Burke intended to approve coal mine before hoax
Revelation … Tony Burke. Photo: Andrew Meares
THE federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, flagged his intention to approve the controversial Maules Creek coal mine before Christmas, only weeks before it was the subject of a hoax media release claiming funding for the project from ANZ Bank had been withdrawn.
The revelation is contained in a confidential letter Mr Burke sent to the NSW government, obtained by Fairfax Media, and raises further questions about the minister's sudden announcement this week to delay a decision on the mine for three months.
Mr Burke now says he was forced to postpone the decision after it emerged that a key condition of consent could not be enforced under NSW law - a claim disputed by the state government.
Mr Burke was widely anticipated to announce his decision on the $776 million project on Thursday, but the environment department instead announced it would be deferred until April 30.
The department said the delay was because it was seeking ''clarification on potential impacts to matters of national environmental significance.''
However, in a letter to the NSW Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, on December 21, Mr Burke said: ''I am proposing to approve this proposal. My proposed decision is attached for your information.''
The attached document, which is undated, says the approval is valid until December 2033.
Conditions of the approval include requiring remediation of the mine site and restrictions on land clearing and that more than 9000 hectares of native vegetation must be reserved as an environmental ''offset''.
On January 7 the environmental activist Jonathan Moylan issued a fake media release claiming that ANZ had withdrawn funding for Maules Creek, causing a dip in the shareprice of the company behind the mine proposal, Whitehaven Coal.
The ensuing media coverage delivered significant publicity to the mine's opponents.
The NSW Resources Minister, Chris Hartcher, said Mr Burke's letter showed that the decision to defer was driven by the timing of the federal election.
''This political stunt exposes the deceit and deviousness of the Gillard government and the depths it will stoop to for political gain,'' Mr Hartcher said.
''The only thing that's changed from the time Burke sent his proposed approval back in December and now is the PM's announcement of the election date.''
But Mr Burke said the letter was sent to stakeholders so that potential issues could be raised.
''One of the proposed conditions could not be implemented under state law,'' he said. ''If Chris Hartcher believes that I should be breaching state law it's an odd position for a state minister.''
However, Mr Burke would not say which condition was problematic.