Stephan’s retirement marks the end of one of the most controversial periods in Queensland’s mining industry, not that Stephan was central to the controversy, just one of the players caught up in it.
The unfinished job he’s talking about is the approval of the $900 million Acland stage 3 coal mine expansion, a project that has taken 13 years to wind its way through the byzantine approval process in Queensland – which has included one of the more bizarre Land Court cases, a political scandal and a legal controversy.
He admits in hindsight that mistakes were made but says the decision by New Hope’s parent, Washington H Soul Pattinson, to make $700,000 in donations to the LNP over a period of three years was not one of those mistakes.
“I think there were certainly mistakes made by many people looking back in hindsight, but the fact of the matter is we have had flip-flopping governments over the past decade or so in Queensland and unfortunately Acland has become a political football,” he said.
“That (donation) was fully disclosed, there was no secret in that, but it comes back to whether it should matter. If we stick to the facts the mine has been evaluated multiple times and given its environmental authority, it’s been given its EPBC Act approval. It’s waiting for a mining lease and associate water licence.”
The donations, however, coincided with the Newman Government approving a reconstituted mine plan for Acland on the Friday before Christmas after it had made an election promise to oppose it. The donation embroiled New Hope in a political row which continues today and the company is still in the court system.
“It is unfinished business and one of great frustration to me,” Stephan told InQueensland.
“When I started (as chief executive) in 2014 one of my things to do was to get the approvals and I have not been able to achieve that, despite the findings of the courts, and it is costing people their livelihoods.”
The Land Court case that was central to the approval mess New Hope found itself in was one of the state’s longest. It tested the reserves of most of the people involved. It had more exhibits than the Mabo case and was heard by Member Paul Smith, who was subsequently found by Court of Appeal president Walter Sofronoff to have formed an “extreme and irrational animus” towards a New Hope.
Smith has since retired and was lauded at a valedictory dinner where Damien O’Brien QC said he had “a reputation of being a hardworking, considered, fair and courteous judge”.
Even though that court case has been resolved there are matters still before the High Court.
“It has been the most frustrating issue for me in my career. The mine is being held up by the State Government for no good technical reason,” Stephan said.
“They gave approval to Adani to progress the Carmichael mine despite the fact there was a high court challenge at the time. We are just sitting here as an Australian-controlled mining company being treated differently and we don’t understand why.
“The coal isn’t going anywhere. The mine – at its fully approved rate – is in the middle of the cost curve. It should go ahead and I’m sure New Hope won’t give up.”
Even if New Hope continues to push the project, the future of thermal coal is contested. Renewables are much more viable than they once were and anyone wanting a thermal coal mine approval in Queensland only has to look at Adani and New Hope to see how difficult it will be.
“The (approval) process encourages never-ending appeals because the cost of the Environmental Defenders Office is paid for by the taxpayer. So, there’s nothing stopping them challenging and appealing companies wanting to develop things in Queensland,” Stephan said.
The Queensland Government is in a bind over New Hope. If the High Court action is resolved before the October election it will be under pressure to grant Acland’s mining lease and associated water licence and face a potentially damaging backlash from green activists.
That’s no longer an issue for Stephan. He finishes in August.
“I’ve been 11 years with New Hope and six and a half years as CEO. I’ve been in this industry since I was 17 and I’m a bit worn out,” he said.
After a health scare late last year which he admits opened his eyes his immediate plans “are to take time off, lose some weight and get my blood pressure under control. Nothing more than that”.
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