An Australian court has rejected an appeal to build a new coal mine in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley, citing “significant adverse impacts” and “dire consequences” for the environment and greenhouse gas emissions.
The Rocky Hill Coal Project was intended to be developed by Gloucester Resources Limited (GRL) which was granted three coal exploration licenses in the Gloucester Basin in 2006. According to the court rulings, GRL’s proposed mine was originally denied by the New South Wales (NSW) Minister for Planning. GRL then appealed to the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales.
Justice Brian Preston, the judge presiding over the case, ruled last Friday, denying development application for the Rocky Hill Coal Project citing “significant adverse impacts on the visual amenity and rural and scenic character of the valley, significant adverse social impacts on the community and particular demographic groups in the area, and significant impacts on the existing, approved and likely preferred uses of land in the vicinity of the mine.” Further, Justice Preston determined that “The construction and operation of the mine, and the transportation and combustion of the coal from the mine, will result in the emission of greenhouse gases, which will contribute to climate change,” and therefore that, “costs of this open cut coal mine, exploiting the coal resource at this location in a scenic valley close to town, exceed the benefits of the mine, which are primarily economic and social.”
The case was joined by community group Groundswell Gloucester who, with Barrister Robert White, brought expert witnesses to testify including Emeritus Professor Dr Will Steffen from the Australian National University, energy analyst Tim Buckley from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), acoustics expert Stephen Gauld, and anthropologist Dr Hedda Askland from the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Social Research and Regional Futures.
“The Court accepted our scientific evidence and the concept of a global carbon budget,” said David Morris, CEO of the NSW Environmental Defenders Office who acted on behalf of Groundswell Gloucester. “In the face of that acceptance, the judgment presents a foundational question for all decision makers on fossil fuel projects: given that, if we are to remain within the global carbon budget, only a finite amount of additional carbon can be burned, and that existing approvals already exhaust that budget, why should this particular project be prioritised over any other, or displace an existing approval? That is ‘the wrong time’ test, and I believe it will prove an insurmountable barrier for many projects going forward.”
Specifically, according to the court rulings, “Gloucester Groundswell contended that the Rocky Hill Coal Project should be refused because the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the Project would adversely impact upon measures to limit dangerous anthropogenic climate change.” In his ruling, Justice Preston referenced the “recent IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels” and relied heavily on Professor Steffen’s testimony.
“This landmark judgment enshrines into law what climate scientists have been saying for years; burning coal is the main cause of climate change and if we are serious about capping global warming at 1.5 degrees we need to phase out coal by 2030,” said Greenpeace Australia Pacific Campaigner, Jonathan Moylan, who commented on the news via email.
“[The] IEEFA views the court decision by Chief Justice Preston as setting a very strong precedent that the community costs of carbon emissions should be clearly considered in a planning decision, and that this is relevant for both the emissions that are local (scope 1 & 2) or exported (scope 3),” added the IEEFA’s Tim Buckley, who was one of the expert witnesses called on the case and who spoke to me via email. This is a key aspect of the decision, because the Australian government has been arguing that ‘exported’ carbon emissions in our coal and LNG are not our responsibility under the Paris Agreement, lamely ignoring that any carbon emissions released into the atmosphere anywhere will affect the global climate. As one of the largest producers of exported emissions (Australia is #2 globally in LNG, #1 in coking coal, and #2 in thermal coal), Australia is a leading producer supporting climate change, with our government abrogating responsibility.
“This court decision provides an excellent precedent for the NSW Government, and others, to take climate change into account in fully evaluating the public cost – private benefit equation that has previously been skewed to allow ongoing development of new fossil fuel projects.”
Unsurprisingly, the coal industry was less impressed with the ruling, as highlighted by a statement published by Greg Evans, Chief Executive of the newly-formed Coal Council of Australia, who claimed that the decision to reject the coal mine “is detrimental for jobs and economic opportunities in regional NSW” and creates beneficiaries “in the US, Canada, Russia, and Mongolia” who have “spare production capacity.”
Evans also raised concerns with the judge’s “view that the project will add to global greenhouse gas emissions.” Specifically, according to Evans, “The court indicates it can consider as part of its decision the greenhouse emissions from coal as it is used in the making of steel in another country. In other words, if this rationale became accepted all our resource exports would have to account for the emissions applying to their downstream use, including gas, iron ore and thermal coal.” Evans complained that “under the Paris Agreement it’s up to individual countries to put in place Nationally Determined Contribution plans to deal with emissions at their source. It’s not about the unilateral banning of particular industries or commodities in supplier countries” before wrongly stating that “the US, a significant coal exporter, is not even part of the Paris Agreement.”
Evans further disagreed with the contention that “stopping a particular export coal mine in NSW could lead to lower global emissions” citing that “Australia’s customers in Asia using affordable coal for energy or building infrastructure will not compromise their economic advancement and will continue to consume coal.”
The concerns raised by Greg Evans, however, hold very little water and do even less to hide the Coal Council of Australia’s profits over environmental concern bias. For Tim Buckley, speaking regarding “the newly formed foreign coal lobbyists … taking an adverse view of the judgement, one doesn’t have to think long before realising a coal lobbyist will always argue any action to address climate change is adverse to their foreign client private interests.”
“The coal lobbyist cites the usual drug-pushers agreement, if not us, someone else will supply the coal,” Buckley added. “Better for all that Australia drive investment and employment towards industries of the future, developing industries that solve rather than exacerbate the magnitude of this climate problem facing the world today.”
“There is no such thing as “clean coal,” it is a lobbyist’s spin. There is slightly less highly polluting coal. This court case sets a globally relevant precedent that governments and financial institutions are increasingly having to put in place effective, universal policies to cease the use of unabated coal over the next few decades. Absent development by the coal industry of commercially viable coal CCS, the IEA says coal use globally must cease by 2050 if the world is to have any real chance of limiting climate change to 1.5-2.0 degrees C. It is IEEFAs view that the IEA’s Beyond 2 Degrees Scenario (B2DS) needs to become the base scenario for appropriate risk analysis, and Chief Justice Preston’s landmark decision gives voice to the necessity of this to happen sooner rather than later in the best interests of Australia.”
Gloucester Resources Limited will, unsurprisingly, assess the implications of the court’s decision and consider what to do next, but having been rejected both by the NSW Minister for Planning and the State’s Land and Environment Court, it doesn’t seem that the company has very many avenues open to them.