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On Wednesday last week the Planning, Industry and Environment Department passed the project to the IPC recommending it be approved.

The coal miner’s application to extend a non-existent mine is considered by some a ‘not waving, drowning’ gesture from the industry.

It massively expands the area of the approved mine, taking it into some of Australia’s most-expensive agricultutral land, the Liverpool Plains.

Finance analyst with the Institute for Energy Ecocnomics and Financial Analysis Simon Nicholas says the fact that Whitehaven Coal has reserved any financial committment to the mine until 2021 tells a story of an industry in decline.

“It’s not a great time to be expanding or even opening a coal mine,” he said.

“Energy markets may change permanently.

“China and India are both looking to protect their own coal mining industries and our thermal coal is a mixture of low energy, high ash and higher energy fuel,” said Mr Nicholas

Japan is far and away our largest buyer of coal, followed by China, South Korea and Taiwan.

“A lot of coal mines will be struggling at $50 a tonne ex-Newcastle port,” Mr Nicholas said.

From what has been garnered from projections, Vickery would probably produce a higher-grade coal than most Australian stock being exported, he said.

“Coal is not going away overnight, but thermal coal is in permanent long-term decline.

“Change happens faster than people expect.

“Look at the transition from horses and carts to motor vehicles, it took about a decade.

“There’s massive pressure from renewables in the energy market.”

Mr Nicholas said the average life expectancy of a coal-fired power station was about 40 years, but anything built now would have a lot shorter life, simply because it would become unviable cost-wise and as a fuel coal would lose its social licence.

Whitehaven itself says the mine will produce predominantly metallurgical coal for steel-making, with the balance being high quality thermal coal destined for premium export markets.

Whitehaven Coal managing director and chief executive Paul Flynn said “We know there is strong support for Vickery from the comprehensive community consultation process that has already been undertaken – 60 per cent of public submissions to the Department of Planning and 75 per cent to the IPC called for the project to be approved.”

“Vickery has the potential to be one of the most significant sources of employment and investment in North West NSW in the coming years and major infrastructure projects have a key role to play in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery, including for regional Australia.”

Coking coal, for steel production, is currently fetching about $110 to $120 per tonne, thermal coal much less, at production costs of $73 to $75 per tonne and a market price of $50 a tonne.

Whitehaven says the project will create about 500 jobs during construction phase and 450 jobs during operations and 170 new jobs related to the project.

Cotton Australia, which has lodged a protestation about the project, says there is a concerning lack of detail about a proposed rail spur and its construction, as well as the accumulated impact this structure will have by traversing the floodplain.

The 14-kilometre-long rail spur woud be the largest overhead structure ever built in Australia.

It is not the value of coal that concerns David Watt, a mixed farmer who depends on three bores to irrigate part of his 600-hectare holding.

This year he is growing 50ha of cotton, half what he would normally grow, because he has been taken out of the temporary water market by Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine.

“It’s unviable now for farmers to pay $1000 a megalitre for water,” he said.

This has happened, he said, because Whitehaven’s demand for water has pushed it into the market at an unrealistic level compared with other users who create food and fibre.

Mr Watt would normally grow 100ha of cotton and also 100ha of irrigated durum wheat.

“We’ve always bought temporary water, now that’s impossible,” he said.

Down the rail line, upon which Whitehaven would rely to export its coal, Aberdeen micro dairy farmer and processor Matthew O’Connell says the eight extra train movements a day the Vickery coal mine would create would be a nightmare for him and his young family.

He draws sight on the Australian Rail Track Corporation and its management of its infrastructure.

He says the spur line rail development needed to move coal to ships would progress along a line about 800 metres from his home.

“As it is now the coal-train movements start about 10pm and continue until about 8am,” he said.

“You can’t land a plane after 10pm in Sydney because there’s a curfew.

“You have to realise this is ageing machinery and it’s at it’s limits of performance now.

“There’s a terrible inconsistency between trains, some are obviously new and others screech, waking the whole family up.”

Mr O’Connell said all sides of government were resisting because there was blind thinking coal could save the day economically for Australia.

“People feel like they don’t have a voice anymore,” he said, insisting the ARTC was simply an enabler of coal exports.

“We’re not anti-mining, we’re not saying ‘don’t mine’, if they did the right thing we’d be happy.

“That’s not happening at the moment.”