This case involves a landmark challenge by local graziers and conservation groups against a large coal mine proposed to be constructed in the Galilee Basin of central Queensland. It shows the importance of public objection rights and independent review by courts of large projects.
If approved, the mine is intended to produce 30 million tonnes of thermal coal per annum over 30 years. It is proposed to operate alongside another new mine, Kevin’s Corner. Coal from the two mines is proposed to be shipped by a new rail line to the Port of Abbot Point for export.
The mine is proposed to consist of six open-cut pits, each of 4 x 4 km in area, stretching 24 km in a north-south line. A bulk coal sample pit was dug on the site in 2010-2011 as part of the exploration phase for the mine but is very small compared to the proposed mine.
The Alpha and Kevin’s Corner mines began their application process in 2008 and have not yet been fully approved or commenced operation.
In Queensland, the major approvals required for large mines under State and Federal legislation are:
- a mining lease under the Mineral Resources Act 1989 (Qld) (MRA);
- an environmental authority under the Environmental Protection Act 1994 (Qld) (EPA); and
- approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act).
The Queensland Coordinator-General declared the Alpha Coal Mine and rail project a “significant project” in 2008 (this designation later changed to being a “coordinated project”) under the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971 (Qld). This legislation provides an environmental impact statement (EIS) process for large projects but does not actually approve the projects occurring. An EIS under it is fed-back into other approval processes.
An EIS was prepared for the mine and rail project in 2009-2012 and the Coordinator-General issued a report in 2012 recommending the mine be approved.
Concurrently with the Queensland assessment of the mine, it was assessed under the EPBC Act using a bilateral agreement and subsequently approved by the Commonwealth Environment Minister in 2012.
Following the Coordinator-General’s report, the mine was publicly advertised for objections under the MRA and EPA.
A number of objections were received, including from graziers around the property such as Bruce and Annette Currie and Janeice Anderson, who objected to the potential impacts of the proposed mine on groundwater. Paola Cassoni, who operates the Bimblebox Nature Refuge and cattle property to the south of the mine, objected on the basis of groundwater impacts and other environmental impacts of the mine.
A number of conservation groups also objected to the proposed mine on the basis of groundwater impacts and the contribution that the mine would make to climate change. The objection of one of those groups, Coast and Country Association of Queensland Inc (CCAQ), is the focus of this case study.
The proposed mine is discussed as a case study in the following lecture on mining law in Queensland delivered in 2014 just prior to judgment in the objections hearing being handed down (the case study commences at 5:05 on the counter):
Objections hearing in the Land Court
The Land Court of Queensland heard the objections to the mine in 2013 and upheld their concerns regarding groundwater impacts of the mine.
The Land Court recommended that the applications for the mine be refused or, alternatively, that the applications be granted subject to further assessment of the groundwater impacts under under the Water Act 2000 (Qld).
Judicial review in the Supreme Court
CCAQ challenged the validity of the Land Court’s decision through judicial review in the Supreme Court of Queensland. The basis of this challenge was that the Land Court misunderstood the legal tests to be applied to the applications and in relation to the environmental harm caused by the mine’s contribution to climate change.
Following the Land Court’s decision, the Queensland Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection granted the application for an environmental authority, subject to further assessment of the groundwater impacts. The Queensland Minister for Mines has not yet made a decision regarding the grant of the mining lease.
CCAQ also challenged the Ministers’ decisions through judicial review on the basis that the decisions lacked finality and had not followed the correct legal process.
The judicial review challenges were heard by the Supreme Court of Queensland at Brisbane on 22-23 April 2015.
The Supreme Court dismissed the application on 4 September 2015.
Appeal to the Court of Appeal
CCAQ appealed the Supreme Court’s dismissal of its application for judicial review to the Queensland Court of Appeal in relation to the consideration of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Court (McMurdo P and Fraser and Morrison JJA) dismissed the appeal.
Application for special leave to appeal to the High Court
The High Court (Kiefel CJ and Keane J) dismissed the application for special leave on 7 April 2017 on the basis that the application “was not a suitable vehicle” for addressing the questions raised regarding the application.
Kevin’s Corner objection hearing
The second coal mine proposed to operate alongside the Alpha mine, known as Kevin’s Corner Mine, is not the subject of this case study.
An objection hearing in the Land Court for the Kevin’s Corner Mine commenced on 19 October 2015 and concluded on 30 October 2015. The judgment is currently reserved (i.e. the Court is considering the matter and will deliver its judgment at some time in the future).
Postscript: poor coal market puts mines on hold
Since 2013 both the applications for the Alpha Coal Mine and the Kevin’s Corner coal mine have largely stagnated:
- The mining lease for the Alpha Coal Mine has been delayed, apparently at the request of the proponents; and
- The proponents supported lengthy delays in the lead-up to the objections hearing for the Kevin’s Corner Mine in 2015 (in stark contrast, most mine applicants seek expedited hearings to minimise delays).
The reason for the proponents’ support for the delays appears to be due to them deciding the mines were not financially viable with the low price of thermal coal from 2012-2016 and the poor outlook for the coal market.
While the applications for the mines have not been withdrawn and continue at this point in time, whether the mines actually proceed in the future appears to be dependent on a substantial recovery of the coal price and outlook for the coal market.
Application and EIS documents
- Initial advice statement lodged by the Hancock Coal in 2008
- Declaration that the mine was a significant project
- Terms of reference for the EIS
- EIS for the mine
- Coordinator-General’s report
- EPBC Act approval process for the mine (referral No. 2008/4648)
- Timeline of application process for Alpha Coal Mine
Maps and photographs
- Location of Alpha Coal Mine
- Regional map showing mine and proposed rail line to Abbot Point
- Map of mining projects in Galilee Basin
- Map of Alpha Coal Mine showing northern springs
- Layout plan of proposed Alpha Coal Mine pits
- Aerial photographs of Alpha Coal Mine test pit in mid-2011
- Webcam photos of groundwater filling Alpha Coal Mine test pit in mid-2011
- Aerial photograph of Alpha Coal Mine test pit in mid-2012
- Photograph of Alpha Coal Mine test pit at groundlevel in 2015 (by Michael Berkman)
CCAQ objection to the mine
- CCAQ objection to the mine lodged on 20 February 2013
Directions on the steps leading to objection hearing
- Land Court directions, 13 March 2013
Expert evidence on groundwater
- Expert report by Mr Mark Stewart for Hancock Coal, 30 May 2013
- Expert report by Mr Ian Hair for Hancock Coal, 30 May 2013
- Expert report by Dr John Webb for CCAQ, 27 June 2013
- Expert report by Dr Gavin Mudd for Paola Cassoni, 30 June 2013
- Joint expert report on groundwater, 2 August 2013
- Supplementary report by Dr John Webb for CCAQ
- Supplementary report by Mr Mark Stewart for Hancock Coal
- Supplementary report by Mr Ian Hair for Hancock Coal
- Additional report by Mr Mark Stewart for Hancock Coal
Expert evidence on climate change
- Expert report by Dr Chris Taylor for Hancock Coal, 30 May 2013
- Expert report by Professor David Karoly for CCAQ, 1 July 2013
- Expert report by Professor Roger Jones for Kathryn Kelly, 2 July 2013
- Joint expert report on climate change, 31 July 2013
Expert evidence on economics
- Expert report by Mr Marcus Brown for Hancock Coal, 30 May 2013.
- Expert report by Dr Roderick Duncan for CCAQ, 27 June 2013.
- Joint expert report on economics, 1 August 2013.
- Supplementary report by Marcus Brown for Hancock Coal, 20 Aug 2013
Expert evidence on climate change economics and policy
- Expert report of Mr Jon Stanford for Hancock Coal, 30 May 2013
- Joint expert report of Stanford and Duncan, 27 July 2013
- Joint expert report of Stanford and Jones, 30 July 2013
Expert evidence on coal demand
- Expert report by Andrew Offen for Hancock Coal, 30 May 2013
- Expert report by Antoine Nsair for CCAQ, 11 July 2013
- Joint expert report of Offen, Nsair and Stanford, 2 August 2013
- Hearing held over 13 days from 16 September – 2 October 2013 with closing submissions on 25 October 2013 [Transcript not available]
CCAQ closing submissions for objection hearing
- CCAQ summary of submissions (2 pages), 18 Oct 2013
- CCAQ overview of submissions (16 pages), 18 Oct 2013
- CCAQ full submissions (118 pages), 18 Oct 2013
Land Court recommendation
- Decision of the Land Court of Queensland recommending that the mine applications be refused or issued subject to further assessment: Hancock Coal Pty Ltd v Kelly & Ors and Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (No. 4)  QLC 12 (Smith M), 8 April 2014
Judicial review application for Land Court decision
- Application for judicial review of Land Court’s decision, 6 May 2014
- Amended application for judicial review of Land Court’s decision, 19 May 2014.
- CCAQ submissions
- Hancock Coal submissions
- CCAQ reply
Queensland Government approvals for the mine
- Notice of decision to grant environmental authority
- Environmental authority for the Alpha Coal Mine
- [The mining lease has not yet been granted]
Judicial review application for Ministers’ decisions & conduct
- Application for judicial review of EA filed on 8 October 2014
- CCAQ submissions
- Ministers’ submissions
- Hancock Coal submissions
Supreme Court decision on both judicial review applications
- Decision of the Supreme Court of Queensland dismissing the applications for judicial review delivered on 4 September 2015: Coast and Country Association of Queensland Inc v Smith & Anor; Coast and Country Association of Queensland Inc v Minister for Environment and Heritage & Ors  QSC 260 (Douglas J)
Appeal to the Court of Appeal
- Notice of Appeal filed on 2 October 2015
- CCAQ outline of argument for appeal
- Member Smith’s submissions on appeal
- Hancock Coal’s submissions on appeal
- Minister for Environment & Heritage submissions
- CCAQ reply to Hancock Coal
- CCAQ reply to Minister’s submissions
- Decision of the Court of Appeal dismissing the appeal: Coast and Country Association of Queensland Inc v Smith & Ors  QCA 242
Application for special leave to appeal to the High Court
- Application for Special Leave to Appeal, filed 25 October 2016
- The High Court dismissed the application for special leave on the basis that the application “was not a suitable vehicle” for addressing the questions raised regarding the application.
Media reports about this case
Alpha Coal Mine news stories
Julia Gillard takes aim at Queensland over Alpha coal project, The Courier Mail, 6 June 2012.
Battle for the Galilee heats up, The Australian, 9 June 2012.
Grazier’s wife Janeice Anderson takes Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Coal and Indian miner GVK to court over Galilee Basin water, The Courier Mail, 19 November 2013.
Queensland court rejects Alpha Coal Project, ABC News, 9 April 2014.
GVK says it will look to finance Alpha coal mine when time is right, Australian Mining, 9 December 2014.
Kevin’s Corner Mine
Supreme Court action over Gina Rinehart’s Alpha mine, Brisbane Times, 22 April 2015.
Alpha Coal mine: Thousands of jobs delayed amid further action by conservation group, GVK Hancock Coal says, ABC News, 22 April 2015.
Grazier backs green group’s court battle against GVK Hancock, Daily Mercury, 24 April 2015.
Alpha Coal Project: Supreme Court dismisses conservation group’s claim against Gina Rinehart, GVK venture, ABC News, 4 September 2015.
Gina Rinehart wins court battle over coal mine, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September 2015.
Appeal against Gina Rinehart’s Alpha mine dismissed but project claimed ‘unviable’, The Guardian, 4 September 2015.
Alpha coal mine: Environmental group launches another appeal against Galilee Basin project, ABC News, 8 October 2015.
Aurizon write downs signal end for Hancock’s Galilee Basin coal projects, RenewEconomy, 16 February 2016.
Debt-ridden India energy group GVK drops mention of Galilee Basin projects, RenewEconomy, 25 May 2016.
Climate change challenge to Gina Rinehart’s Alpha mine dismissed by court, The Guardian, 27 September 2016.
Court win for GVK-Hancock Alpha megamine in central Queensland, Courier Mail, 8 April 2017.
Mining industry wins court battle against Alpha Coal project, Central Telegraph, 9 April 2017.
Kevin’s Corner Mine news stories
Jericho grazier joins court challenge against proposed $4.2b coal mine in Galilee Basin, ABC News, 19 October 2015.