Criticism over Great Barrier Reef deals for Gina Rinehart's mining company
Australia’s environment protection system is called ‘broken’ over reports of concessions on conditions and payments
Australia’s system of environmental protections has been labelled
“broken” after it emerged that Gina Rinehart’s mining company was able
to negotiate down a compensation payment demanded by the government.
Documents obtained under freedom of information show that the
previous Labor government demanded $800,000 a year in “biodiversity
offsets” from GVK Hancock due to the environmental impact of its
proposed coal terminal in Queensland.
But the documents state GVK Hancock considered this amount “excessive” and put in a counter-offer of $375,000 a year.
The government acquiesced to this bargaining, with a figure of $600,000 a year eventually deemed an “adequate” amount.
This change meant that $50,000 a year, rather than $100,000 a year,
would be given to the Great Barrier Reef marine park authority to help
manage the reef’s world heritage area. The rest of the money was given
to fund Indigenous rangers and conservation projects.
GVK Hancock, which will be spending around $10bn on the coal project,
requested that the offsets strategy be delayed until after the project
The company also wanted to change a stipulation that coal dust should
not enter the Great Barrier Reef environment. The government agreed to
both of these requests.
GVK Hancock was given approval in October 2012 for the coal terminal at Abbot Point, which sits adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef near the Queensland town of Bowen.
The company, a joint venture between Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting
and Indian resources firm GVK, plans to export 60m tonnes of coal a year
through the Abbot Point terminal from 2017.
The coal will be taken to the port via a 500km rail line that
connects to two large GVK Hancock mines in central Queensland – the
Alpha and Kevin’s Corner projects. The Alpha project, which plans to
remove 32m tonnes of coal a year, has been challenged in court by environmentalists and farmers, who are concerned over its impact on groundwater.
The Abbot Point terminal will involve the clearing of 28ha of wetlands and the controversial dredging and dumping
of 5m tonnes of seabed within the Great Barrier Reef marine park. The
previous government set a number of conditions on the development, to
offset the impact on seagrasses, which are vital to the survival of
dolphins, turtles and dugongs.
Adam Walters, a campaigner at Greenpeace, said the negotiation over
offset payments showed “the system is broken”. “These indirect financial
offsets allow the government minister to claim some sort of victory
when approving these projects but it’s not an honest system, it’s not
based on solid science,” he said.
“The offsets package is meant to be a measure of last resort if it’s
not possible to avoid damage. The quantum of that should be determined
by the environmental impact, you shouldn’t be able to haggle the amount
Bruce Lindsay, project officer for Environmental Justice Australia, said offsets were inherently flawed.
“Financial offsets aren’t good practice, as they are about giving a
lump of cash for ecosystems that can’t be compensated for,” he said.
“The first impulse of developers is to buy their way out of things and
offsets allow them to do this. The tail is increasingly wagging the dog.
“The government should have a strong negotiating position and use it
for the best environmental outcomes, but it seems they just capitulate.”
In June, a Senate committee published a report into environmental
offsets, which is where land is set aside by mining, oil and gas
companies to compensate for habitat destroyed during development.
Sometimes these offsets are financial, such as the funding of
conservation work for species impacted by mining.
The committee recommended
that offsets be “used only as a last resort” and called for stricter
rules around the use of offsets in “red flag” areas such as world
heritage and critically endangered ecosystems.
A spokeswoman for the Department of the Environment said developers
could comment on any conditions as a matter of “natural justice”.
“Consistent with these legal requirements, Hancock was provided with
the opportunity to comment on the proposed decision, conditions, and
financial contribution before a final decision,” she said. “The then
environment minister [Tony Burke] made the final approval decision.
“Offsets provide environmental benefits to counterbalance the impacts
that remain after avoidance and mitigation measures are undertaken.
“The overarching test of both the policy and the guide is that
suitable offsets must deliver an overall conservation outcome that
improves or maintains the viability of the aspect of the environment
that is protected by national environment law and affected by the
A spokesman for GVK Hancock said: “It’s important to not just look at
one aspect of our approval conditions at Abbot Point, as we will
contribute in excess of $25 million on a range of contributions and
environmental management programs in the Abbot Point area, despite the
proposed dredging having no significant residual impact to commonwealth
matters of national environmental significance.”