OVERVIEW – THE CARMICHAEL COAL MINE
In mid-2019, both Queensland and federal governments approved the Carmichael Coal Mine’s groundwater management plans, proposed by Indian multinational Adani, ending years of environmental assessments and legal challenges.
The Doongmabulla Springs Complex approximately 8 km from the mine site harbours numerous endemic species and is of great cultural significance to the indigenous Wangan and Jagalingou peoples. Despite advice from scientists, Adani did not conduct the investigations required to determine the risks to groundwater-dependent ecosystems, leaving open the prospect of irreversible damage.
From 2010 – 2019, scientific advice was repeatedly dismissed, while scientists and agencies were subjected to political pressure. The authors argue that this echoes other examples of scientific evidence being ignored where findings clash with political or economic objectives, and warrants a review of decision-making processes for developments with environmental consequences.
This analysis provides an overview of key events in the Adani mine’s groundwater approvals.
Advice from independent scientists was provided to decision makers and Adani at multiple junctures. The Independent Expert Scientific Committee (IESC), a national body established to scrutinize scientific evidence regarding impacts of coal and gas mining on Australia’s water resources, concluded that questionable parameters had been adopted in the groundwater model used to predict the mine’s influence, leading to doubts about its predictions. In November 2014, Adani obtained a peer review of their groundwater model from an industry expert, the findings of which were in contrast to those of the IESC.
The evidence was then tested in the Land Court of Queensland, in March 2015, with four independent expert hydrogeologists appointed as witnesses. All agreed that the springs would probably be destroyed if they were dependent on the deeper aquifer, but were divided on the validity of groundwater modelling assumptions. The Land Court recommended approval of the mine, provided an adaptive management approach was adopted that considered the deeper aquifer a plausible source of spring flow .
Subsequently, two federal government science agencies – the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Geoscience Australia – oversaw an assessment. This analysis noted that the springs’ source had not been conclusively determined. The modelling found a significant likelihood of greater groundwater drawdown at the Doongmabulla Springs than predicted in the Carmichael Environmental Impact Survey (EIS).
In early 2019, the environment departments of the federal and state governments commissioned CSIRO and Geoscience Australia to review Adani’s groundwater management plans. They reiterated that the source aquifer had not been conclusively determined and that the modelling on which impact predictions were based contained significant flaws.
Despite advice from multiple agencies and experts indicating scientific flaws and the significant possibility of greater impacts on the Doongmabulla Springs than anticipated by the company, Adani did not (to the authors’ knowledge) commission any major additional scientific investigations at the site over this period (2013 to 2019), leaving crucial information gaps.
The first CSIRO–Geoscience Australia review was received by the federal government in February 2019, but was kept from the public until the day the federal minister for the environment announced approval of the groundwater plans (8 April 2019). It was reported that the minister responsible had been under pressure to approve the plan before an election, which was called within 48 hours. Pressure was also put on CSIRO to publicly state that their concerns in the review had been addressed by subsequent actions of the mining company – which the body refused to endorse.
On 18 May 2019, the election returned the conservative coalition government to office. Immediately following this, the Queensland Premier announced she was ‘fed up’ of waiting for the state’s environment department to decide on approving the mine’s groundwater plans and requested a deadline be set for a decision. A second CSIRO–Geoscience Australia review of the plans was then requested by the state government. The agencies were given less than three weeks to review the plans, and the scope was limited to specific questions, precluding a detailed analysis.
Simultaneously, the Queensland government was provided with a paper, written by concerned scientists from four academic institutions. Nonetheless, on 13 June 2019, the state government approved the groundwater plans.
RE-CALIBRATING THE SCIENCE-POLICY NEXUS
The authors recognize the importance of multiple considerations in government decisions, but support the fundamental principle that “determining the basic facts about safety, efficacy, or adverse events reporting should be science-driven and as apolitical as possible”.
The approval of Adani’s groundwater plans contradicted this principle in two ways:
- Basic facts regarding the relationship between the springs and the underlying groundwater system were not adequately established prior to approval despite multiple scientists highlighting the need to take further steps to do so.
- Scientific agencies assessing the groundwater plans were subjected to political pressure and their advice was requested under time duress, precluding a full, independent assessment.
Transparency was another issue. The advice remained out of the public eye until the decision was announced, leaving the government open to speculation that they had withheld evidence.
While decision makers are justified in overriding scientific advice based on public opinion, to deny science an opportunity to fully resolve key questions of fact undermines the basic functioning of a healthy science-policy nexus.
Water politics is highly contested in Australia, and recent scandals have led to a crisis of public confidence in the institutions managing water. There are growing calls to revamp Australia’s national environmental laws, in the face of evidence that they are failing to protect against species extinction and environmental degradation. While the current approach – of governments soliciting advice from national science agencies and proponents commissioning expert peer reviews – provides a mechanism to include independent scientific input, the Carmichael case exposed the limits of this approach.
There are many other recent examples worldwide that point to erosion of the role of independent science in decision making, highlighting the need for debate about the way science informs policy at a global level. Protecting science’s independence and its role in decision making presents an opportunity to restore trust in public institutions and processes, encouraging greater public participation and engagement. The authors believe that increased public confidence and participation is needed to solve the major global environmental sustainability challenges we face, fostered by a sense that decisions are being made in the public interest, backed by robust, independent science.