By Karen Savage
In a landmark decision, an Australian court on Friday rejected a plan to build an open-cut coal mine because of the proposed mine’s harmful effects on climate change.
“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,” Chief Judge Brian Preston said in a judgement handed down by New South Wales’ Land and Environment Court.
The decision stopped a controversial plan by Gloucester Resources Limited to build its proposed Rocky Hill coal mine just outside Gloucester, a town of about 3,000 people. The proposed mine would have extracted up to 2 million tons of coal a year for the next two decades. The mine, first proposed nearly a decade ago, was rejected by the New South Wales Planning Assessment Commission in December 2017, but Gloucester Resources was allowed to appeal.
The Environmental Defenders Office of New South Wales, which represented the community group Groundswell Gloucester during a hearing last August, argued that the mine was detrimental to the interests of the surrounding community, would worsen climate change and would prevent Australia from meeting the emissions targets it promised to the Paris Climate Agreement.
Australia vowed to cut emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, which climate advocates say is insufficient to combat climate change and the Australian government said last year it isn’t on track to reach that goal. The 2018 Emissions Gap Report from the United Nations listed Australia as among the countries that will not meet its 2030 target.
Australia is the fourth-largest coal producer in the world and coal still powers about two-thirds of the country’s electric capacity.
“It’s one atmosphere, it’s one climate system, it’s one planet—and so we need to start thinking more carefully about the net effect of wherever coal is burnt, or oil or gas,” said Will Steffen, emeritus professor at Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute during the hearing.
“The project’s contribution to cumulative climate change impacts means that its approval would be inequitable for current and future generations,” said Steffen.
The court agreed, ruling that even though the mine would contribute only a fraction of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, any contribution to a worsening climate was enough to halt the project.
“In short, an open cut coal mine in this part of the Gloucester valley would be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Preston wrote in the ruling.
“Wrong place because an open cut coal mine in this scenic and cultural landscape, proximate to many people’s homes and farms, will cause significant planning, amenity, visual and social impacts.”
“Wrong time because the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of the coal mine and its product will increase global total concentrations of GHGs at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally agreed climate targets, is a rapid and deep decrease in GHG emission.”
Gloucester Resources did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Chief Operating Officer Brian Clifford said he is disappointed and the company is reviewing its options.
The decision is anticipated to have widespread ramifications for future fossil fuel projects.
“The judgment presents a foundational question for all decision makers, said David Morris, head of the Environmental Defenders Office.
“It is this: 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 prioritized over any other, or displace an existing approval?” said Morris.
“That is ‘the wrong time’ test and will prove an insurmountable barrier for many projects going forward.”