Burke was stung into action after leaked documents from the NSW government showed he was ready to approve the mines in December. This forced his hand and caused him to overturn a decision to extend the approvals process up by three months after environmentalists issued a hoax press release that stated that ANZ would be withdrawing $1.2 billion credit for the project.
The political bickering and arbitrariness around the decision has drawn attention to the inefficiency of the approvals process and the relationship between state and federal governments in approving mine developments.
The Gunnedah Basin – which also hosts Whitehaven Coal’s Narrabri longwall mine – is NSW’s emerging coal province, with billions of dollars of infrastructure and project development on the drawing boards.
“Unfortunately, the decision of the NSW government to leak commercially sensitive information has caused me to bring these decisions forward today, with the remaining work to be resolved directly between the company and myself,” Burke told the Australian Financial Review.
“The development of these further conditions will be conducted without reference to the NSW government, which is unfortunate, but a decision they have effectively made themselves.”
Burke was under pressure to make an interim decision on Boggabri and Maules Creek, but is now threatening to cut the NSW government out of the approvals process in a replay of his clash with Queensland’s government over approval for the $6.4 billion GVK Hancock Alpha coal project in April.
He is locked in a dispute with NSW Minister for Resources Chris Hartcher, who accused him of delaying the project because it could be damaging ahead of this year’s federal election.
The mining projects approvals show that responsible mining, rigorously assessed and properly managed, can continue to deliver jobs, investment and economic growth for NSW, according to NSW Minerals Council CEO Stephen Galilee.
He said NSW mining proposals were subject to some of the most stringent approval and assessment protocols in the world, giving the community confidence that approved projects have met very high environmental standards.
“The federal government approvals [yesterday] for Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek project and Idemitsu’s Boggabri project are welcome, following the recent approval of both projects by the NSW Government,” he said.
"These two projects will help underpin the long-term economic strength of the New England North West region and the NSW economy more broadly.
“The approval of these mining projects by federal and state governments demonstrates that the right balance of environmental management and responsible economic decision making can deliver practical and ongoing benefits for NSW.”
The Maules Creek project is one of the most viable coal development projects in the world, with a large reserve of high-quality coal, a low stripping ratio of 6.4:1, relatively low capital development costs and competitive operating costs.
In addition, as outlined throughout the approvals process, environmental
impacts of the mine are manageable, Whitehaven Coal managing director Tony Haggarty said.
“We welcome the approval from Minister Burke and look forward to working with SEWPAC and the Minister’s office in relation to the approval conditions,” Whitehaven Coal managing director Tony Haggarty said.
“In particular we are pleased that the Minister has now stated that based on the conditions laid down he is satisfied the project can proceed without unacceptable impacts on matters protected under national environmental law.
“Notwithstanding the stringent environmental conditions which have been placed on the project and the difficult coal market at present, this is an excellent project and Whitehaven will be seeking to bring it into production as soon as possible.”
The approval process for the Maules Creek coal project started in August 2010 and included extensive community and stakeholder consultation and specialist expert assessments of environmental impacts, Haggarty said.
Idemitsu Australia Resources welcomed the approval of the extension to its Boggabri Coal mine, which allows additional production unti 2053.
Chief operating officer Rod Bridges said the approval reinforced the company’s approach to robust planning and mitigation practices for each of its mining assets, and would lead to the immediate delivery of tangible benefits within the local region, including an increase in the workforce required at the height of construction of the expanded coal handling plant.
“Boggabri Coal Mine currently employs approximately 500 people, with 73% of this workforce residing locally,” he said.
“Construction of this next stage is expected to start in March and peak at the end of the year, and the mine is expected to reach peak production in 2016.
“The area of the existing Boggabri Coal Mine will increase by 646 hectares as a result of the extension, and will support an increased production limit of seven million tonnes per annum.”