The Australian environment minister, Greg Hunt, has approved a $16.5bn resources project that will lead to the creation of the largest coal mine in Australia, and one of the largest in the world.
Hunt has imposed 36 conditions, primarily aimed at protecting groundwater, on the Carmichael coal mine and rail project, which will dig up and transport about 60m tons of coal a year for export.
The huge Carmichael project, overseen by the Indian mining company Adani, will consist of a network of open cut and underground mines in the Galilee Basin region of central Queensland.
This area is about seven times the size of Sydney harbour and will be the largest coal mine in Australia and possibly the world.
Coal will be taken via a new rail line to the port of Abbot Point, north of Bowen, where Adani already has approval to build a coal export terminal. Five million tons of seabed will be dug up and dumped within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in order to expand Abbot Point for these exports, primarily to India.
The Carmichael mine, which was given the green light by the Queensland government in May, has been fiercely opposed by environmentalists due to its potential impact upon the reef, groundwater at its site and its hefty carbon emissions.
Greenpeace has claimed coal from the mine will cause an additional 128m tons of carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere. By contrast, the Australian government’s proposed Direct Action climate scheme, which targets only domestic emissions, aims to reduce emissions by 131m tonnes each year.
Adani estimates the mine itself will produce about 3bn tons of CO2 emissions over its 60-year lifespan. This is due to “fugitive” emissions, which are released during the mining process.
The approval of the Carmichael mine is a major step in the opening of the vast, coal-rich Galilee Basin region. There are a total of nine mining projects planned for the area.
Hunt said the conditions he has imposed ensure Adani “meets the highest environmental standards and that all impacts, including cumulative impacts, are avoided, mitigated or offset”.
“The absolute strictest of conditions have been imposed to ensure the protection of the environment, with a specific focus on the protection of groundwater,” he said.
“I acknowledge the work of the previous state and federal ALP [Australian Labor Party] governments in advancing consideration of this project.”
Hunt said the project will have a value of $5bn a year over the next 60 years, adding $2.97bn to the Queensland economy a year over this period.
It is estimated the Carmichael mine will also create 2,475 construction jobs and a further 3,920 jobs once the project is operational in 2017.
Adani will be required to ensure at least 730 megalitres of water are returned to the environment every year for five years.
The company will also have to monitor the condition of groundwater, offset the impact of cleared habitat and assess the impact to threatened species. Conservationists have warned that critical habitat for the endangered black-throated finch will be bulldozed for the mine.
Greenpeace said Hunt has “laid out the red carpet for a coal company with a shocking track record to dig up the outback, dump on the Great Barrier Reef and fuel climate change.”
Adani has been fined in India for violating environmental conditions relating to a port development in Gujarat. An Indian government review found Adani’s failure to monitor groundwater for pollution was a “clear violation” of conditions. The company was also criticised for its destruction of mangroves.
Felicity Wishart, a campaigner at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said the mine’s approval was “bad news for the Great Barrier Reef”.
She told Guardian Australia: “This is another step in the plan for increased shipping on the reef, expanded coal ports and more potential damage.
“It’s extremely disappointing that the minister is so prepared to not only put the region of the mine at risk but also to create more threats for the Great Barrier Reef.
“At full capacity, there will be a further 480 ships crossing the reef, in an area home to humpback whales, sea turtles and dugongs. And then there’s the impact of the dredging.
“The Great Barrier Reef is particularly vulnerable to climate change so we need to be doing everything we can to reduce that pressure on it. It’s very disappointing that the government is committed to policies that will increase the impacts of climate change.”
The Greens senator Larissa Waters said: "History will look back on the Abbott government’s decision today as an act of climate criminality.
“The Carmichael coal mine is set become one of the world’s largest coal mines, producing 60m tons of thermal coal every year for 60 years to dramatically increase Australia’s contribution to global warming.
“There’s no guarantee Adani will be able to pay for the environmental conditions attached to the approval and with the Abbott and Newman governments slashing environment department staff, there’s no capacity to enforce them.
“Adani has a track record of non-compliance with environmental conditions in India – why take the risk with our climate and Great Barrier Reef?"
Gautam Adani, the chairman of Adani, said the project would provide a significant economic boost to Queensland.
“Adani’s commitment to nation-building in India goes hand in hand with its commitment to providing sustainable employment opportunities for local workers and suppliers, not just through our rail infrastructure, but also our longer-term investments in ports and mining," he said.
“Development of the Galilee Basin is vital for the regional and economic growth of both Queensland and Australia, and Adani’s projects play an important role in realising this growth."