By Mark Ludlow
May 2, 2018 - Australian company New Hope Group's controversial $900 million New Acland mine expansion has been given a new lease of life after the Queensland Supreme Court overturned an earlier ruling which recommended the Palaszczuk Labor government oppose the expansion of the mine in the Darling Downs, west of Brisbane.
The proposed stage three of the New Acland mine - a saga that dragged on through the courts and regulatory process for the past decade and has attracted big name critics including Sydney radio host Alan Jones - will now head back to the Land Court for yet another hearing.
Many in the industry assumed the Land Court decision last May - which said issues around the impact of the mine on groundwater were insurmountable - and a decision by the Queensland Department of Environment in February to refuse an application to amend the environmental authority for the stage three expansion, was the death knell for the project.
But New Hope Group's gamble on a judicial review has paid off, with the listed company saying it was confident they would be able to overcome concerns about groundwater and noise to get the project off the ground.
A green light for the expansion of the New Acland mine, which is due to shut in 2020, would extend the life of the mine at Oakey for another decade until 2031, increasing production from about 4.6 million tonnes a year to 7.6 million tonnes a year.
"We remain committed to securing approval for this project and in doing so being able to provide on-going employment for the circa 700 jobs reliant on the project," New Hope said in a statement to the Australian Securities Exchange on Wednesday.
In a 122-page ruling, Justice Helen Bowskill said the issues of groundwater, intergenerational equity and noise needed to be addressed by a new hearing in the Land Court.
Justice Bowskill said Queensland Land Court member Paul Smith had "erred in law" in his consideration of groundwater issues when hearing the case last year, focusing on the quantity of ground water that might be affected, not just the quality of the water.
"The matter [should] be returned to the Land Court for further consideration on the basis that it was not within the court's jurisdiction to fully consider groundwater issues, and therefore not appropriate to base a recommendation for refusal on that issue," she said in the ruling.
Oakey Coal Action Alliance, which represents 60 farmers, has been fighting for the past 10 years to stop the project saying the stage three expansion would hurt their farming operations and damage their families' health.
The previous Land Court hearing - which including almost 100 days of hearings, about 2000 exhibits and tens of thousands of pages of materials - is one of the biggest ever heard by the court.
Queensland Resources Council chief executive Ian Macfarlane said the Supreme Court decision to order the Land Court to reconsider its decision on the mine expansion near Toowoomba provided "new hope" for up to 3000 direct and indirect jobs.
"Without the expansion, the mine is due to cease operations in 2020 putting hundreds of people out of work and creating massive economic pain in Oakey, surrounding areas and Toowoomba," Macfarlane said.
"With the expansion, the mine will be able to produce 7.5 million tonnes of coal per annum for 12 years, providing more jobs, more economic opportunity and more revenue for every tier of government."
Queensland Mines Minister Anthony Lynham said government officers and legal advisers were considering the Supreme Court's decision and its implications.
"Further, the parties to the judicial review ruled on today have until May 10 to make submissions about today's orders," Lynham said.
"At this stage the Government will respect the legal process and the courts and make no further comment."
Ashurst partner John Briggs said it was "unprecedented" for the Supreme Court to slap down a Land Court decision on a mining lease, saying it was likely the case could be stuck in the courts for a few more years.
"It is unusual. It's the first time the Supreme Court has said to the Land Court, 'you've got this wrong and you need to look at it again'. There won't be a quick decision on this," Briggs said.
New Hope Group, which has a market capitalization of $1.89 billion and is owned by Washington H Soul Pattison, has several other coal mines in south-east Queensland and NSW's Hunter Valley. New Hope's share price closed up 7 percent on Wednesday at $2.27.
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