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Mining company New Hope Group says it is one step closer to approval of its controversial Stage 3 coal mine expansion in Queensland’s Darling Downs after a report by the Coordinator General was handed down.

Key points:

  • After five months of extensive consultation, New Hope Group says the government can now finalise a new coal mine
  • The controversial New Acland expansion has been held up in court for 15 years
  • Oakey Coal Action Alliance Members say there are still approvals to be given before the mine expansion is a done deal

However, a lobby group of landholders against the project said there were still obstacles for the expansion, and the recent federal election result “showed Queenslanders did not want more coal mines”. 

Late last year, the Queensland Land Court conditionally approved the expansion of the New Acland coal mine on the Darling Downs. 

A report was then to be prepared by the Coordinator General, which was handed down late last week. 

The report outlined conditions to be incorporated into the New Acland Stage 3 Environmental Authority.

New Hope Group chief executive Rob Bishop said the decision on approving the lease was now before the Queensland government.

“New Acland Stage 3 has been extensively reviewed, assessed and scrutinised,” Mr Bishop said.

“The Land Court process and the Coordinator General’s consultation process has allowed everyone to have their say about the project.

“This historic development is a green light for finalisation of the approvals process and means we can now focus more on plans to re-open the mine and recruit our workforce.”

Report instills confidence in mine staff

Mine manager Dave O’Dwyer said the report had given him confidence the project would¬†move forward.¬†

“The Coordinator General has looked across all the things that were talked about in the Land Court and pulled that all together, so it really develops a framework for the EA [environmental assessment],” he said. 

Mr O’Dwyer said it was the “first step, first domino, ready to fall and the rest should should come along after”.

“We’re confident we’ll be talking weeks and months, not years,” he said.

Late last year, the mine ran out of coal and was forced to let go most of its remaining workers and go into caretaker mode. 

Water rights may still be an obstacle

But Paul King from the Oakey Coal Action Alliance (OCAA) said the process was not that simple and the implications for groundwater for nearby farmers had not been considered enough in the land court process. 

“The approval that New Hope still needs is the approval of the minister, and they need a water licence,” he said.

“So both of those still remain obstacles.”

Mr King said the lobby group would pursue legal action over groundwater next.

Without the associated water licence, New Acland cannot interfere with groundwater and therefore cannot mine coal.

“We’re absolutely prepared to defend the water rights of the farmers in that district, absolutely prepared for that,” Mr King said.

“And there’s nothing that stops us from doing it.” 

Mr O’Dwyer said the mine was committed to not taking groundwater and was confident it could meet the requirements for the water assessment process.   

‘Queenslanders don’t want more thermal coal’

The planned expansion has been the subject of legal battles for well over a decade, with the OCAA comprising more than 60 local landholders opposing the project.After mining, what’s next?Many

Mr King said OCAA would be meeting with the Resources Minister Scott Stewart on Friday. 

He said he would be telling the minister that the recent federal election result had shown Queenslanders did not want more coal mines. 

“Even people in regional Queensland know that we need to transition, that’s not lost on them,” Mr King said.

“They’re not stupid, they know that, so it would really be a retrograde step now to turn their backs on the farmers of that district in favour of thermal coal mining, because it just won’t pay in the long run, economically, or politically.”

The Queensland government has long maintained it would only consider granting approvals for the mine once all legal processes were finished.

Mr Scott told the ABC that all resources projects must stack up environmentally, socially and financially.

“The Coordinator-General has released a Change Report on the New Acland Coal Mine Stage 3 project as directed by the Land Court,” he said. 

“The report has been provided to the Department of Environment and Science to consider as part of the Environmental Authority process.

“The Department of Environment and Science must include the Coordinator-General’s stated conditions in an amended Environmental Authority for the project, before a mining lease can be granted.

“This was the process set out by the Land Court.”

New Hope Group first applied for approval for its Stage 3 expansion in 2007.

Since then, it has been stalled by legislative demands and protracted legal challenges.

The OCAA first lodged a legal challenge against the project in the Land Court in 2016.

The hearing lasted almost 100 days, becoming the longest in the court’s history.

The report will now be put before the Department of Environment and Science, which will work with New Hope Group on the environment assessment.