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Why the Galilee Basin is worth worrying about

The Galilee Basin is a massive Queensland coal basin on the verge of being opened up for the first time. If it goes ahead as anticipated, there will be a host of significant impacts ranging from the local…

Will the opening of the Galilee Basin undermine Queensland’s economic and environmental future? AAP

The Galilee Basin is a massive Queensland coal basin on the verge of being opened up for the first time. If it goes ahead as anticipated, there will be a host of significant impacts ranging from the local to the global. But how many of us know what is being planned?

Over the last few years, several outback towns and numerous grazing properties in central-west Queensland have witnessed an unprecedented procession of coal geologists, explorers, surveyors and an associated workforce. Company vehicles and high-vis shirts can’t be missed in the usually quiet streets of the old railway towns of Alpha and Jericho. But this recent influx is only a small taste of what might come.

The Galilee Basin, covering around 250,000 square kilometres, contains vast quantities of thermal coal – the kind used for electricity generation. The coal seams come close to the surface in the north-east of the basin and that is where around nine “mega” mines are proposed to dig out the coal through both open-cut and underground extraction. Further west where the coal seams are deeper underground, explorers are busily drilling to determine the viability of coal seam gas production. Shale gas is also being sought.

Talk of coal development in the area is not new. With one of the first Galilee Basin exploration licences under his belt, the late Lang Hancock eagerly pursued potential Swedish buyers in the late 1970s and a decade later tried to secure a deal with Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Hancock’s plans didn’t come to fruition at the time, and the “buried sunshine” lay waiting for increased demand and higher resource prices in the 21st century to renew interest in the area. This time it looks serious.

With Hancock’s daughter Gina Rinehart at the helm, Hancock Prospecting Ltd mined and exported the first coal from the Galilee Basin in 2010/11, as part of their Alpha Coal Project test-pit operation. Since then, the majority of the project has been sold to Indian conglomerate GVK. In August this year, federal Environment Minister Tony Burke deemed the project “approved with conditions”, making it the forerunner of all the proposed projects.

Part of the reason why the Galilee Basin hasn’t been mined before now is its relative remoteness. As well as a mine, the Alpha project will require the building of a new 495 kilometre rail line to Abbot Point, where the existing port will need to be expanded to handle the output from Australia’s newest coal province. From here the coal will be exported to foreign markets. So just how much coal are we talking about?

The average-sized coal mine in Queensland currently produces around 5 million tonnes (Mt) of coal every year. The Alpha Coal project would produce 30 Mt per annum, but this would not be the largest in the new basin. It is anticipated Adani’s Carmichael mine could produce around 60 Mt of coal every year, for up to 150 years. Altogether, if all the current proposed mines in the Galilee Basin go ahead, a total of more than 300 Mt of coal will be dug out of the area every year. That would amount to an increase of Queensland’s coal production by around 150%. Why be concerned?

At the local level, the proposed development of the Galilee Basin would result in serious impacts to groundwater, biodiversity and communities. The vast open-cut and underground mines would deplete groundwater, potentially affecting the region for hundreds of years. The Great Artesian Basin underlies the area being explored for coal seam gas production. Tens of thousands of hectares of remnant woodland is likely to be cleared to make way for the new mines, including areas currently set aside for conservation. Cultural and economic impacts are already being felt in the area before any of the mines have actually been developed.

The proposed new railway line has met heated opposition from some landholders, who foresee interference with the natural operation of the floodplain. And the required port expansions and inevitable increase in coal carrier traffic through the Great Barrier Reef has drawn the attention of both the Australian public as well as UNESCO.

The likely climate impacts from the opening of the Galilee Basin are both significant and are currently unaccounted for in Australia’s assessment and approval processes. If all the projects go ahead, the annual emissions from burning Galilee Basin coal would amount to around 130% of Australia’s current total annual emissions. It’s enough to make you question our governments’ commitment to cutting global emissions.

As the world population and appetite for energy continues to grow, there are many things we need to be concerned about. The opening of the Galilee Basin is one of them.

The Environmental Impact Statements for a number of Galilee Basin projects are currently open for comment.

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7 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    It's mind boggling that the latest Kyoto imposition will give Australia 30 years 1990-2020 to reduce our annual emissions by about 30 Mt. That's equivalent to just 12 Mt of thermal black coal, totally dwarfed by the proposed new mines.

    Another way of looking at the Galilee Basin is as a store of pre-sequestered carbon. That fossil plant mass represents CO2 sucked from the primordial atmosphere over millions of years starting a quarter billion years ago where it has safely remained. Now it is to be released or re-oxidised back into the atmosphere in just a few decades.

    If Australia was serious about emissions cuts the Galilee Basin would be left untouched. The only thing likely to do that seems to be a global economic slowdown rendering the development cost too high. I challenge the Climate Commission to take a break from lauding solar panels and say something about this.

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  2. Tim Keegan

    logged in via Facebook

    Australia has a commitment to cutting global emisions?

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  3. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    If there is a lesson to be drawn from histories of Prohibition and the War on Drugs, it is that restriction on supplies of any commodity is invariably sub-optimal: so long as demand exists, there will always be unintended consequences following from measures intended to implement supply restriction.

    The Good News is, now that the world is aware of rapid Arctic ice and boreal permafrost loss, markets for Galilee coal are expected to cease to exist in a decade or so.

    We already know that it is the height of environmental stupidity to open up any new coal mines; the issue for those who are hellbent on more mining is whether it is commercially prudent to proceed with these mines.

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    1. Sonya Duus

      PhD Candidate at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at Australian National University

      In reply to David Arthur

      Hi David - I think you make a good point, but I am inclined to think that we are going to need to apply pressure from all sides to change our entrenched energy systems. It is worth remembering the staggering increase in coal-fired electricity being planned around the world (see a summary of the recent World Resources Institute report here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/nov/20/coal-plants-world-resources-institute). We may well find ourselves with a drastically different energy mix within…

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    2. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Ministry assistant, ecologcal ethicist and PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to David Arthur

      "I would love to see more conversation around this point. eg. How are we going to decide which third of the known reserves we are going to use? What kind of coal (coking or thermal), for which industries, taken from which places, and when?"

      Excellent questions Sonya. I'd suggest that if we're going to burn no more than 1/3rd of current fossil fuel reserves (and that is for only a 66% chance of staying under 2ºC; if we want a 80% chance, we need to leave 4/5th of current reserves), then oil (and to a lesser extent gas) are far more useful than coal.

      Bill McKibben's latest campaign in the US ("Do the Math") has picked precisely this issue - how to build a populist movement that gives strong political support for the idea of leaving most fossil fuel reserves (a.k.a. pre-sequestered carbon) safely underground.

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    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to David Arthur

      Gday Sonya, if asked, I'd respond to the questions you pose as follows.

      "How are we going to decide which third of the known reserves we are going to use?"
      The World Resources Institute carbon budget calculations neglect natural sources of greenhouse gases, such as the recently initiated and rapidly accelerating permafrost thaw. Yesterday's release of UNEP's "Policy implications of Warming Permafrost" should illuminate our thinking, leading us to the policy implication that no new coal mines…

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    4. takver takvera

      Journalist and Editor at Indymedia

      In reply to David Arthur

      The recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers (UK) report warned business that business-as-usual is no longer an option, particularly with regards to high carbon assets like new coal mines.

      Jonathan Grant, director, sustainability and climate change, PwC said: "The risk to business is that it faces more unpredictable and extreme weather, and disruptions to market and supply chains. Resilience will become a watch word in the boardroom - to policy responses as well as to the climate. More radical and disruptive…

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