It now looks possible that the fate of the Adani Carmichael mine will be sealed by an adverse assessment of the mine’s impact on the black-throated finch.
That’s a far less satisfactory outcome than if the Queensland Land and Environment Court had accepted, as its NSW counterpart has done, that the climate (and health) damage from burning the coal produced by the mine was relevant in assessing the costs and benefits. That reasoning leads to the conclusion that no new mines should be started, let alone marginal projects like Carmichael.
But even disregarding the main issue, the Galilee Basin has all the problems associated with large mining projects, and on a huge scale: disturbance of a large land area, heavy demands for water use, and the problems of shipping through the Great Barrier Reef, and conflict with indigenous owners. Even if these aren’t the biggest reason to reject a project that would open the entire Basin to mining, they are big enough.
This is, of course, a fairly common pattern in political and legal decisionmaking. It may be impossible, for procedural reasons, to reach a determination on the central issues that are at stake, so some less central but more definite point ends up getting to the necessary outcome.
Adani’s site is home to one of the biggest remaining populations of the finch. The company didn’t help their cause by offering, as an offset, pastoral land they owned nearby. So nearby, it turned out, that it was sitting on top of another proposed coal mine (Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal).
At this point, it appears that both sides are digging in for a long fight. Adani and the current Federal government have denounced the whole process as a sham. The Queensland government is going ahead without them.
Doubtless, if the project were both highly profitable and perceived as socially beneficial, some alternative would have been found. But the Carmichael project is economically unsound and environmentally disastrous.
Adani has clearly been playing for time, hoping for an explicitly political decision that would enable them to extract compensation. Having bought in at the top of the market in 2010, the company has shown no sign of willingness to spend its own money lately. It’s unlikely to commit to an expensive program to protect a bird.
On the other side, Labor has been waiting for the project to collapse under its own weight, so that they don’t expose themselves to political costs or claims for compensation. Adani hasn’t obligingly withdrawn, but the current dispute takes the issue of the table for a while.
There will doubtless be quite a few moves to come, and it’s hard to say who will come out ahead on issues like compensation. The likelihood that the project will be stopped has increased significantly. But it now seems likely that nothing much will happen before the Federal election due in May, and the Indian election, where Adani’s patron, Narendra Modi looks to be facing a tough fight.