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Science sidelined in approval of Australia’s largest coal mine


State and federal governments in Australia recently approved water management plans for one of the largest coal mines ever proposed. This comes as the role of coal in the world’s future energy mix is being seriously questioned, and global concern over the climate and water implications of further fossil fuel development. Despite repeated advice from multiple independent scientists, governments did not compel the mining company to conduct the investigations required to determine its risks to important nearby groundwater-dependent ecosystems, leaving open the prospect of irreversible ecological and cultural damage. Here we show how scientific advice provided to decision makers was repeatedly ignored or dismissed, while scientists and agencies were subjected to political pressure. We argue that this echoes other examples of scientific evidence being ignored where findings clash with political or economic objectives, and warrants urgent review of decision-making processes for developments with major environmental consequences.

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Fig. 1: Map of the proposed Carmichael coal mine and nearby Doongmabulla Spring Complex.
Fig. 2: Timeline of the approval process of the Carmichael coal mine.

Data availability

Figure 1 was created using openly available data, which is accessible from Further details on the documents used to produce Fig. 2 can be found in Supplementary Table 1. Three articles from ABC News (Australia) are cited here. To ensure that materials are permanently available, these articles are available at, and


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This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Author information




M.J.C., D.J.I., A.D.W. and C.M. were involved in conceptualisation, writing, reviewing and editing. In addition, A.D.W. initiated the project, M.J.C. wrote the original draft and D.J.I. created data visualizations and coordinated the work.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to D. J. Irvine.

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Competing interests

C.M. acted as a lawyer in court cases against Adani Mining. A.D.W. acted as an expert witness in the 2014–2015 Queensland Land Court case.

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Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Table 1 and minor introductory text.

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Currell, M.J., Irvine, D.J., Werner, A.D. et al. Science sidelined in approval of Australia’s largest coal mine. Nat Sustain 3, 644–649 (2020).

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