The Queensland government commissioned, mostly ignored, and then tried to keep secret the findings of an independent scientific panel that concluded Adani’s conservation plans for the endangered black-throated finch were “superficial” and not backed by evidence.
Guardian Australia has seen a copy of the panel’s 2019 report, which was never published by the Queensland government.
The state also previously rejected several applications – including by Guardian Australia – for the document and related information to be released under state Right to Information laws.
It can now be revealed the expert panel concluded that Adani’s initial plan “does not meet the content requirements of an acceptable plan to manage an endangered species”.
“There is little empirical evidence that conservation actions outlined in the [management plan] will be effective in supporting black-throated finch conservation,” the report stated.
After the report was finalised – just prior to the 2019 federal election – the Queensland government initially rejected Adani’s conservation plans and told the mining company it must make alterations.
But the political winds in Queensland shifted immediately after the election, when Labor lost significant voter support in coalmining country. The state gave the environment department a public deadline of one week to finalise the finch plan.
It was approved six days later and after Adani provided “new commitments” at the government’s request.
Experts from Birdlife Australia and the University of Queensland have now obtained and reviewed the initial scientific panel advice, and compared that advice with the revised conservation plan that was hastily approved by the Queensland government in May 2019.
Their report, which will be released this week, finds that Queensland authorities ultimately ignored much of the advice of the independent scientific panel; that Adani was not required to address key recommendations or concerns.
These include criticisms by the expert panel about a lack of adequate baseline data about finch populations.
“No population estimate existed and hence there was no baseline data for the impact of mining and construction activities,” the Birdlife Australia analysis says.
The independent scientific panel advised the Queensland government that Adani’s mitigation and offset plans for the black-throated finch were “superficial and untested” and that there were “critical knowledge gaps about the most appropriate way to manage [finch] habitat”.
The panel also said Adani’s environmental offset areas should exclude cattle grazing areas. It said Adani’s proposed research budget – $100,000 a year – was “well below what was required”.
“Black-throated finch habitat clearing has commenced; yet none of the concerns outlined above have been adequately addressed, containing sufficient effort or scientific expertise,” the Birdlife Australia review says.
“Overall, the revised, and approved … plan provides little evidence that impact will be halted if declines in [finch] numbers are detected; nor any effort to make this detection.
“The approved [plan] provides a plan of inadequate action, which would not be commensurate with the losses that will result from the impact.”
A co-author of the Birdlife Australia report, University of Queensland researcher and black-throated finch expert Dr April Reside, said the bird had “lost almost 90% of its original habitat”.
“There is little that can be done to compensate for the clearing of more habitat, as has been approved for the Carmichael mine.”
The extinction threat facing the southern subspecies of black-throated finch is the result of decades of weak government protections and decision-making weighted in favour of development.
Continued habitat loss has caused finch populations to retreat and the Carmichael mine site is considered a last stronghold.
Adani has previously sought to taint the government’s independent scientific review process by labelling ecologists as activists seeking to stop the coalmine.
The criticism appeared to be premised on the fact that, because the ecologists were of the view the mine would be fundamentally damaging to the black-throated finch, this made them biased against the project. There were calls at the time for the panel to appoint someone who was “pro-coal”.
In a statement, Adani said it had allocated more than $8m from 2020 to 2024 to study and conduct environmental management practices to support the black-throated finch.
“[Adani] has been delivering the black-throated finch management plan in accordance with the state and federal government approvals provided in 2019.
“Our recent research and population estimate conducted by highly trained ecologists demonstrate that the finch is thriving. Thanks to [Adani’s] work studying the finch over the past decade, we now know more about the black-throated finch than ever before.
“Our research programs will be completed before there is any significant impact to black-throated finch habitat.”
The Queensland department of environment and science was approached for comment.