Rio Tinto has tabled new planning application documents in a second attempt to obtain development approval for expansion of its existing Mount Thorley Warkworth thermal coal mine in the NSW Hunter Valley. These include new modelling on the economic benefits of the mine prepared by Brian Fisher, of BAEconomics.
Dr Fisher is also currently serving as a member of a four-person panel appointed by the federal government to review the Renewable Energy Target.
The Warkworth mine is mainly focused on export markets but also supplies coal to the Redbank power station which operates in the National Electricity Market.
A development license to expand the mine was overturned by the NSW Land and Environment Court on the basis that the expected economic benefits of the mine expansion did not justify its environmental impacts. Rio Tinto was subsequently unsuccessful in appealing the decision to the Supreme Court in April this year.
At the time of the decision, Sue Higginson, principal solicitor for the Environmental Defenders Office NSW, stated: “The Court of Appeal found no fault with the Land and Environment Court decision that the economic benefits of the coal mine did not outweigh the significant impacts on Bulga residents and the destruction of rare forests containing endangered plant and animal species.”
However, in a press release issued by Rio Tinto today, Dr Fisher is quoted: "I have undertaken a rigorous economic assessment using the most robust approach currently available, through a different methodology to that used in previous assessments. These results are highly conservative and I believe the actual economic benefits for the Hunter Valley and NSW could well be far greater.”
Dr Fisher observes that "the cost-benefit analysis clearly shows there are significant economic benefits for NSW from Mount Thorley Warkworth mine continuing to operate”.
He concludes: "If the Warkworth Continuation is not approved the impacts to the region will include increased unemployment, a reduction in average wages and even a negative impact on the value of property in the Singleton area."
Concerns have been expressed by the Australian Solar Council about Brian Fisher’s independence as a member of the panel reviewing the RET, given he was commissioned two years ago by the oil and gas industry group, APPEA, to provide economic analysis they are now using to justify a scaling back of the RET.
Rio Tinto in its submission to the government’s current review of the Renewable Energy Target is also highly critical of the RET. It states: “The Renewable Energy Target results in expensive carbon abatement which represents an unnecessary and unsustainable cost pressure on business.”
This submission from Rio Tinto however does not make use of any work by Dr Fisher. In addition he has previously informed Climate Spectator that he will not undertake any consulting work relating to the Renewable Energy Target for the duration of the government’s review.