World's biggest miner knocked back in Australia
But London Calling qualifies its expressions of joy
A major new coal mine, at Illawarra in Australia, proposed by Melbourne and London-listed BHP Billiton, has been severely knocked on its head - though not quite killed-off.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a "scathing review" by the New South Wales' Planning Assessment Commission "found that society would be better off if the coal remained in the ground".
This ruling comes at a time when deliberation at the COP10 conference on preserving global biodiversity reached a significant new stage. See: "Costing Nature" reaches take-off point
Last month, the mining industry-led International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) published case studies of what it claimed are good practices in safeguarding threatened habitats and resources. See: http://www.icmm.com/page/52209/cop10-case-studies-on-mining-and-biodiversity-available-to-download
Several of these studies embraced the concepts of "no net loss" (of biodiversity) and "NPI" (Net Positive Impact on biodiversity) - ones being strongly promoted inter alia by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, and developed alongside mainstream environmental organisations, such as Fauna and Flora International and The Nature Conservancy.
One of their key contentions is that, although a mining company may sequester and deplete some bio-rich areas, this is acceptable so long as it "compensates" by providing money, labour, expertise, seeds and other inputs, in order to preserve or promote bio-diversity in another area.
Or through long-term remediation and improvement of the capacities of the exploited mining site.
Although BHP Billiton's Illawarra coal mine was not included in the ICMM study, it provides a telling example of how such nice-sounding promises on paper can unravel in practice.
The Total Environment Centre, which led the campaign against the mine, pointed out that the original proposal was unacceptable on both environmental and economic grounds.
The Centre quite specifically enumerated threats to "46 streams, 226 upland swamps and 632 Aboriginal heritage sites" in the Dharawal State Conservation area - none of which BHP Billiton had properly evaluated in its own EIA.
In itself, that's a ringing indictment of the company's failure to its avowed gold brand of "corporate responsibility".
It should also throw considerable doubt on the wisdom of "costing" nature's loss, due to extractive enterprises.
Or, at least, on trusting companies to do the accounting.
BHP Billiton has apparently accepted the Commission's ruling with good grace (Could it really have done otherwise at this point in time?)
Now, the world's biggest mining company has put forward a much-trimmed proposal for a mine which, it claims, will create more than 2,600 jobs and generate $200 million in regional household income.
Wait and See
We shall have to wait before determining whether those promises will be fulfilled: just as shaky as pricing compensatory biological inputs is setting a future price tag on commodities.
In any case, in another, less regulated place, where more trust would be placed on assertions made by a project proponent, the outcome might have been different.
At least, the Ilawarra decision indicates that, when "responsible" authorities and NGOs dig in their heels against one or more aspects of a potentially harmful project, the "responsible" mining companies will be more inclined to accept the verdict.
But this leaves a whole swathe of other enterprises still free to do more or less what they want.
Cynics might also point out that, so long as a company isn't banned completely from a concession area, it still has room to manoeuvre and exert pressure at a future point for a bigger slice of the forbidden cake.
Note, for example, the Commission's qualification in the llawarra case that "remediation cannot be considered at this time to be an alternative to prevention".
And, on 1 November 2010, the Macarthur Chronicle stated that:"Although the company is abandoning coal mining operations in the Upper Georges River headlands area for now, BHP Billiton subsidiary Illawarra Coal has not ruled out undermining the area in the future".
Optimistically, as the global campaign grows to set a price on bio-diversity sacrifices caused by human and industrial activity, such assessments as that by the NSW Planning Commission will become more critical, and arguably effective, in stopping some aspects of some bad projects.
But it won't prevent them all by any means.
And, when the final bill is in, even the best-planned enterprises of miners and other men may prove to have cost the Earth.
[London Calling is written by Nostromo Research. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily represent those of any other party, including the editors of the Mines and Communities website. Reproduction is welcome, so long as full acknowledgement is given to Nostromo Research as the author].
Green win signals shift in mine approvals
By Ben Cubby
Sydney Morning Herald
28 October 2010
BHP Billiton has shelved plans for a vast new coal mine under a conservation area south of Sydney, after a scathing review by the state's Planning Assessment Commission found that society would be better off if the coal remained in the ground.
The findings signal a change of direction for the state's mining approval process, with the commission also deciding that remediation by the company would not be able to make up for the environmental damage it would cause.
The project had been expected to dig up $60 billion worth of coal over the next 30 years.
The BHP Billiton subsidiary Illawarra Coal has put forward a new plan that will allow the 6200-hectare Dharawal State Conservation Area south-east of Campbelltown to remain undisturbed, and also excludes some sensitive water catchments near the township of Appin.
The government's commission analysed the mine's benefits in terms of jobs, economic activity and company profits and found that they did not outweigh the public benefit of having pristine bushland and water catchments close to Sydney.
''So while protection of the significant natural features would involve lower mine profitability, it is likely that society as a whole would gain more from the environmental protection recommended than it would lose in terms of foregone profits,'' its report said.
Although the company offered engineering solutions to some of the surface cracking and water pollution that it expected to cause, the commission decided that ''remediation cannot be considered at this time to be an alternative to prevention where the functionality of water-dependent natural features is an objective''.
It is ''no longer a viable proposition for mining to cause more than negligible damage to pristine or near-pristine waterways in drinking water catchments'', it said.
BHP Billiton had previously told the Herald the financial viability of the entire project hinged on being able to mine under the conservation area.
It said yesterday the revised proposal would still provide more than 2600 jobs in the region, and generate $200 million in household income.
"Reflecting changes in community expectations, Illawarra Coal has a strong track record of demonstrated commitment to the environment, being the first to move its longwall mining away from rivers, and our [new proposal] is a further reflection of this," said the project's manager of sustainable development, John Brannon.
The Total Environment Centre, which has been campaigning against mining in Sydney's drinking water catchment, said the decisions were a ''new benchmark''.
''It's clear the original proposal was unacceptable on environmental and economic grounds and that the reliance on so-called remediation is a myth,'' said Mr Angel.
''The panel makes it clear it is not acceptable to have more than negligible damage ... BHP's recognition of the force of these arguments is welcomed.''
The commission identified a problem with allowing mining companies to decide which natural features in their targeted areas should be granted ''special significance'', a status that can accord them extra protection. It noted that BHP Billiton's proposal found one area of possible special significance in the entire mining zone - the Nepean River.
''None of the other 46 streams ...none of the 226 upland swamps, none of the 634 cliffs ... and none of the 632 Aboriginal heritage sites in the study area succeeded in crossing the proponent's threshold for special significance,'' the report said, concluding there was ''an element of subjectivity'' in BHP's plan.
A hydrologist who gave evidence during the inquiry, Ann Young, said many of the swamps would have been destroyed.