure by confusing the final water table level below surface of 20-30m from the surface water section summary, which is wrong; this is the equilibrium level of natural groundwater in the Gunnedah Formation aquifer, not the level to which water levels in the Liverpool Plain will be impacted.

    The impact, as above, will be less than 0.1m within a 10km radius. This is imperceptible. This is an impact within the lower aquifer as well, not an impact upon near-surface water tables influenced by rain fall (and mostly irrigation with groundwater which is drawn from the Gunnedah formation).

    Thus, I can conclude, you are misinformed, and further, there is going to be limited impact on the greater Liverpool Plains.
  • Roland Gotthard
    commented 2015-07-17 10:30:57 +1000
    This Shenhua thing is a bit of a joke; a beat-up and misidrection of political wrath. Your article, Joel, does not add to the debate beyond further causing a directionless frothing of the loins of people who do not bother to outline the real process and science behind it. You ask whether there is real science behind the decision, but then do not cite any; that itself is not science.

    Farmers, greens and allies incorrectly stated that the mine will destroy farmland and groundwater and extinguish the koalas. None of this is true or supported by science.

    As pointed out many times, the mine is sited in rangeland. Clearly some impact on koalas is possible, but also there are strategies in place to mitigate that effect.

    people’s conception of groundwater is misinformed and rudimentary. Mines do not generally affect the groundwater table except locally. Lateral flow in and out of mining pits is generally teaspoons per annum per square metre of rock. Pits also fill with water to the level of the surrounding ground water; pits filled back in with the waste rock also fill to the level of the natural ground water table in time. Therefore there is likely to be no nett effect upon the ground water.

    Farmers themselves are very lightly, if at all, regulated in their use of ground water for irrigation, especially compared to mining. No one forces a farmer to undertake an EIS for clearing bushland, drilling a bore or limits their extraction of water. Thus what we really have here is farmers complaining that their resource, to which they have had cheap, unregulated and unlimited access, is going to have to be shared for a few decades until the mine is complete. This is hardly the sky falling on their heads.

    The mine will be rehabilitated; it is likely a strip mine, which works along a seam, digging one part and filling it back in. I encourage you to actually visit an area of prior coal mining, for example near Ipswich west of brisbane, and see for yourself whether the land is an eyesore after mining and rehabilitation is completed. Bring some objective analysis into this debate rather than, as typical of politiciains these days, just say a few vague words and try to drum up outrage momentum.

    The crucial nexus of this whole fracas is a State based one. The way mining law works in Australia, as you ought to have researched before crapping on like this, is that licenses are granted to companies or individuals and this confers legal ownership (in exchange for royalties) of minerals to the leaseholder. Once the lease is granted, and barring financial or technical or environmental incapacity to extract the resource, a mine must neccessarily be approved. The critical stage for stopping this development was years ago, at the lease granting stage, and was a NSW government decision. perhaps the obeids can shed light on the process of coal exploration license ballots and so on?

    The Commonwealth has final environmental say. This is true. The problem with the commonwealth approval is that a government which believes coal is good for humanity and denies climate change will not account for the environmental impact of burning the coal. Therefore this will never become a scientific reason for denying approval to mine and hence the EIS will not return any result beside approval.

    It is up to the State government to block approval on any grounds which will not result in miscarriage of the law, which would see Shenhua take the government to court. In court there is nothing I am aware of which would prevent legal injunctions to push the mine forward.

    Therefore we need an update of the mines and environmental laws to take into account climate change and carbon pollution impacts otherwise the only way to block mines will be via mechanisms already in the law – noise, dust, heavy metals, erosion, sulfuric waste or habitat loss.