Court rules against new coal mine after community challenge

In what has been described as “a once in a generation case,” Chief Justice Brian Preston SC of the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales in Australia recently ruled that a coal mine project could not proceed based on climate change.

In wrapping up his judgement, Chief Justice Preston wrote, “In short, an open cut coal mine in this part of the Gloucester Valley would be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 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 decrease in GHG emissions. These dire consequences should be avoided. The project should be refused.”

When fully operational, the proposed Rocky Hill project would have been located outside the town of Gloucester in the Hunter Region in NSW, Australia and would have covered an area of approximately 830 hectares. It anticipated employing 110 people, developing partnerships to enhance the community and progressively rehabilitating areas of disturbance.

Its website (confidently) states that it “represents the future of mining as it will employ state of the art technology and be subject to the most rigorous environmental and social assessment, regulation and monitoring.” Project backers, investors and stakeholders probably did not anticipate such strong community backlash and support against the project.

For more than ten years, the community association Groundswell Gloucester has been campaigning against proposals and plans for the industrialisation of the Gloucester Valley. They seek to prevent any further coal mining in the area, push for the rehabilitation of devastated lands (if possible) and “to promote a sustainable future for our Valley based on agriculture, tourism, lifestyle retirement, and their supporting service industries.”

Protesting against the Rocky Hill project, they received support from the NSW Environmental Defenders Office (EDO NSW) to challenge the case in court. Summarising their key points of attack, EDO NSW CEO David Morris, stated, “our argument was based on science, economics and – we argued – the proper application of the law. The climate contention as a ground for refusing this mine was innovative; the first time climate change has been addressed this way in an Australian court using the concept of a carbon budget as its basis.”

During the case, sixty community objectors gave evidence against the proposed project, including old and young people, farmers, doctors and Indigenous Traditional Owners. Complaints focused on noise impacts, tearing apart the fabric of the community and concerns about the well-being of future generations and the kind of world they might have to live in if projects that contribute to climate change continue to be approved and built.

This was supplemented by expert testimonies including from Emeritus Professor Will Steffen. He argued “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 … The project’s contribution to cumulative climate change impacts means that its approval would be inequitable for current and future generations.”

Importantly, the ruling also noted that the global problem of climate change had to be addressed by multiple local actions to mitigate emissions. It was not deemed important that the proposed mine’s emissions would only represent a fraction of total global GHGs.

The community’s win has also been widely celebrated in the media. The local Newcastle Herald and ABC News have both labelled it a “landmark” decision. It represents a major win not only for Groundswell Gloucester and NSW EDO, but for other community groups campaigning against coal and other proposed and existing fossil fuel projects. The outcome sets a precedent, indicates that Australia should adhere to its Paris Agreement climate change commitments and is likely to inspire other court challenges based on arguments related to climate change.

Gloucester Resources, the developers of the proposed mine, have indicated that they will ”review” the ruling while the Coal Council of Australia (CCA) have condemned the decision. Its Chief Executive, Greg Evans, has called for the NSW government to “decisively reject the approach of the court” as “it needs to send a signal to investors, regional residents, taxpayers and consumers of government services that development in the state and the resulting economic benefits including higher royalties.”


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on April 9, 2019.


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