No, NSW isn't about to lose Mt Piper Power Station

Mt Piper Power Station. FILE IMAGE.

Mt Piper Power Station. FILE IMAGE.

In Australia's self-induced and largely imagined energy crisis, it seems any ambit claim - particularly if it encourages coal - can generate immediate and unwarranted media and political attention.

For the past week or so, we have witnessed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's ill-considered elevation to national urgency the closure of the decrepit Liddell coal-fired power station in the Hunter Valley in 2022. Owners AGL had given all of seven years' notice.

Now, a News Corp publication has tossed into the debate furnace the "real risk" NSW's newest power station Mt Piper faces closure because of a "green activist" group that had the temerity of asking courts (at great financial risk) to uphold NSW law.

Springvale Mine. FILE IMAGE.

Springvale Mine. FILE IMAGE.

Time for a few facts before our leadership lemmings are panicked into, say, banning renewable energy, ditching Australia's Paris climate goals, or other nefarious scheme dreamed up in some coal lobbyist's backroom.

Back in August, the NSW government was posed a dilemma after the state's appeals court deemed a coal mine in Sydney's catchment was operating without an invalid licence, as Fairfax Media reported at the time.

In short, any development - and that includes coal - can only operate in the region if it has a neutral or beneficial effect on water quality. Makes sense if you care about the water supplied to five million people.

So Centennial Coal's Springvale mine should not pump millions of litres a day of untreated mine water into the Coxs River, the second largest supply of water to Sydney's main dam, the court found.

But as Springvale, near Lithgow, happens to be the only current source of coal to EnergyAustralia's Mt Piper plant, the judges in their wisdom said, in effect, go and sort out what you need to do to everybody's satisfaction.

Satisfaction, though, will come at a cost for somebody. Submissions are due from this Friday in the NSW Land & Environment Court.

Hence, some early public lobbying is now underway, dovetailing nicely with our contrived energy frenzy.

The options at this stage are: Mt Piper looks for alternative coal supplies and builds a rail loader to access it; Springvale accelerates plans to pipe the waste water to a yet-to-built treatment plant; the government changes the legislation that would harm Sydney's water supplies and open the door wider to similar projects in the future.

Naturally, most money is betting on the latter outcome, with the cost borne by a largely unwitting public.

The NSW government is rightly watching the outcome of the submissions in the Land & Environment and not keen to comment. But even if it were to pursue that last option, it won't be able to do so a vacuum.

As Fairfax Media has revealed this week, a new study commissioned by the state government has found underground coal mining is having a more detrimental impact on the catchment than previously thought.

Cracks were likely reaching from the surface all the way down to the coal seam 400 metres below, permanently diverting flows to who knows where, and killing endangered wetlands above.

Indeed, WaterNSW, the government agency, is understood to be very unhappy with the findings. They confirm many of its fears about the wisdom of allowing mining in the catchment at all.

Nobody knows of another major city that allows it.

Sue Higginson is chief executive of the NSW Environmental Defender's Office which led the successful appeal against Springvale on behalf of the 4nature group. She says those seeking a quick corporate fix for Mt Piper would prefer to ignore the rule of law.

"It's as if environmental law doesn't matter," Higginson says.

In the intense heat of the wider energy debate, it's plausible that result sits happily with those keen to promote coal at any cost.

This story first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald. Peter Hannam is The Sydney Morning Herald’s environment editor. 

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