Adani sign on the company’s building in South Townsville
Adani sign on the company’s building in South Townsville

Adani process: Due diligence or shifting the goalposts?

THERE has been controversy over renewed environmental concerns that have further delayed the contentious Adani megamine. Now prominent figures on both sides have their say on whether the concerns are justified.

 

 

FOR - MARTINE MARON, UQ PROFESSOR

 

EXPERIENCED, independent scientists are precisely the right people to review evidence on which important government decisions are based.

But some media coverage has been critical of such expert review - in matters as important as the health of our Murray-Darling river system and the fate of an endangered bird.

Expert review helps identify if the policies that governments use to help manage our environment are likely to work the way society expects - and why, or why not.

One of these policies is biodiversity offsetting. It deals with development projects that have biodiversity impacts.

Biodiversity offsetting means balancing a loss of biodiversity - for example, a threatened species - at one place, with a gain in biodiversity at another.

Now, this is easy to say, but hard to do. That's why researching how to improve how we do biodiversity offsets is so important. A key way we do this is through critically analysing policies and projects that have already been done, to learn from them.

But over the past two weeks, several media outlets have reported that my work on this, and that of my colleagues, suggests we are opposed to offsets, and called into question our ability to provide impartial scientific advice. This is wrong.

Black-throated finch
Black-throated finch

My colleagues and I work with industry and government to develop and improve such policies.

Debate has centred on the endangered southern black-throated finch. Much of this bird's last remaining habitat is in the Galilee Basin, where several large mines are proposed. The go-ahead for Adani's Carmichael mine is conditional on the company providing biodiversity offsets - offsets that are meant to counterbalance the loss of the finch's habitat.

The Queensland Government commissioned Professor Brendan Wintle from the University of Melbourne to form an expert panel to review the Black-throated Finch Management Plan.

Despite claims to the contrary in the media, I am not on that panel. But some of my colleagues are - including researchers I've worked with on how to improve biodiversity offsetting.

If we want mines - or any infrastructure - to go ahead without contributing to this bird's extinction, having experts critically analyse plans designed to achieve this is a very important step.

The reality is that there are very few documented examples of successful offsets to learn from - and none for black-throated finch habitat. Because we are in uncharted waters, using the best expertise available to review the plan is crucial.

The scientists appointed to the review panel collectively have 150 years of experience in threatened species research. One of the members, from north Queensland, is a specialist in finches, one has an Order of Australia medal for contributions to science, and several provide scientific advice to mining companies, as well as to governments.

Two dead Murray cod float on the surface of the Darling River.
Two dead Murray cod float on the surface of the Darling River.

Their outstanding experience makes them qualified, not biased. Expertise is not the enemy - it helps the public have confidence in scientific advice and the government decisions that are based on it.

The case of the finch is complex. So much of its habitat is already gone that decisions to reduce it further warrant independent expert scrutiny.

Recent headlines have suggested that the only way this finch can be saved from extinction is to permit more habitat loss - in exchange for avoiding habitat loss elsewhere.

It is an extraordinary claim, which requires evidence. Expert review means evaluating that evidence. It does not mean rejecting something because the experts "don't like the concept", as has been suggested by some in the media.

That's not how science works.

A Bramble Cay melomy
A Bramble Cay melomy

Fish are dying by the millions in the Murray-Darling river system, and a royal commission has identified the sidelining of expert advice as key to the failure of the river's management plan. And only this week, another Australian species - the Bramble Cay melomys - was formally recorded as extinct.

It seems clear that when it comes to managing Australia's environment, we need more expert review and input - not less.

Martine Maron is a Professor of Environmental Management at the University of Queensland. She is a deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, a national research initiative funded by the Australian Government through the National Environmental Science Program. She is not remunerated for this role

 

 

AGAINST - LUCAS DOW, ADANI MINING CEO

THE fact that an 11th-hour external review of the management plan for the black-throated finch has been undertaken is evidence of the Queensland Government shifting the goalposts for Adani.

It has turned a regulatory process that is supposed to be about meeting the conditions imposed in the environmental authority into a secondary approval process contradicting previous approvals.

This process is not required under any regulatory or legislative framework. This decision has changed the rules of the process, creating uncertainty for the business sector, and damaging Queensland's reputation for investment.

As a career miner, I am yet to see an example of another mining company in Queensland whose management plan for a threatened species has recently been sent to external review.

The Queensland Government's own Townsville Ring Road development required construction through a black-throated finch habitat, and that management plan sailed through without being referred to an external review.

Adani Australia CEO Lucas Dow speaks at a business breakfast co-hosted by Townsville Enterprise
Adani Australia CEO Lucas Dow speaks at a business breakfast co-hosted by Townsville Enterprise

After eight years, during which we have worked diligently with the Government, we arrived at a position where development was imminent.

The project stacked up financially and environmentally. But then came the review, which was ordered the day after the Australian Government had approved Adani's management plan.

The events that have followed have been extraordinary.

Professor Brendan Wintle, who leads an organisation, and individuals that have made anti-coal and anti-mining statements in the past, were appointed to lead the external review process.

Five out of the six panel members were also members of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, an organisation whose members have previously taken an anti-coal stance. It took constant letters and correspondence with the Government to get them to confirm the terms of the review, the timing of it, and access to the report itself.

Once it was complete, the final report didn't address the key concerns that we'd raised during the process about inaccuracies, errors, and bias.

The panel's review report calls for an end to cattle grazing on the land, whereas the department had previously agreed that grazing was an important tool for keeping buffalo grass under control. It also doesn't consider that cattle and the finch have been coexisting on the property for decades without concern. The report also doesn't consider the fire hazard that would be created by ceasing grazing.

The black throated finch.
The black throated finch.

The review said the Carmichael project would likely lead to the extinction of the black-throated finch. However, state and federal government experts made no such finding in their extensive work on the same issue that took 18 months. In fact, they said it would not have a significant impact and extinction was not raised in the Co-ordinator-General's report or the environmental impact statement.

Queensland legislation lists the black-throated finch as endangered, and the advice from the Department of Environment and Science notes the key threats to the finch, however it does not include any immediate risks of extinction.

The National Recovery Plan for the finch also does not include an immediate or near risk of extinction.

These claims of extinction have now been recited by Government ministers as fact, and it is simply unfounded hysteria.

The review reads like an anti-Adani lobbying document.

The commentary about the potential extinction of the black-throated finch arises from opinions raised by a number of vocal critics to the Carmichael coal mine project, notably, Dr April Reside who has had an anti-Adani agenda for several years and whose comments were strongly reflected in the draft report.

This is not about whether or not it's appropriate for scientists to have input into a review process. Of course, it is appropriate. This particular process is flawed and is being used to derail development and jobs for Queenslanders.

The goalposts have been shifted for Adani and prospective international investors are watching carefully.

It's time for the Queensland Government to give Adani a fair go, and let us get on with delivering thousands of jobs for regional Queenslanders who desperately need them.

Lucas Dow is the CEO of Adani Mining

 



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