Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek faces her first legal challenge over fossil fuels as an environment group seeks to force her to overturn her decision to rule out global warming as a factor when she assesses coal mine development applications.
Under national environment laws, Plibersek has veto powers over major projects that will affect matters of national environmental significance such as water resources or threatened species.
The Environment Council of Central Queensland has asked Plibersek to factor in the potential damage from global warming caused by emissions from 19 coal and gas projects currently awaiting federal approval.
She has rejected the council’s request in three instances; Mach Energy’s application to expand its Mount Pleasant open-cut mine, Whitehaven’s application to expand its Narrabri underground mine – both in NSW – as well as the Ensham coal mine extension in Queensland.
The Environment Council, represented by Environmental Justice Australia, filed a request in the Federal Court on Monday for a judicial review of Plibersek’s decision to reject global warming as a relevant factor in the Narrabri and Mount Pleasant mines, which she is still assessing.
The legal challenge is a sign of the political pressure mounting against her and the Albanese government, which campaigned heavily on its promise of more ambitious climate action in last year’s election.
The influential grassroots organisation Labor Environment Action Network is also calling for the federal government’s promised reforms of environment laws to include assessment of the climate impacts of major projects, including coal mines.
A similar demand is being pushed by the Greens in federal parliament, demanding Labor insert a so-called “climate trigger” in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which would force the government to assess the contribution of all fossil fuel projects to global warming.
The Environment Council is arguing that when Plibersek rejected its request she failed to factor in scientific evidence, including from the United Nation’s Independent Panel on Climate Change and the federal Environment Department, which found in its State of the Environment report in 2022 that human-induced climate change is causing profound harm to matters of national environmental significance.
“Climate change is a major pressure on most aspects of the environment … biodiversity loss and species extinctions are accelerating globally as a result of climate change and other principal causes such as pollution,” the State of the Environment report said.
Plibersek sparked outcry last month when she granted her first approval for a new coal mine, green-lighting the Isaac River project in central Queensland.
Her official response to the Environment Council’s request to consider global warming in fossil fuel assessments stated it did not provide the proof, required by national environment laws, that the emissions of a specific project are a substantial cause of climate change effects on a matter of national environmental significance.
Plibersek’s spokesperson said it could not comment on the issue as it was a legal matter.
The council has dubbed its push to have fossil fuel approvals barred on climate grounds the Living Wonders campaign.
“For all Australians, and our children, we are bringing the fate and future of our living wonders before the court,” the council’s president, Christine Carlisle, said.
“We believe the minister’s recent decisions to treat the climate harm from these mega-mines as insignificant was wrong in law and in science,” Carlisle said.
Environmental Justice Australia senior lawyer Retta Berryman said if the judicial review is successful it could force all coal and gas projects to be assessed for climate change impacts.
“Our client argues the science is clear: coal mine proposals like Narrabri and Mount Pleasant pose serious and irreversible threats to our climate and to thousands of threatened animals, plants and places across Australia,” Berryman said.
In February, Plibersek vetoed Clive Palmer’s coal mine proposal in the Great Barrier Reef catchment area due to potential direct impacts on the World Heritage site.
She cancelled the development applications of two proposed coal projects in Queensland in May because they had lapsed after sitting incomplete on the register for nine and 12 years respectively.
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