The Federal Court has dismissed a case against Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek over the climate impact of coal mines.
Plibersek was accused of acting illegally by refusing to consider the climate impact of two coal mine projects that she progressed earlier this year.
However, the Federal Court found the Minister did not have a legal obligation to make climate considerations during the approval process.
The court case
The case against Plibersek was brought by the Environment Council of Central Queensland (ECCQ), a small volunteer-run climate group.
The coal projects that Plibersek decided to progress – the Narrabri and Mount Pleasant coal mines, both in NSW – were also named in the legal challenge.
Applications for these projects had been progressed at various stages by both the Morrison and Albanese Governments.
Projects that pose a potentially harmful impact on the environment need to be approved by the Government before they go ahead.
The Environment Minister has the power to approve new projects, but they can also scrap any that are believed to cause unacceptable harm.
Another option is to declare a project a ‘controlled action’. While this doesn’t mean a project will get the final tick, it does progress it to a further stage.
Proposals for the Narrabri and Mt Pleasant mines were declared ‘controlled actions’ in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Both applications were to extend operations and to keep the mines open until the 2040s.
Last year, the Government said it was reconsidering whether it would accept these proposals.
However, it confirmed the applications would progress in May this year. Legal action was launched the next month.
Why did they sue?
The ECCQ claimed Plibersek had a legal duty to assess climate harm when considering extending operations at the mines.
This included a failure to consider “thousands of scientific reports” prepared by the ECCQ for the Albanese Government to investigate.
These reports, which weren’t available when initial decisions were made by the Morrison Government, were a key factor in persuading the Albanese Government to reconsider the
The Federal Court dismissed ECCQ’s application on Wednesday.
The ruling didn’t deny the impact that fossil fuel projects had on the climate or the effect global warming has on the environment.
However, it found there was no current legal obligation for the Minister to consider the climate impacts of fossil fuel projects when choosing to progress an application.
What will it mean?
There are several other fossil fuel projects currently awaiting Government approval.
This ruling could serve as a precedent for those applications.
Four coal projects have been approved by Plibersek since May last year. A Government spokesperson said it is approving more renewable projects “than ever before”, but that this transition “can’t happen overnight”.
The spokesperson also said Plibersek will “carefully work through” the implications of the Federal Court’s ruling.
ECCQ President Christine Carlisle said the group was “bitterly disappointed and alarmed” about the ruling and its potential impact on the environment.
Carlisle called for changes to laws that would ensure climate impacts are part of Government approval decisions. ECCQ is now considering an appeal of Wednesday’s verdict.