Arguments over coal project approval
THE biggest coal project in Queensland's history hung in the balance on Tuesday after Premier Campbell Newman and Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke spent the day trading barbs over a conditional approval of the $6.4 billion Alpha Mine in Central Queensland.
One of the nation's largest coal reserves sits waiting to be exploited by Hancock Coal, owned by Indian firm GVK and mining magnate Gina Rinehart.
After a week of uncertainty about a state environmental approval, Mr Burke threatened to take over the approvals process - cutting the State Government out of the process.
The move could delay the project by months, as Mr Burke waits for a strategic assessment to be completed on the impacts of several port and mine developments on the Great Barrier Reef.
His threat came after state Treasurer Jeff Seeney demanded Mr Burke ensure the project was given a final decision within 30-day business days.
Mr Burke launched an extraordinary attack on Mr Newman, describing the state's approval process as inadequate, shambolic and abysmal.
"We have had a week of ridiculous behaviour from the Newman government on environmental approvals," Mr Burke said.
The minister wrote to the state on Tuesday outlining his plans to exercise a little-used part of the Environmental Protection, Biodiversity and Conservation Act to suspend the approval process.
It would also lead to Queensland being the only state removed from a bilateral agreement that aimed to speed up the two-tier environmental assessment process.
Mr Burke said staff in his department met with the project's proponents on Tuesday to start work on a federal approval process.
"It's important we do the work that Campbell Newman could not be bothered doing," Mr Burke said.
Mr Burke called on the state to acknowledge its referral was incomplete.
"We have a situation where it's not simply the highly technical work that hasn't been done properly," he said.
"The basics, the absolute basics that you would require for a decent level of oversight of a project has been left abysmally short, just a hopeless level of work from the Queensland Government.
"If I were to play the game that Campbell Newman is asking me to play it would be nothing short of vandalism of the Queensland coast. I'm just not willing to do that."
But Mr Newman told reporters in Brisbane on Tuesday he was confident the state had done all required of it to assess the mine's environmental risks.
"Look, the Federal Environment Minster Mr Tony Burke is playing a cynical, political game to get Green votes in Sydney and Melbourne, that's what this is all about everybody knows this is an important project," Mr Newman said.
"What we need to see from the minister is the conditions. That's all we're asking for.
"It is very serious what the minister is doing.
"He is costing jobs in Queensland by delaying a multi-billion dollar project for political purposes."
While Mr Newman said Mr Burke's threat could cost jobs, he said he hoped it would not risk the entire project.
Federal Opposition resources spokesman Ian Macfarlane said Mr Burke was risking investment certainty and damaging Australia's sovereign risk profile.
"Investors need certainty," he said.
"While they don't expect project approvals to be fast-tracked without due consideration and they don't expect to ignore environmental concerns, what they do expect is a government that can provide a consistent decision-making framework."
Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters said that the problems Mr Burke raised about the referral would only have gone unchallenged if the streamlining of environmental regulation goes ahead.
"It is ridiculous to continue with the pretence that our environment will be in safe hands when the Federal Government passes off its environmental responsibilities to the states early next year, given that the Newman government is clearly unable to discharge its existing responsibilities adequately," she said.
"The bilateral agreements are not about streamlining processes, they are about pushing off federal responsibilities for protecting the environment to the states, and this debacle over the Great Barrier Reef confirms that states are unable and unwilling to step up to the plate."
A spokesman for GVK said the company was not commenting on any meetings held with the state or federal governments, nor the project environmental approval itself.