Inside Melissa Price’s decision to approve Adani’s groundwater plan

If Environment Minister Melissa Price didn’t give the go ahead before an election was called, an opportunity would be lost, write Stephen Long and Michael Slezak.

IN TERMS of the careful language used by scientists and bureaucrats, the assessment was damning.

Adani’s key water management plan for its coal mine in Queensland was so flawed its outcomes were unreliable, scientists from the CSIRO warned federal Environment Minister Melissa Price’s department.

They were scathing about the modelling that underpinned the entire plan, which, they said, was replete with errors and false assumptions.

“The modelling used is not suitable to ensure the outcomes sought by the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Protection Act are met,” the CSIRO and Geoscience Australia stated bluntly in a joint report.

Adani’s approach was “not sufficiently robust to monitor and minimise impacts to protected environments”.

Adani had underestimated the toll on bore water that farmers in the region rely on, which would be drained more severely and more quickly than predicted, the scientists said. And the mine could drain an ecologically sensitive and ancient natural springs complex, exceeding strict limits on draw-down of the springs’ waters.

A barrier to approval?

Nothing that couldn’t be overcome.

After pressure from her Cabinet colleagues from Queensland, Ms Price gave a tick to the Adani’s groundwater-related management plan on April 8.

The decision is one her Queensland counterpart — Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch — said “reeks of political interference”.

How politics played a part

The ABC was leaked details of the initial, highly critical report from Geoscience Australia and the CSIRO in December.

In February, when Geoscience Australia and the CSIRO delivered its still withering final assessment, it placed Ms Price in a difficult position.

The report was no basis for approving the plan — if anything, it gave grounds for asking Adani to scrap its modelling, go back to the drawing board, and start again.

But the politics were firmly against that course.

Influential figures in the Queensland LNP have been unfailing champions of the Adani mine.

With a federal election looming, powerful MPs and senators — who have long campaigned for Adani’s mine — were anxious to see the Federal Government grant the approval.

The LNP saw the granting of federal approval as a way of wedging Bill Shorten and the ALP in Queensland electorates where the Adani mine is equated with jobs.

The Labor government in Queensland must also sign off on the water management plan — and a series of other requirements — before the mine can be built, and here was an opportunity to present the Morrison Government as pro-Adani and Labor as blockers.

If Ms Price didn’t give the go ahead before an election was called, an opportunity would be lost.

Backlash from her own party

The Queensland Liberal National Party opposition called her “delay” in approval “an absolute disgrace”.

Resources Minister Matt Canavan denied reports that he threatened to quit unless the Environment Minister gave Adani’s plan assent.

Queensland senator James McGrath warned he would publicly call for Melissa Price’s resignation unless she did the “right thing” by Adani.

Adani’s response to some of the CSIRO’s strongest criticisms has been dismissive, with Adani saying the questions about its underlying model were “out of scope” of the review.

But eventually, in response to at least some of the criticisms, Adani revised its plans.

Blessing after the fact

The department revealed in Senate estimates that the amended plans were not directly evaluated by the CSIRO or Geoscience Australia. Despite this, on April 1, the Environment Department briefed the Minister and recommended approval for the revised scheme.

Four days after the department gave their recommendation, a deputy secretary of the Environment Department, Dean Knudson, met the CSIRO’s land and water director, Jane Coram, to brief her on Adani’s concessions and sought CSIRO’s blessing.

Later that day, Ms Coram delivered the response in writing.

In Ms Coram’s letter to the department, she said: “CSIRO is of the view that Adani’s responses should satisfy the recommendations to update the groundwater models, and are directed to address the modelling related issues and concerns in our advice, noting that there are still components of that advice that will need to be addressed through approval of [a] research plan”.

It hardly appeared to be a ringing endorsement, but it was enough for Ms Price.

Only the weekend came between the CSIRO’s letter and her announcement that Adani’s key water management plan had Federal Government assent.

“I have accepted the scientific advice and therefore approved the groundwater management plans for the Carmichael Coal Mine and Rail Infrastructure project under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999,” her media release proclaimed.

Ms Price announced: “Both CSIRO and Geoscience Australia have confirmed the revised plans meet strict scientific requirements”.

Still more approvals needed

Why everything happened so quickly after 18 months of consultation is not clear, but Adani said the Federal Government had given them “certainty of process and timing”.

One of Adani’s concessions, according to the Minister, was a commitment to “rerun the model, addressing all Geoscience Australia and CSIRO concerns, within two years of the commencement of coal extraction”.

This begs the question: what if the new, more robust modelling, suggests that Adani cannot meet the conditions for water use imposed as part of the mine’s approval?

The approval granted by Ms Price gives the LNP a hook on which to mount a campaign against the ALP in Queensland, though the politics is vexed.

Support for Adani could cost the Liberal and National parties votes in southern states and in metropolitan areas of Queensland.

Not that the mine is a done deal.

It still requires several approvals from the Queensland Government before earth can be dug, and its commercial viability remains in question as prices for renewable energy plummet and climate change concerns grow.

CSIRO Statement on Adani Carmichael proposal
11 April 2019

In late 2018 and early 2019 CSIRO and Geoscience Australia wrote two reports for the Federal Government on specific questions on groundwater monitoring, management and modelling planned by Adani Pty Ltd for its Carmichael mine proposal in central Queensland.

This advice was limited to answering discrete inquiries on whether elements of Adani’s proposed plans would be adequate to protect nationally significant environmental assets.

CSIRO identified inadequacies in the plans and was subsequently asked to review Adani’s response to the recommendations CSIRO made to address the issues raised, as summarised by the Department of the Environment and Energy. Adani had committed to address the modelling limitations identified by the CSIRO and GA review in a groundwater model re-run to be undertaken within two years.

CSIRO considered that this commitment satisfied its recommendations, while also acknowledging there were still some issues that need to be addressed in future approvals, particularly confirming the source of the ecologically-important Doongmabulla Springs.

CSIRO has provided robust, peer-reviewed science on specific groundwater modelling-related questions about the plans. CSIRO’s role is to provide scientific advice to inform approval processes, but it does not have any role in making approval decisions.



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