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All Fossils Go? Tanya Plibersek new coal mine approval due Friday

by Callum Foote | Apr 24, 2023 | Energy & Environment, Latest Posts

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek will decide this Friday whether to approve what could be Australia’s newest coal mine, but there will be no fanfare. Callum Foote reports on a government busy rolling out new fossil fuel projects despite the strong advice of international agencies.

Tanya Plibersek surely has one of the trickiest jobs in government, making the case that the relatively young Labor government, although far more adept than the last mob, is a significantly better performer than the Coalition when it comes to energy, climate and the fossil fuel sector.

They might not be gleefully flashing lumps of coal about in Parliament to mock their climate adversaries but they continue to approve new gas and coal projects apace, albeit more sheepishly.

At 2.07 pm on a Monday in late, Plibersek was posing for cutesy-wootsey koala photos. “We are investing 5m in a save the koalas fund!” declared the press release.  


It was no small irony that such fanfare did not accompany the other disclosure from the Environment Ministry that day.  

At 4:55 pm, the Minister approved another Santos gas fracking project, a 54-year approval to develop a 116-well coal seam gas project in Queensland’s Surat Basin.

So it is that hopes are not high among those who keep a close eye on these things, and the Greens and the Teals for that matter, that Tanya Plibersek will knock back the request by Bowen Coking Coal to approve the Isaac River project 150km south-west of Mackay in Queensland.

Mind you, this is coking coal, or “metallurgical coal’, the sort which goes into steel making and which is less toxic for the climate than thermal coal.

Campbell’s scoop

Plibersek was meant to decide the fate of the proposal on April 6, but postponed the decision for two weeks until this Friday.

The decision to postpone was published late on the Friday afternoon on the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) portal. The innocuous notice was picked up by self-described EPBC portal surfer Rod Campbell, the research director for the Canberra-based progressive think tank The Australia Institute.

“Having been a long-time researcher of fossil fuel projects, and having a background as an economist in major project assessments I do sometimes just happen to look as the EPBC notices” Campbell said.

Santos’ wins fracking approval for Towrie gas development from Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek

The Isaac River proposal has had its decision delayed twice now, with the first being two weeks prior on 17 March.

The proponents of the proposed mine, Bowen Coking Coal Limited, say that the mine aims to produce 3 million tonnes of coking coal which would result in around 7 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions according to Campbell.

Bowen Coal already has two mines in production, with a number in the pipeline. The company’s new CEO Mark Ruston told investors that “Bringing three mines into production over the last 12 months is an outstanding achievement for Bowen and I am excited about applying my skills to these operations and other projects in the pipeline.”

Just in March, the proponents of Isaac River, Bowen Coking Coal, began production from another new mine that already had federal approval, Ellensfield South. Isaac River received its state approvals in March 2022 and Bowen Coking Coal expects to receive its federal approvals this year.

This would be just in time for Bowen Coking Coal to cash in on China’s decision to end its unofficial ban on Australian coal imports, which preliminary reports show that tonnes of Australian coking coal was imported by China in the first quarter this year.

Ten projects in the offing

Bowen has 10 projects currently either in the pipeline or in operation which the company has either developed itself or bought from other companies operating in Queensland. These projects are intended for the export market, according to statements made by the company to the ASX.

A number of the company’s assets are in Queensland’s Bowen Basin, hence the name, which overlaps with the Surat basin, the site of a recent coal seam gas drilling approval given by Plibersek to gas giant Santos.

The Towrie Gas Development was given the go ahead by Plibersek at 4:55pm on a Friday afternoon in February without fanfare or media announcement.

So we can expect little fanfare this time either, but perhaps no koalas announcement either.

MWM has put questions to the Environment Minister regarding whether a media release will be provided alongside the expected EPBC portal update this Friday and whether the decision will be delayed once more.

International pariah status

The International Energy Agency, the UN and many countries (especially in the Pacific) have called for no new coal mines to be developed at all if warming is to be kept at a responsible level.

Coal producers have had an extremely challenging year in terms of share price.

Bowen Coking Coal itself is down almost 25% year to date. It’s most recent half-yearly results show $38 million in revenue from customers but $125 million in payments to employees and supplies leaving the company deep in the red.

Other coal companies are experiencing similar share price downturns from stronger financial positions. Whitehaven Coal is down 17% year to date despite making $2 billion profit in the half year to December 21. 

Yancoal is down 4% while New Hope Corporation is down 10% year to date. 

Questions for Environment Minister:

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek was supposed to have decided on whether to approve Isaac River by 14 April 2023 but on 6 April extended the timeframe by two weeks to this Friday.

Will the Minister make a decision this Friday, or is the decision likely to be extended again?

When the decision is made, will the Department of Environment produce a media release detailing the effects of the decision?

State Capture: Coalition assault on GetUp backfires, catches a rash of fossil fuel donors

Callum Foote was a reporter for Michael West Media for four years.

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