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Galilee coalmine approval sparks carbon fears

The federal government has approved a giant Queensland coalmine that it says will generate as much as $300 billion for the economy, but which environmental groups say will contribute to a “carbon bomb” and risk causing significant damage to the Great Barrier Reef.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt said on Monday the Carmichael Coal Mine in the Galilee Basin and associated rail link to the coast was approved with “the absolute strictest” conditions.

The 36 federal conditions, on top of 190 state ones, and including offsets of about 30,000 hectares for habitat destroyed,  would ensure the mine owner, India’s Adani, “meets the highest environmental standards”, Mr Hunt said.

At full capacity, the Carmichael mine could produce as much as 60 million tonnes of coal a year, with a “resource value of $5 billion per annum over 60 years”. Apart from the 3920 jobs for operations and 2475 during construction, the mine would also “provide electricity for up to 100 million people in India”, Mr Hunt said.

But analysts say the Galilee mines – which could more than double Australia’s annual coal production of about 280 million tonnes a year – are unviable, with global coal prices halving in the past five years.

“Ironically, should the Galilee proceed, it will actually accelerate the longer-term destruction of our coal export industry by dramatically expanding the capital invested, whilst at the same time taking coal prices globally down another 10 to 20 per cent,” Tim Buckley, a former Citibank analyst and now a director at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said.

Billionaire MP Clive Palmer owns two Galilee coal reserves that may produce as much as 80 million tonnes of coal a year, and Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, holds a minority stake with India’s GVK company in mines with a similar annual capacity.

Environmental groups including Greenpeace, though, warn the Galilee Basin amounts to a “carbon bomb”, with the potential to create 705 million tonnes a year in carbon-dioxide emissions at full production. Carmichael’s contribution would be almost 130 million tonnes of CO₂, Greenpeace estimates, or more than a quarter of Australia’s current total.

“History will look back on the Abbott government’s decision today as an act of climate criminality,” said Greens senator Larissa Waters, the party’s environment spokeswoman. 

The Carmichael mine would also increase the number of ships entering the Great Barrier Reef by about 450 a year, according to Felicity Wishart, a spokeswoman for the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

“This is yet another nail in the coffin for the Great Barrier Reef,” Ms Wishart said, adding that proposed coal mines and gas plants in the region would likely increase the number of ships entering the reef area from about 4000 a year to 7000 by 2020.

Activist group GetUp!, meanwhile, said it was a victim of “dirty tricks” after one of its videos campaigning against Adani got blocked by YouTube over copyright claims.

GetUp! said it posted the animation – detailing Adani’s poor environment record in India – in June and had received about 70,000 views before a fake website popped claiming it held rights of the video.

YouTube, owned by Google, pulled down the original and downgraded GetUp!’s other videos.

“We’re deeply concerned about the timing – just days before the minister gives it approval,” Paul Oosting, a campaigns director at GetUp!, said.

A spokesman for Adani denied any link to the blockage.

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