Clive Palmer company Waratah Coal's coal project awaiting Barcaldine Regional Council decision

© Provided by ABC Business The proposed power plant would be built 30km from the town of Alpha. (ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Clive Palmer’s company Waratah Coal is quietly seeking approval from a local council for a new coal-fired power station in Central Queensland.

The multi-billion-dollar proposal is by far the largest project ever assessed by the tiny Barcaldine Regional Council.

Mayor Sean Dillon has told 7.30 that a decision is imminent.

“We would expect that a decision is probably going to be required before Christmas,” Mr Dillon said.

“The impact of a power station of any sort, of any nature, of this size is significant.

“For that to be left in the determiner of a local government is peculiar.”

Waratah Coal chose to lodge its application directly with the council instead of the Queensland government, which even the mayor admits is “virtually without precedent”.

Under the local government process, there is no legal requirement for the company to notify the public and there have been no community meetings held.

Two Queensland government departments are considering aspects of the proposal and have met with Waratah Coal.

‘Something we shouldn’t be considering’

Environmentalists are outraged by the proposal because they say it is in direct conflict with a call by the International Energy Agency (IEA) to prevent new coal-fired power stations being built to limit the dangerous impacts of climate change and meet the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

“In this decade, the development or even a proposal to develop such a colossal project is just outrageous,” said Derec Davies from conservation group Coast and Country. 

“We know the effects that such power stations have on climate change and it’s just something we just shouldn’t even be considering.”

The 1,400-megawatt power station, a so-called High-Efficiency Low Emissions plant, would be built on a cattle property located 30 kilometres north-west of the town of Alpha.

The station would use 4 million tonnes of coal each year, which would come from another Waratah Coal proposal – the Galilee Coal Project – which is adjacent to the site.

The power generated would then supply the mine and areas of Central Queensland.

Local support

Judy Acutt runs a busy local business and strongly backs the proposal.

She said an unreliable power supply was a serious problem for Alpha’s 350 residents.

“We have major power issues like brownouts, we have blackouts constantly,” Ms Acutt said.

“If we could get a secure power service, it would be so good for here.” 

The project would also bring new life to Alpha which is struggling with a dwindling population, according to Edward Donaldson, who runs a cattle operation and is the coach of the rugby league team. 

“There’s not too many young people coming back out on the land, they’re all going away and getting trades,” he said.

“Instead of going and working in the mines in Emerald or something, it might produce more jobs, keep more people in the actual township of Alpha.”

Questions over application

Mr Dillon said his council is carefully considering the local benefits and drawbacks. 

He is confident the council is not out of its depth. 

“We use contract town planners, we’ve engaged the state agencies,” he said.

“One thing that does help here is that we’ve got the lessons with the Bowen Basin and, dare I say, the failings of the Bowen Basin coal mines that have that have been right on our doorstep.”

But Mr Davies from Coast and Country disagrees. 

He questions why the company previously went through a state approval process for six years before it lapsed in 2015 and is now going directly through the local council instead. 

“The Barcaldine Regional Council planning scheme is there to assess things [such] as people building a pool in their backyard or a shed in the backyard, not a 1,400-megawatt coal-fired power station,” he said.

“Not for a polluting industry that will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the next 50 years.”

Consultation was done on Waratah’s behalf by a company for a social impact assessment report that included interviews with 34 people, all of whom backed the project.

They included key people at the council, schools and businesses.

The report concluded that there was strong community support.

But despite that, few people in Alpha knew the proposal was being considered, according to Ms Acutt, which was surprising given its size and importance.

“Hardly anything in town. I’ve heard not a lot from anyone, except I did have someone from Waratah Coal come and see me last year,” she said.

“That was the first I’d heard about it.

“If we don’t get an industry kicking, within the next few years, I don’t really know where Alpha’s going to be in the next five or six years.”

Concerns for nature refuge

The Bimblebox Nature Refuge is about 6 kilometres to the southwest of the proposed power station site.

The company claims air and noise emissions will not have a significant impact on the nature refuge.

However, John Brinnand, a volunteer for Bimblebox, claims the people running it have not been consulted.

“None at all to my knowledge,” he said.

“It’s outrageous. I mean, you know, a coal-fired power station is a no-brainer in the age where … the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the IEA is saying there’s no more coal mines.”

Mr Brinnand is involved in a legal challenge to the Galilee Coal Project mine which is currently before Queensland’s Land Court. 

He said he feared for the future of the refuge if both projects proceed.

“Here you have hundreds of species of vegetation and also fauna,” he said.

“You can’t offset this, there is nowhere else like this nearby in the Desert Uplands.

“If this is lost, it’s lost.”

‘Emissions are going to be a problematic issue’

Exclusive documents obtained by 7.30 under right to information laws reveal key details about the Waratah proposal. 

A project overview written by the company said the power station would cost up to $3.5 billion, produce power at the earliest by 2024, burn coal for 30 to 50 years and at a lower emissions intensity than Queensland’s existing coal stations.

A construction workforce of up to 1,000 people and an operations workforce of 90 permanent staff would be required. 

Mr Dillon said his council was carefully assessing the need for the station but understood it faced significant hurdles. 

“One thing we have seen is a call for a dependency for baseload power, so that has to be generated somehow and clearly, we’re seeing all manner of renewables working hard in that space. This is what’s on our radar at the moment,” he said.

“It’s now political reality as to whether these things happen, and a financial reality whether the projects can secure financial backing.”

Waratah Coal argues the power station is needed to supply reliable power around the clock to energy-intensive export industries in particular coal producers in the Galilee and Bowen basins. 

The company also says it will be able to fill the gap left by older coal plants which may close in the future.

Tony Wood, director of the Energy Program at the Grattan Institute, has reviewed the overview for the power station.

He is sceptical about its viability on economic and environmental grounds. 

“The national energy market operator has made it clear that Queensland is well supplied for at least the next several years,” he said.

“[And at] the same time that’s going to be happening, we’re going to see a lot more renewable energy coming into Queensland.

“The government in Queensland has a very strong commitment to 50 per cent renewables by 2030.”

Mr Wood said if it went ahead the power station would come under increasing pressure over its lifetime. 

“Any emissions are going to be a problematic issue in the coming years,” he said. 

“Almost certainly, in the lifetime of this plant, if it gets does get built, we will have a serious constraint on greenhouse gas emissions and this plant will either pay a lot more money to emit greenhouse gases, or it will close down.”

State government does not support proposal

In February, the Barcaldine council wrote to Waratah raising serious concerns.

They included questions about what would happen to the power station if the mine did not proceed, where the water was coming from if mine water was unavailable, and the need for a decommissioning plan if the project was abandoned. 

Mr Dillon said the answers to those concerns were critically important but he was yet to see Waratah’s response. 

“Where’s the water coming from?” he said.

“What impact is that going to have on the environment, which obviously the Department of Environment and Science have been quite interested in as well. And yes, what’s going to happen to the site should it be abandoned?

“The source of coal is a significant red flag. If the coal doesn’t come from the adjacent mine then most likely, we would condition that [the adjacent mine] would be the only source of coal that we would allow.”

The power station’s carbon emissions and impact on climate change is not being considered by the council because it is not part of its planning scheme.

Environmentalists argue that is not good enough and are urging Queensland’s Deputy Premier Steven Miles to use his call-in powers under the Planning Act to intervene.

“Having a project of this scale, not having its emissions being assessed is an outrage,” Derec Davies said.

“The Queensland Government has the power now … the call-in powers of the Minister to refuse this project, or at least to call that project and have those impacts properly assessed.”

Mr Miles was unavailable for an interview with 7.30 and did not respond when asked if he would use his call-in powers.

The Queensland government said in a statement it did not support the proposal.

“There is no need for another coal-fired power station in Queensland,” the statement said.

“We already have the youngest fleet of government owned coal-fired generators.”

An agency inside the Queensland government called the State Assessment and Referral Agency (SARA) is currently assessing the impact of the proposal on Queensland’s interests. 

Once its assessment is complete, SARA’s response will be provided to the Barcaldine Regional Council. 

“The development application for the Waratah coal-fired power station has been referred to SARA due to the proposed use being classed as an environmentally relevant activity and a hazardous chemical facility,” the Department of State Development, Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning said in a statement. 

“The Department of Environment and Science’s independent regulator (DES) is concurrently assessing an application for an Environmental Authority.

“The department has had meetings with Waratah Coal to discuss their proposal.” 

7.30 contacted Clive Palmer and Waratah Coal to request an interview and sent the company a list of questions but has not received a response. 

Watch this story tonight on 7.30 on ABC TV and iview.

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