Abbot Point: A terminal test case

It was touted as the plan to make Abbot Point one of the largest coal ports in the world. 
But plans for the 'super expansion' are now uncertain following Rio Tinto's decision to pull out of the project. 
While Rio has not ruled out future participation developing Abbot Point, its ­future growth is now less of a certainty than it was several months ago. 
And it's got a number of key stakeholders worried about what a bottleneck may mean for QLD's expanding coal industry. 

Uncertain times 

Rio blamed much of its decision to pull out of the Abbot Point expansion on the unstable economic climate. 
The uncertainty made it part of a chorus of large companies expressing concern about the industry's future outlook. 
While much of this sentiment was tied to the crisis in Europe it was also fueled by concerns much closer to home. 
The age-old worry of the carbon tax, as well as the cost and difficulty of sourcing local labour featured heavily, which the company packaged into vague concerns about "upward pressure on costs". 
The regulatory environment was also marked a worry, with Rio blaming the "long timeframes" required for Federal approval as part of the reason for its hesitancy.  
Already fighting a num­ber of battles to speed up approvals the QLD Government seized on this comment to put further pressure on Canberra over its environmental policy. 
Deputy premier and minister for state development, infrastructure and planning Jeff Seeney said the State Government had "considerable concerns" about the timeframe of many Federal approvals. 
"There are 135 projects in Queensland currently awaiting some form of consideration or approval by the Federal Labor Government," he said. 
"I am seeking a meeting with Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke to discuss this bottleneck.  
"It is very concerning that companies such as Rio Tinto are withdrawing from potential developments in part because of the time they wait for regulatory approval." 
The QLD LNP also went as far as to label Canberra as "deliberately obstructionist". 
It said companies needed strong support or they might risk pulling out of further developments until the uncertainty in global markets calms down. 
And by that time it might already be too late. 

Pressure's on 

It isn't only the QLD Government and some parts of the industry criticising Canberra over Abbot Point. 
The Greens, an occasional ally of Labor yet fierce critic of the mining industry, have long been opposed to the expansion. 
Since the project was first announced the Greens have been firmly opposed to any development at Abbot Point. 
Speaking after the initial declaration last year Greens senator Larissa Waters made herself clear. 
"Anna Bligh's Labor Government proclaims that Abbot Point will create jobs, but she never seems to mention that it will destroy tens of thousands more jobs that rely on a healthy Great Barrier Reef – in tourism and fisheries – and on a healthy Murray Darling system," she said. 
Naturally this opposition also extended to the companies leading the expansion.  
But fast forward to earlier this year and some sections of the Greens seemed to have changed their approach. 
After first criticising Rio for taking part in the port expansion the Greens also criticised the miner for pulling out. 
Speaking just after Rio's announcement Greens candidate for Whitsunday Jonathon Dykyj said the move showed the company had no commitment to the community and was instead driven by greed. 
But the list of those ­opposed to the expansion does not stop there. 
Along with droves of local conservationists the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has expressed alarm at rising development along QLD's coast. 
In a strongly worded report following a visit to QLD earlier this year UNESCO told both the State and Federal Governments to take extreme care when approving any port expansion because the developments posed a ­serious risk to the health of the Great Barrier Reef. 
But while the Federal Government seems to have heeded this call the new leaders in QLD are still set on quickly pushing through a number of big expansions for the state. 

Those in favour 

While all eyes were on Rio Tinto following its change of heart on Abbot Point a number of its peers have quietly reaffirmed commitment to an expansion. 
Despite speculation BHP Billiton would follow in Rio's footsteps so far the company has stuck with it. 
The miner has already been awarded preferred developer status for a new terminal and it's not alone in eyeing Abbot Point as an attractive expansion prospect. 
Gina Rinehart's Hancock Coal and GVK have also named Abbot Point the preferred port location for their massive Alpha mine proposal. 
Hancock Coal have canvassed a number of options for Abbot Point, including expansion of the existing facility or construction of a new offshore facility. 
With several giants backing the expansion and a number of other companies also keen for development Abbot Point is not dead and buried.  
But the furore over how the expansions play out, the delays in Federal Government, and the polarised environmental debate surrounding the issue make it something of a test case for the QLD industry. 
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