Lately it seems there is never a dull moment for Whitehaven Coal; the miner has recently battled media onslaughts, environmental activists, the uncertainty of Nathan Tinkler’s financial status, and softening coal markets.
But despite all of this Whitehaven is more determined than ever to build its controversial Maules Creek mine near Boggabri in New South Wales.
An announcement on Whitehaven’s three coal projects – including the Maules Creek project, expansions of the company’s own Tarrawonga mine, and its Boggabri joint venture with Japan's Idemitsu – could come as soon as Thursday, SMH reported.
Maules Creek is predicted to double the company’s annual production, making Whitehaven the largest coalminer in the Gunnedah Basin.
Earlier this month Front Line Action on Coal activist Jonathan Moylan temporarily wiped $314 million off the company’s market value when he issued a fake ANZ press release purporting to withdraw a $1.2 billion loan to finance Maules Creek on corporate responsibility grounds.
In took 23 minutes for the hoax to be revealed, and share prices shortly bounced back.
The hoax has not only upset investors, it has also angered local residents.
Maules Creek resident Lloyd Finlay, whose farm is ''right in the firing line of where the mines are looking at purchasing'', had not made up his mind about the project until the hoax.
But after the hoax, says Finlay, the Council ''lost all credibility''. Farmers in the area are not unanimously opposed to the mine, he told SMH, and do not like being branded extremists.
''We're concerned at the direction the council is heading in and who they're involved with,'' he said.
Another local farmer, and president of the Maules Creek Community Council, Phil Laird has distanced himself from both the Whitehaven hoax and Front Line Action on Coal, saying he had ''no part at all in the hoax''.
But Laird is sympathetic to Moylan and did rally outside ASIC's Sydney office in his support, saying in a statement that ''a friend in need is a friend indeed''.
The Laird State Forrest is named after Laird's family and he has a host of objections to the Maules Creek mine.
''[NSW Planning Minister] Brad Hazzard himself said to us, in front of 400 people at Gunnedah, that it was illogical for an open-cut mine to be operating in a state forest, in a tier-one biodiversity asset.''
Instead Laird wants Maules Creek to go underground, which he says would save many of the gum trees, maintaining a habitat for species including koalas.
''From our perspective, an underground mine would satisfy many of the stakeholders,'' Laird said.
''The customers would get coal, people would be employed, the company could earn profits, the community could stay here without the dust and the massive water impacts.''
An underground coal mine has in the past been considered but the suggestion was rejected as it would ''result in the sterilisation of significant viable coal reserves''.
Whitehaven managing director Tony Haggarty said the area the company is seeking to mine was always approved as an open-cut operation as it is not technically feasible to mine these particular seams underground.
The Maules Creek project is the first to be considered by the new Independent Expert Scientific Committee.
Haggarty said it will be ''one of the most reviewed projects that will ever have been approved in the industry, if it gets approved''.
The company’s three coal projects will clear most of the 7033 hectare state forest.
Maules Creek will produce about 60 per cent semi-soft coking coal, and 40 per cent high-quality thermal coal.
Amidst softer coal prices the $AUD780 million Maules Creek project remains a viable because of the high quality 610 million tone deposit and the small amount of overburden that needs to be removed.
Currently Whitehaven estimates it can mine and ship coalout of Newcastle for $62.40 a tonne, SMH reported.
Once at full production, Maules Creek will produce 13 million tonnes annually, of which 10.5 million tonnes will be saleable coal, SMH reports.
But approval delays are costing Whitehaven tens of millions of dollars, Haggarty said.
''One can't deny that in this market the project is less profitable than it would otherwise be,'' he said.
''But what's important is that your project is competitive through the cycle. Even if people believe the current market is going to be with us for the next 10 years, this is one of very few projects that would stack up.''
Adding to Whitehaven’s determination to push ahead with Maules Creek is the rising cost of older coal mines, particularly in the state’s Hunter Valley as mines get deeper and coal quality drops.
Despite larger distances to port, the Gunnedah Basin has higher quality seams with lower strip ratios.
Coal magnate Nathan Tinkler currently holds a 19.4 per cent stake in Whitehaven – making him the largest shareholder in the company.