They’re being called ‘zombie mines’ — proposed new coal mines or expansions that may never see the light of day.

A new report by the Australia Institute says there are 23 new coal projects proposed in NSW — equivalent to 15 Adani-sized mines.

The Australia Institute says governments rarely intervene to revoke an approval, or otherwise kill off a zombie mine.

Now, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has weighed in. But what is the issue exactly? Let’s take a look.

Who says ‘zombie mines’ are a problem?

Kirsty O’Connell, for one.

She’s a fifth-generation farmer in Aberdeen and member of the Friends of the Upper Hunter group.

She says these proposals are “crushing” for the region.

“You can see the acres and acres of farmland where people aren’t going to invest because there are proposed mines in the area — it has a huge impact,” she tells RN Breakfast.

Go deeper: Listen to the full report on RN Breakfast.

What about Malcolm Turnbull?

As a self-described “long-term farmer in the Upper Hunter”, the former prime minister is calling for a freeze on new coal approvals in NSW, which he says are “out of control”.

He accuses mining companies of “trying to get in before the party ends” and says coal projects are being approved one at a time without regard to their cumulative impact.

Malcolm Turnbull says keeping these coal projects in the pipeline also affects other high-performing industries in the region, such as the thoroughbred industry.

An older man with white hair and glasses.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull wants a freeze on coal mine approvals.(

ABC News: Peter Rothwell

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He says both farming and the thoroughbred industry will provide jobs long after the coal industry has gone.

Mr Turnbull wrote a submission to the NSW government opposing the proposed expansion of the Mount Pleasant mine, which sits south of his 2,700 acre grazing property.

“I think there’s been a focus on the royalties that are payable to government and the economic benefits — which are transient — and a failure to take into account the need to ensure we maintain a healthy environment and protect the health of our people,” he tells Fran Kelly.

Hear more: Listen to Fran Kelly’s full interview with Malcolm Turnbull.

What are the health concerns?

Data from the National Pollution Inventory shows that the Upper Hunter postcode 2333 area had the worst air quality of any postcode in the state.

Dr Bob Vickers, a GP in Singleton who’s also a community member of the Upper Hunter Air Quality Advisory Council, says pollution in the area is already “well above an acceptable standard”.

“No one wants to take responsibility for their pollution,” he says.

“If you add more to that mix and assess them on an individual merits based on ‘how much pollution does this mine make’ then yeah you could say it’s a minimal impact but it’s the cumulative impact is what’s doing the damage to our health”.

What does the NSW government say?

For one thing, it disputes the Australia Institute’s numbers — it says since January 2020, 15 development applications have been assessed (not 23) and one project was refused.

And while the NSW government is committed to net-zero emissions by 2050, it’s also committed to the coal industry.

A picture of the Hunter Valley Mangoola mine

The New South Wales Government says the coal industry creates jobs. 

The government says it “strongly supports the sustainable and socially responsible development of the state’s resources” and says coal mining is a major source of jobs.

It also says planning legislation requires it to carefully consider the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as any state or national policies on climate change, when assessing new mines.

So what’s the point of this Australia Institute report again?

Whether these coal projects go ahead or remain so-called zombie mines, the Australia Institute says the planning process in NSW is problematic.

At the heart of its report is the question of why NSW continues to allow new coal projects to be assessed when existing mines are not operating at full capacity.

And in any case, the report says, worldwide demand for coal is flat or falling.

“There is simply no market for an enormous increase in new coal production in NSW or the Upper Hunter Valley,” the report says.

The Australia Institute is calling for a moratorium on new coal approvals and for the the planning process to be reworked in NSW.

What are ‘zombie mines’ and what do they have to do with Malcolm Turnbull?
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