Shenhua coal deal points to mining policy on the run

When the Berejiklian government ever taketh away from the mining industry, particularly for coal, it speedily giveth back.

On Wednesday, Deputy Premier John Barilaro and fellow senior ministers graced the sweeping black soils of Breeza on the Liverpool Plains to confirm what he had been denying just a day earlier: that the government was coughing up $100 million to ensure the demise of plans by China’s Shenhua group to build giant pits in the area.

When the government taketh away from the mining sector it quickly giveth back.Credit:James Brickwood

However, just so the fossil fraternity of the NSW Minerals Council didn’t feel left out, Barilaro airily announced the government’s much-touted Future of Coal Statement would be amended to allow for more coal exploration in Wollar.

Remaining residents of Wollar – a village near Mudgee that used to boast a population of 300 but has shrunk to about a 10th of that as Peabody Energy’s Winpinjong coal mine has advanced on them from the west – must be wondering who they offended on Macquarie Street to deserve this latest assault.

In reality, the statement – all 12 pages of it, including full-page pictures and graphics – is light on detail. While supposed to “improve certainty about where coal mining should not occur”, this week we learned anew how subject it is to the whim of the government. In fact, the adhockery of the government policy on mining has been on display since it came to power in 2011.

As NSW boasts of a net-zero emissions target by 2050 and US President Joe Biden urges the world to make coal history, this state can’t work out a clear path forward, least of all during a byelection campaign in the coal-rich Upper Hunter.

Unfortunately, the Labor opposition has failed to hold it to account because it’s almost as uncertain as the government about what it thinks about coal and gas.

As the deep-pocketed Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association (part of the racing industry, whose contribution to the state’s economy rivals that of coal) will tell visitors, Labor under Luke Foley promised to introduce buffers around the most important agriculture industries to stop the encroachment of miners. That policy is under review as Sussex Street tries to determine how deep a shade of brown Labor needs to turn to secure preferences from the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party to grab power at the 2023 election.

No place for coal, but what about gas? The Liverpool Plains near Breeza where Shenhua this week gave up plans for an open-cut coal mine.Credit:Dean Sewell

But it is the Coalition that has had a decade to demonstrate whether it is capable of setting a policy on land management that can withstand the inevitable bouts of pressure from the community and, almost inevitably, the courts. So far, to be generous, the record is patchy.

The Independent Planning Commission – established to put more rigour in determining which major projects can be approved and with what conditions – has been under fire from developers ever since it rejected a Korean-owned coal mine planned at Bylong (not so far from Wollar) in 2019.

The IPC’s rejection two months ago of South32’s Dendrobium coal mine expansion plan under Greater Sydney’s catchment drew a particularly fierce response from Barilaro, demanding the commission’s act be amended. “I’m getting sick to death of a small review panel overriding hundreds of years of shared knowledge by experts in NSW Planning,” he said, ignoring the possibility that South32 might just have submitted an overly aggressive plan for how much coal it sought to extract given the risks of permanent damage to the city’s water supplies.

This week’s sellout by Shenhua adds to the suspicion the government is making its policy on the run. The $100 million seems a suspiciously round figure to indicate ruthless haggling on the government’s part. Barilaro’s comments that talks have been ongoing for about half a year would suggest the government should have had a clearer idea than it does of what Shenhua plans to do with the 7000 or so hectares it holds after the deal.

Barilaro has also declared he plans to negotiate with Santos to extinguish its gas exploration licences over the Liverpool Plains region. An organised government might have sorted that out by now, too.

Peter Hannam is the Herald’s environment editor.

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