Superintendent Jackie Ratliff, a coal miner, holds coal running through a processing plant in Welch, West Virginia, Oct. 6, 2015. Credit: David Goldman | AP

The world’s most contentious coal project is edging closer toward development, potentially unlocking one of the biggest untapped resources even as a debate rages around the fuel’s future.

Indian billionaire Gautam Adani’s Carmichael is located in Australia’s huge Galilee Basin, which covers around 250,000 square kilometers — about the size of the U.K. If the region is fully developed, it has potential to more than double Australia’s thermal coal exports, according to government estimates.

The Adani Group, which will self-finance the project after potential lenders dropped off, will also build infrastructure, including a vital rail line to help transport the coal to the coast for export. The International Energy Agency says its success will determine the fate of other large projects in the Galilee, including India’s GVK Group and Australian billionaire Gina Rinehart’s Alpha Coal project.

Australia is already the world’s second-largest exporter of power station coal, contributing more than 200 million metric tons a year to the global seaborne trade. If Carmichael — along with its railroad — gets built, it will be despite almost a decade of concerted opposition from environmental groups.

“Adani with Carmichael could prove a catalyst for opening up the frontier Galilee Basin in central Queensland, with other big coal mines expected to follow,” Gavin Wendt, director at research house Minelife, said. “I don’t think you’ll see those projects coming to market without the critical mass that Adani will provide in terms of bringing infrastructure into play.”

The International Energy Agency describes Carmichael as “probably the most controversial coal project currently under development” and says it’s making the most progress of the several large mines that are being planned.

Carmichael, which has been scaled back to a A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) capital cost from its initial plan for a A$16 billion mega-mine, will build up to a production target of 27.5 million tons a year, according to the developer. Once work has started, projects on a similar scale typically take around two years to construct.

Thermal coal prices have more than doubled since 2016, driven by strong demand from power generators across Asia. Newcastle coal prices dipped 0.4 percent to settle at $101.85/ton on the ICE Futures exchange on Tuesday.

A dearth of new resources being commissioned points to prices remaining high in the years ahead, driving Adani’s determination to press ahead in the Galilee. “New supply to replace depletion will be needed by early-mid next decade,” analysts at UBS Group AG said in their 2019 global commodities outlook. “Coal export chains are more vulnerable to shocks than for many years, hence prices should trade higher.”

Winds of change

On the global stage, pressure to reduce coal use in power generation is growing. A United Nations-backed report in October called for coal-fired power to be phased out by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic damage from climate change.

There’s a growing reluctance by lenders to invest in coal, so other projects in the Galilee are likely to encounter the same challenges as Adani, Wendt cautioned. Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp. on Tuesday completed its exit from thermal coal after selling stakes in two Australian mines.

Tim Buckley, a prominent critic of Adani’s plans, agreed that Carmichael could be a beach-head for the Galilee’s development. “It might only be down to a 10 million ton per annum mine but it enables potentially up to 300 million tons. That is a climate catastrophe.”

Equally, Adani may just end up building a stranded asset, said Buckley, an economist at the privately funded Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

The risk for coal developers is that the economics of renewables is becoming more compelling. In India, where Adani plans to send most of its coal, wind and solar generation is already cheaper.

Adani accepts renewables will play an increasingly important role in the future energy mix, and is involved in the sector via projects such as its Rugby Run solar farm, also in Queensland. “But we must also ensure our energy sources are reliable and affordable, and that is where coal has a critical role to play,” a company spokesperson said.

India is pushing hard to expand renewables output, yet the IEA still sees coal demand there growing by around 4 percent a year through 2023 to meet the country’s fast-expanding energy needs. In its latest outlook for the industry, the IEA called India “coal’s safest bet.”

Adani will be keen to get started on the project before next year’s federal election, which may see the main opposition Labor party form government, Buckley said. Senior Labor officials have voiced opposition to the project, yet it’s an open question whether they would actively seek to block it, given its potential to add thousands of jobs in the region.