Adani caned but not canned

Greg Hunt may have felt bitten by the snake today – but it may just be a temporary setback. Photo: Dionne Gain

The yakka skink and the ornamental snake are unlikely to be Greg Hunt’s favourite animals this week.

The Federal Environment Minister approved Adani’s $16 billion Carmichael coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin in January this year. The Mackay Conservation Group promptly launched a challenge in the Federal Court claiming the project would have deleterious effects on climate and endangered species.

Today the Federal Court ruled in favour of the community group on grounds the impact on the yakka skink and the ornamental snake had not been properly considered.

The ornamental snake is not generally considered to be dangerous to humans. Its bite may result in localised swelling, or even loss of consciousness, but it is hardly fatal. Neither is this decision from the Federal Court.

Adani will press ahead. The Queensland government is still behind the project and while it is embarrassing for Greg Hunt, for Adani, and for the bureaucracy – whose failure of process allowed the successful court challenge – this is by no means the end of the road for Australia’s biggest coal project, yet.

The project is likely to be jettisoned, not on environmental grounds, but because it is grossly uneconomic

“Activists capitalise on legal loopholes to delay billions in investment,” was the headline on the press release from the Queensland Resources Council.
Chief executive Michael Roche, said the “delaying tactics being used by the activists were straight out of their playbook, Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom”.

He’s right. Though this doesn’t mean the project is right, nor that the environment movement is at all repentant about using the same legal tactics as the fossil fuel industry. Greg Hunt and the Commonwealth Department of Environment, who made what Roche calls “an administrative error”, now have to go back to the drawing board and deal with the yakka skink and the ornamental snake.

There are still many more approvals to come, even if Adani and the Queensland and Commonwealth governments persist in backing the white elephant which is Carmichael.

The Federal Court decision may delay the approval process but then there is still the outcome of another court case to come – the challenge in the Land Court of Queensland to the financial case for the mine. Adani got comprehensively shellacked in hearings earlier this year and judgement may be a year away.

More broadly, the significance of the court’s decision is that it reflects the new playing field in resources. This is a more level playing field where powerful corporations and compliant governments are challenged by an increasingly shrewd environmental movement.

Progressive think tanks the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) and The Australia Institute (TAI), as well as green groups GetUp! and are increasingly well funded and savvy when it comes to fighting the fossil fuel industry at every step. As are local action groups such as the Mackay Conservation Group

They use the court system, they engage with regulators and government. Their research is not plausibly challenged by industry, via detailed or credible rebuttals, but rather summarily denounced by noisy and unconvincing PR tactics.

Then there is the International Energy Agency (IEA) which argues too that fossil fuel subsidies should be scaled back. For generations, governments have bankrolled big resources projects, shelling out taxpayers’ money to make them stack up financially. Even now, the Queensland government is still pushing ahead with the proposal to give Adani a “royalties holiday”.

These projects have created jobs and broader economic benefits; there is no argument against this. Neither is there an argument against the fact that the greatest benefits have accrued to shareholders, often foreign shareholders, and to project proponents themselves.

And mining projects are also increasingly mechanised, meaning fewer jobs (Adani has quietly proposed using driver-less trucks); and more importantly, they are now viably challenged by renewable energy technologies – hydro, solar, wind and so forth – like never before.

If the playing field was truly level, all subsidies would be eliminated. That won’t happen any time soon. Realpolitik and political donations will see to that. And today’s decision on Carmichael can be deemed a mere skirmish in what is one of the most potent contests of this century, the war between new and old energy.

The victor, inevitably, will be new energy. Coal will be part of the mix for years to come but coal is definitely not “the future”.

And now that technological change is married with an increasingly formidable environmental movement, the fossil fuel sector surely has its work cut out.