Water or coal? The increasingly clear choice

Questions about the future of coal are often presented as a rational choice between energy sources with different economic costs, greenhouse gas emissions, and levels of reliability.

Originally published on Global Water Forum – 30 October 2017
Authors: Lauren Rickards and Jason Alexandra

A key topic that registers less in public debates about coal, but demands attention, is the nexus between coal and water security. Coal mining and combustion is a huge drain on water resources, at the same time as climate change is making water availability more uncertain.

Given the centrality of water to many industries, and society in general, even if a government supports the coal industry in the name of their constituents – e.g. with the intent of providing mining jobs – it can undermine the wellbeing of those same constituents (and others) in other ways if it prioritises their claim on water. In particular, coal projects often draw significant amounts of groundwater, due to the fact that the sort of sedimentary basins that give rise to coal deposits often host high quality, accessible groundwater. In regions where water users rely on groundwater, major detrimental impacts on groundwater are increasingly recognised as socially intolerable.

In the largely arid continent of Australia, a recent remarkable court decision regarding a proposed expansion of a coal mine into agricultural land recognized this choice between water and coal. It provides an example for policy makers of how to factor water security into decisions about our energy future. In this brief piece, we provide an overview of this decision to help inform examinations of the water-coal relationship.

On May 31 2017, the Land Court of Queensland concluded a nearly 100 day hearing: its longest and most evidence-heavy trial, culminating in a ‘massively detailed’ judgment. On the surface, the case seemed simple enough: a request by coal miner, New Hope, for permission to proceed with its $900 million Stage 3 expansion.

The judge, Member Paul Smith, wrote in his judgment that it was widely presumed that the approval of the proposed expansion was a “lay down misère”.i  The mine in question has been operating for 15 years and its proposed expansion was within the boundaries of an existing mining license. Combined with the Land Court’s history of decisions on such matters (such as upholding approval of the Adani Group’s massive proposed Carmichael mine in 2015), observers could have been forgiven for assuming the court hearing was merely a tick-box exercise.

But to many peoples’ surprise – particularly New Hope’s – the Court recommended that the Queensland government reject the expansion proposal. Although the Queensland government is yet to formally respond to this recommendation, this legal decision is momentous for reasons that extend beyond the specifics of the case, and beyond Australia to the many locations around the world in which the trade-offs between coal mining and other water users are being made.ii

The decision signals a realisation of the water dimensions of coal mining, acknowledging the growing nexus between water and fossil fuels, and prioritising long-term water security over short-term economic benefits of more coal. In essence, Member Smith argued that the mine expansion should be rejected because it would breach the principle of inter-generational equity. He explained that:

“The principles of intergenerational equity are breached in at least one regard by the proposed revised Stage 3 [expansion of the mine], with the potential for groundwater impacts to adversely affect landholders in the vicinity of the mine for hundreds of years to come. This breach is sufficient to warrant rejection of the [proposed expansion]…“

In particular, he pointed to the risks that the mine expansion poses to the high quality, reliable groundwater resources of the Great Artesian Basin and overlying aquifers; resources that are used by hundreds of water bore owners in an area of prime agricultural land today and will also be needed by future generations. He expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of the modeling used by New Hope to try to allay fears of such risks, concluding that  ‘Groundwater considerations are such that the revised Stage 3 project should not proceed given the risks to the surrounding landholders and the poor state of the current model’ (2017, p.10).

One consideration relevant to both the future security of groundwater and the reliability of scientific models is climate change. However, the relevance of climate change to the case was dismissed by the judge as irrelevant, who continued the existing legal precedent in Australia of presuming that any effort to curb coal production in one area would just be counteracted by its production in another area, meaning that climate change action on one case would presumably have no actual effect on global greenhouse gas emissions. Both this “carbon leakage” argument and the dismissal of the relevance of climate change in a case focused on water access is highly questionable. Yet what the judge’s effective silence on climate change does is usefully expose an often obscured relationship between coal and water: the coal industry’s demands on water.

It is a risk of some climate change messaging that a focus on changing climate conditions can obscure other influences on water supplies, notably exceptionally heavy demands on available water by certain actors, including miners, who in Australia generally remain outside the formal systems of water allocations that are used to regulate the extractions of irrigators. In particular, the coal industry’s little recognized significant extraction of freshwater can be disguised by the climatic drying trend that its activities are disproportionately contributing to.

Societal adaptation to climate change to date has focused on encouraging farmers, communities, and other water users to accept and prepare for more uncertain water supplies. It is imperative, though, that these efforts are combined with identifying and reducing major, unnecessary pressures on water quantity and quality, including the water demands of industry.

First on the list is that industry affecting water via the climate as well: coal. Limiting the coal industry’s effectively free access to water would then help mitigate further climate change to the extent it helps encourage a phasing out of coal energy.

Although the trade-off or choice between coal and water is rarely laid bare in media and public policy discussions, nearly all coal mining projects result in adverse impacts on water resources. The impacts depend on local conditions, but common to all projects worldwide are the following:

  1. Extraction of groundwater and ultimately, draining of connected surface water, during ‘de-watering’ of mine pits to ensure stability of open-cut or underground excavations;
  2. Use of water for dust suppression both on-site and during transport and storage of coal;
  3. Water used in processing (‘washing’) coal;
  4. Water used in the storage and/or management of mine wastes (e.g. tailings ponds).
  5. Water used at the point of electricity generation, e.g., for power station cooling.

Water may not always be directly consumed during all of these stages – e.g., cooling water is generally returned to the environment- and some water may be cycled between these different uses around a mine site. However, water losses and deterioration of water quality during these processes is common.1

Perhaps better known than coal’s local and regional impacts on water resources are its longer term, indirect effects on water via acceleration of climate change. Projections suggest that there is a high likelihood that, like other areas such as India, Australia will be hard hit by reductions in the reliability, predictability and usability of rainfall under climate change2 – meaning it will have less available water in future, including recharge to groundwater basins in the semi-arid regions where it is so vital for communities.

Such changes can already be observed in some regions, including Queensland. Nevertheless, the coal lobby continues to push for more water-demanding coal mines and power stations in full knowledge that these are likely to squeeze Australia’s water supplies through, for example, non-consumptive use, consumptive use, and climate-stress. Through its negative effects, coal – in the manner produced and used today – does not just place water at risk of harm; it makes such harm inevitable.

While gains in the water efficiency of coal resources are possible, if water becomes more expensive, contested and difficult to access under climate change as projected, renewable energy sources will become even more appealing, particularly if combined with a carbon price.iii In other words, making coal’s water impacts more explicit and water more valuable will make coal less valuable, underlining how questions about coal are questions about how we value water.

The Australian Government has put energy policy at the top of its agenda this year, holding a high-level review (headed by the Chief Scientist) and round-table discussions with power generators and network operators. At this juncture, they would do well to heed the Land Court’s decision and consider the long-term impacts of further coal developments on Australia’s scarce water resources.

This should also be a major consideration in deciding whether to loan national government funds to coal mining projects such as the Carmichael mine mentioned above: a project that would have multilevel impacts on local and regional water resources.3 Head-quartered in another already water-stressed country, India, the company involved, the Adani Group, is well-attuned to the importance of gaining access to vast amounts of water for its coal mines to function. In April 2017, the Queensland government granted the Group an unlimited license to extract groundwater from the Great Artesian Basin.

In this environment, the Land Court’s decision on the risks the proposed New Hope mine’s expansion poses to the users of water in nearby aquifers and the wider Great Artesian Basin indeed offers “new hope” for the evolution of more water-conscious legal and policy decisions with respect to natural resources and energy. It provides evidence that there is growing awareness of the water-intensity as well as emissions-intensity of coal and other fossil fuels. Significantly, it also demonstrates that even conservative institutions are realising that the choice between water and coal is a serious and significant one.

i. Background to the case, and the Court’s decision can be viewed at: http://envlaw.com.au/acland/

ii. For more on the water-energy nexus, see Greenpeace, 2016 “The great water grab: how the coal industry is deepening the global water crisis”. Available at: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/climate/2015/Coal%20Water%20AW%20D26LORES.pdf

iii. See for example Huang, W., D. Ma and W. Chen (2017). “Connecting water and energy: Assessing the impacts of carbon and water constraints on China’s power sector.” Applied Energy 185(Part 2): 1497-1505 and   Srinivasan, S., N. Kholod, V. Chaturvedi, P. P. Ghosh, R. Mathur, L. Clarke, M. Evans, M. Hejazi, A. Kanudia, P. N. Koti, B. Liu, K. S. Parikh, M. S. Ali and K. Sharma (2017). “Water for electricity in India: A multi-model study of future challenges and linkages to climate change mitigation.” Applied Energy.


  1. Northey, S., Mudd, G.M., Saarivuori, E., Wessman-Jaaskelainen, H., Haque, N. 2016. Water footprinting and mining: Where are the limitations and opportunities? Journal of Cleaner Production 135: 1098-1116.
  2. CSIRO and Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology, 2016. State of the Climate 2016. Commonwealth of Australia. ISBN: 978-0-642-70678-2
  3. Currell, M.J., Werner, A.D., McGrath, C., Webb, J.A. 2017. Problems with the application of hydrogeological science to regulation of Australian mining projects: Carmichael Mine and Doongmabulla Springs. Journal of Hydrology 548: 674-682.

Lauren Rickards is a Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and Urban Planning at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne. At the University, she also co-leads the Centre for Urban Research’s research program on Climate Change and Resilience and leads the Regional Futures Network. Jason Alexandra is the Managing Director Alexandra & Associates Pty Ltd, and a PhD Candidate, RMIT School of Global, Urban and Social Studies where is researching climate adaptation and water governance.