Political finger pointing and blatant name-calling has taken centre stage since Shenhua’s $1.2 billion Watermark coal project was approved by Environment Minister Greg Hunt.
The open-cut coal project, located near the Liverpool Plains, plans to produce 10 million tonnes of coal per annum for 30 years, and has come under intense scrutiny from some local farmers in the region who are concerned over water and agricultural impacts.
Hunt said the project had been approved subject to 18 of the most strict conditions in Australian history.
But the region's local member and Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce, has labelled the mine’s approval as “ridiculous”.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has come out in in defence of Watermark, tried to excuse Joyce’s dissent, stating that the minister was speaking out as a local member.
However Joyce soon dismissed this claim.
“It’s my view as the agriculture minister, I’m sort of agnostic about whether it’s in my electorate or not,” he told Radio National on Friday morning.
“If somebody said we are going to put a mine in the middle of [another] plain I would say that’s not a good spot for a mine, that is a bad decision.”
Joyce said he planned to write to NSW Premier Mike Baird to urge his government to stop the development of the mine.
He said the scientific evidence does not prove that the mine will not destroy the water table – and questioned the advice Hunt based his decision on.
"To be honest I'm suspicious of that advice – because it's got a water table all around it – that it's not going to affect the water table when it's got a mine in the middle of it," Joyce said.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt has defended his decision, and moved to dispel claims that the mine sits on prime agricultural land.
"If the scientific advice, the legal advice and the departmental advice all line up … no federal environment minister could have reached a different decision," he told ABC radio on Monday.
“It is not in prime agricultural land…it sits in the hill country.”
Hunt labelled Watermark as a “Labor project”, stating the federal government has one small part to play in the approvals process.
“This started under the Labor government, oddly enough many of the projects that come to me come from state Labor governments,” Hunt said.
“These are not projects we bring forward, these are projects which advance from state law and then have to be considered under federal law.”
The NSW government is now tasked with deciding whether to grant Shenhua a mining lease.
Many saw this as a possible way to stop the project, however a spokesperson for NSW Resources Minister Anthony Roberts said approval of the mining lease was a “relative formality”.
“The project already has planning approval in NSW, and environmental approval by the Commonwealth was the last major hurdle,” the minister’s spokesman said.
Shenhua has yet to apply for a mining lease.
NSW Opposition leader Luke Foley has called for Watermark to be reassessed under the state government’s new planning rules.
The rules state that environmental, economic and social impact concerns be given the same weight when assessing future projects.
“In light of the Baird government’s recent changes to mining approvals, the Watermark mine should be subject to the new SEPP framework that gives weight to environmental and social impacts, not just economic factors,” Foley said.
Not happy with the criticism thrown at the planned mine, Watermark’s project manager, Paul Jackson, has hit out at Joyce, accusing the minister of playing politics.
“What I don’t understand is all the sabre-rattling, the playing politics, from Barnaby Joyce; a big part of this is about us being Chinese and state-owned, and him being naive and xenophobic and not liking Chinese state-owned enterprises buying farmland or developing resources in Australia,” Jackson said.
“The wider benefit of this mine is that you can engender a long-term relationship with China and they will want to take your agricultural goods from the other one million hectares of the Liverpool Plains.
“But that won’t happen if you tell the Chinese you don’t want them here; sabre-rattling might be good for local politics but it doesn’t match diplomacy — you can’t sabre-rattle if you want to have good trade relations with China. He (Mr Joyce) is a loony.”