Promises, promises
Controversy surrounds Liverpool Plains coal mine approval

Image by Jeremy Buckingham (Flickr).

The New South Wales’ election campaign has been a defining moment for the anti–coal seam gas movement in the state, with both the Coalition and Labor responding to the backlash by committing to curb the industry’s expansion. But when it comes to coal mines, it’s a case of business as usual.

The NSW Minerals Council emphatically said so this week: “Both the government and opposition have re-affirmed their strong commitment to mining in NSW. And both have also made some very welcome commitments on the policy challenges our industry faces.”

Coal contributes to more than 90% of the state’s mineral production. When Labor was last in government, it established a nominally independent body known as the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) to review applications for major developments, and many of them were coal mines. Now, the new head of the PAC, former Canberra mandarin Lynelle Briggs, has signed off on perhaps the state’s most controversial project, Shenhua’s open-cut coal mine on the edge of the highly fertile Liverpool Plains in northern NSW.

Briggs accepted the role as chair of the review panel shortly after her three-year term as a director of Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) expired last November. Briggs could have opted not to head this review, but she took on the role even though ARTC had previously outlined in a 2012 report how it stood to benefit from proposed new mines in the region, including the Shenhua mine.

Briggs went on to approve the Shenhua mine, a decision that now threatens the loss of the seat of Tamworth and other Coalition seats in rural NSW. “The ARTC provides rail infrastructure. It has no commercial relationship with Shenhua Watermark,” said a PAC spokesman when asked why Briggs had chosen to chair the review. But an ARTC strategy paper on growth potential from 2012–21 notes that “four major new mines” in the Gunnedah region mines are an important driver of future business growth for the corporation, including the Shenhua mine.

In response to questions from the Monthly to Lynelle Briggs and the planning minister, Pru Goward, both declined to say why it was necessary for Briggs to chair the Shenhua review. While Briggs is the overarching chair of the PAC, each review has its own panel. The role of Briggs has angered local farmers who say the highly productive region’s water resources could be damaged by coal mines. In the NSW electorate of Tamworth, many constituents are backing independent MP Peter Draper, who is running against the Nationals’ Kevin Anderson. The seat has a margin of just 6.8%. Draper previously held the seat for two terms.

Fifth-generation farmer Tim Duddy says the state government’s approval of the Shenhua mine, just 3 kilometres from the township of Breeza, has triggered a backlash that will reverberate all the way through the federal Coalition:

“The Nationals, despite their myriad promises, have failed to protect the Liverpool Plains. Even the premier has said that it is about co-existence, meaning that he has completely missed the significance on the area. One thing is for sure, when Anderson loses his seat, [Barnaby] Joyce will work overtime to make sure he does not meet the same fate.”

Joyce’s seat of New England encompasses the Liverpool Plains. The proposed mine is being developed by China’s state-owned coal giant Shenhua, which paid a staggering $300 million an exploration awarded by disgraced Labor minister Ian Macdonald in 2008. In 2011, the incoming Coalition government reviewed this licence, and another secured by BHP Billiton, and approved them. As then resources minister Chris Hartcher said at the time, the money paid by Shenhua was so great that “there is an implicit guarantee you'll get your lease”.

Since then, the Coalition government has subjected the mine to what Pru Goward said was “comprehensive, transparent, and scientifically rigorous assessments” by the Planning Assessment Commission. In August last year, the PAC approved the project subject to further water modelling and 25 recommendations. Then in October, Goward appointed Lynelle Briggs as the new chair of the PAC.

The PAC’s declaration of interests reveals that on 9 November last year, Briggs’ term as an ARTC director ended, and then the following day the Shenhua project was referred back to the PAC for a final review. Having stepped down from the ARTC there was no direct conflict of interest, but given the timing, Briggs could have declined to sit on the Shenhua review. This review approved the Shenhua mine in January.

A spokesman for Goward said: “It is a matter of public record that Ms Lynelle Briggs AO was a non-executive director on the Australian Rail Track Corporation board. It is entirely appropriate for the government to utilise the skills of individuals like Ms Briggs, a respected former public servant and non-executive director.”

Peter Draper says the community does not have confidence in the PAC approval process. “PAC examination is a joke. As every time a blockage looked likely the ground rules were shifted by government. The site is home to one of the most culturally significant sites for the Kamillaroi people, yet their pleas and tears have been ignored. This is the wrong mine in the wrong place,” he told the Monthly.

Briggs declined to be interviewed about her role in the Shenhua review or answer questions directly. Instead, a PAC spokesman provided answer. The spokesman added:

“Ms Briggs’ appointment to the ARTC board expired on 9 November 2014 before Shenhua Watermark’s proposal was referred to the PAC. There is no conflict of interest regarding this matter. Ms Briggs was not and never has been a shareholder in the ARTC. Ms Briggs provided full disclosure of her ARTC board role throughout the recruitment process for the PAC Chairperson and in her declaration of interests on appointment to the role. The PAC gave no consideration to the ARTC in its determination of the application because its responsibility was to determine the application on its merit.”

The Nationals’ Kevin Anderson declined to be interviewed.

The great fear that the Liverpool Plains farmers have about the new mine, and BHP’s proposal, is that once these mines are established many more will follow. This is what happened in the Hunter Valley further south, a highly productive firmly region that in part resembles a moonscape. Liverpool Plains farmers like Tim Duddy drive through this region on their way to Sydney and they can see what the future might look like.

Paul Cleary

Paul Cleary is a policy analyst and author of five nonfiction books. He has a doctorate from the ANU for a thesis on Australia’s policy framework for managing its resources wealth and outcomes for Indigenous communities in the Pilbara.

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