“Opening up the Galilee is a tremendous opportunity for the region,” said Lucas Dow, chief executive of Adani’s Australia division.
“The reality is that, if the coal doesn’t come from Australia or Queensland or the Galilee, it’s going to come from other jurisdictions.”
has enriched Australia for decades. Ready markets in the fast-growing, energy-hungry economies of Asia have made it one of Australia’s biggest exports and it has traditionally enjoyed the backing of most major political parties.
Rising concern about climate change, though, has made coal a contentious issue in Australian politics over the last decade.
In the run-up to these elections, the country was battered by heat waves, drought and bush fires increasingly linked to climate change, and public opinion polls found that a majority of voters wanted tougher government action. Conservative politicians, in response, repeatedly warned that turning away from coal too abruptly would cost the Australian economy dearly — and that coal country, in Australia’s northeast, would hemorrhage jobs.
Yet before the election was called in April, the federal government sent a signal to those on the side of coal. It approved Adani’s groundwater plan for the Carmichael site, even though Australia’s national science agency had described the proposal as “not sufficiently robust.” The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the government had leaned on the science agency to hasten its review of the plan.
When the vote came on May 18, it was not, as some had predicted, a watershed climate change election. Australians, especially in coal country, voted to keep the incumbent conservative coalition in power.
Within days, the Carmichael mine had new momentum.
First, Queensland settled a case that had accused the Adani-controlled port at Abbot Point of dumping excess amounts of suspended solids, a category that includes coal, around the Great Barrier Reef. (The company denied wrongdoing and agreed to better water monitoring in the settlement.) Then, the state issued a regulatory clearance that had long been held up over the fate of a threatened bird.
A last hurdle was Queensland’s approval for the company’s plan to monitor the fragile ecosystems that depend on multiple aquifers near the coal seam. Independent experts warned state officials that the mine could permanently dry one natural spring, the Doongmabulla, held sacred by the area’s Indigenous people. As recently as June 6, they had urged the state not to rush into a decision. The impact, they said, could be “irreversible.”
But a week later, Queensland approved the plan. The Carmichael mine could now be built.
Mr. Adani used Twitter to thank lawmakers in Australia “for believing in Adani’s vision to fortify India’s energy security & create opportunities for Australians.”
‘Throw enough subsidies and anything can be viable’
At the global level, coal faces powerful headwinds. Renewable energy is getting cheaper as it expands. Private investors around the world are shying away from new projects. At the same time, public health officials are increasingly alarmed that air pollution, including the dangerous particles that come from coal plants, is shaving years off people’s lives.
“If you just looked at the social costs of air pollution, coal is so bad that, if those are added in as a tax, no coal plant would make economic sense,” said Anant Sudarshan, an economist at the University of Chicago who studies energy policy.
While Mr. Adani leveraged local politics to beat those headwinds in Australia, the key to success in India was different. There, his company has demonstrated an unusual ability to extract good deals for itself and has thrived with the help of generous
On many levels, those good deals have come at the expense of some of the poorest people in the world, who inhale the pollution that coal-fired power plants produce, drink water tainted by ash, and, often, support those coal projects with their tax money.
Mr. Adani, a native of Gujarat State, began business there nearly 40 years ago as an importer and exporter, including of coal for state-owned power plants.
It wasn’t long before coal became central to his enterprise. India’s hunger to extend electricity to its people helped.
With land from the Gujarat government, the company built the country’s largest private port in the western city of Mundra and next to it, the country’s largest private coal-fired power plant.
It also built a close relationship to Narendra Modi, the man who, in 2001, became the top elected official in Gujarat, and, in 2014, the prime minister of India.
The Adani Group went on to build a necklace of ports along the Indian coastline, enabling it to deliver coal to virtually any part of the country. The company bought an Indonesian coal mine, and, in India, it acquired coal mining
contracts across thousands of hectares in a vast and previously off-limits forest.
When coal prices rose a few years ago, causing deep pain for power producers, the company secured an unusual reprieve from Indian regulators: the ability to charge its electricity customers more than it had originally contracted with the government.
The company, for its part, argued that without the higher tariff, it could not operate the plant.
Separately, the Indian Directorate of Revenue Intelligence has accused the company of overcharging taxpayers for imported equipment and coal. The agency lost its case in a customs tribunal and is now appealing in a higher court, where it accuses the company of impeding the case.
One of the biggest boons for the company has been the government benefits associated with the huge new coal-fired power plant under construction in India, near the town of Godda. The coal from the Carmichael mine could be burned there, company executives say.
The land for the plant, acquired by the government from a swath of lush paddy fields, was home to some of India’s poorest farmers.
The earthmovers arrived to begin construction during the last monsoon, accompanied by the police. Coconut palms were uprooted. Paddy fields and a mango orchard were removed. A cellphone video taken at the time shows local women screaming, pulling their saris over their heads in deference and falling at the feet of a company representative, begging him to spare their land.
Soon, a concrete boundary wall went up. Then, makeshift offices. Then, a chilling message went out to locals who dared protest: The police charged five men, who did not want to give up their land, with criminal trespassing.
“They’ve got the plot surrounded,” said Balis Pandit, one of the accused, who has migrated to another part of the country to find work. “There’s no way we can enter the land.”
The Godda power plant is unique because it will be built as part of a special economic zone. But unlike other such zones, where factories make duty-free goods for export, this one would generate electricity for export. It would be the country’s sole special economic zone with only a power plant. And it was made possible only after a change in Indian regulations in early 2019, to allow the Adani project to go forward.
For the company, that brings significant gains. It would be exempt from several levies, including on imported coal and equipment.
The project has also been approved for a roughly $700 million loan from the state-owned lender that funds power plants and for another $700 million loan from a second state-owned company designed to help electrify Indian villages.
This plant, though, is not meant to electrify a single Indian village. As the Indian news
site Scroll first reported last year, power generated in Godda would be exported to Bangladesh, a low-lying delta nation threatened by a rising sea.
The people who live near the site would receive none of the electricity, just the pollution.
The power export deal was announced by Mr. Modi on a visit to Bangladesh in 2015. Mr. Adani was part of his business delegation.
It was the final link in a long, sooty — and, for Adani, lucrative — chain, one that critics say could only be made possible by government assistance.
“Throw enough subsidies and anything can be viable,” said Tim Buckley, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “If they did not have special treatment back in India they wouldn’t be able to use expensive Australian sourced coal viably.”
© The New York Times