By Stephen Long
July 10, 2017 - Flanked by Commonwealth and Queensland, Australia politicians, the giant Indian conglomerate Adani last month announced that its board had given final investment approval to its controversial mega-mine in North Queensland, and declared the "official start" of the Carmichael coal mining project.
But what does that mean in practice? For the moment, it seems, not much.
The ABC has obtained the plan of operations for the Carmichael coal mine project submitted to the Queensland Government last month.
It covers just six months and involves next to nothing: just re-establishing signage at the site, recommissioning an existing temporary camp and installing some additional demountable buildings.
"The plan of operations will be amended in due course to include all early works related to commencement of construction activities for the mine and related infrastructure works," it says.
The lack of a substantive plan for development of the mine "is a huge embarrassment for the Adani cheer squad including the Prime Minister, the Premier of Queensland and [Minister for Resources and Northern Australia] Matt Canavan, who have bent over backwards to get this project over the line," said Rick Humphries, co-ordinator of the mine rehabilitation campaign for the Lock the Gate Alliance — a group established by farmers to fight "inappropriate" coal and gas mining.
"It only really commits Adani to maintaining the existing temporary camp and looking after the signs and roads," he said.
"It raises serious doubts about the project's financial viability.
"I mean after all the support that has been thrown at the project including royalty deferments, giving it unlimited access to scarce groundwater and offering a billion-dollar-or-two loan, Adani still won't commit."
Ron Watson, Adani's spokesman in Australia, has maintained the company is fully committed to the project and hopes to have finance confirmed within six months.
"We are working towards financial close for the mining venture this calendar year," he said.
"We expect to complete the pre-construction work well before then.
"The Final Investment Decision last month has provided sufficient funding from the parent to achieve this.
"That work involves surveying, soil testing and design work for the mine, the airstrip, mining camp, access roads, and the rail link," Mr. Watson told the ABC.
He said to expect "significant announcements in coming weeks and months" including contracts for mining equipment and a port for FIFO (fly in, fly out) workers.
Mine Rehabilitation Costs Estimated About $1.5b
Mr. Humphries is skeptical.
He used to work in the mining industry as a mine closure specialist and is an expert on mine rehabilitation costs.
Alone, he said, the money Adani would have to stump up to the State Government to cover potential mine rehabilitation costs would be enormous.
"A recent report that we commissioned looked into what the likely cost of that financial assurance is going to be for the first five years of the mine's development — it is about the $1.5 billion mark," he said.
"I suspect because of their weak balance sheet and the state of the coal market they will have difficulty finding a financial institution that is prepare to stump up, or underwrite, that amount of liability."
Adani's mine project, if it were to proceed to full scale, would be the largest-ever coal mining development in Australia and the biggest export coal project in the world, involving a series of open cut mines and underground pit with a capacity of 60 million tonnes a year.
Adani would also have to build an additional port at the Abbot Point Coal Terminal — which it owns — to accommodate output from the mine, though there has been speculation that Adani intends to scale down the mining venture to less than half the initial planned capacity.
Despite the question marks about Adani's ability to finance the venture there are clear incentives for the Adani family to make the project happen.
An "overarching royalty deed" at the project will see $2 from each tonne of coal mined beyond the first 400,000 tonnes each year go a private company ultimately owned by an Adani family entity registered in the Cayman Islands.
This could potentially mean that hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars, from the venture could flow to the Adani family rather than to shareholders of the publicly-listed company that owns the Carmichael mine.
The ABC has also been told that the response of Adani's billionaire chairman Gautam Adani to years of activism and opposition to the mine in Australia is a determination to see the project realized.
Adani submitted a plan of operations for the Carmichael coal mine to the Queensland Government last month.