The Australian government is facing yet another legal challenge to the Carmichael mine project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, with the Australian Conservation Foundation launching a case in the Federal Court this morning.
In October, the Australian government again gave mining giant Adani approval to build the $16 billion Carmichael mine and rail project in central Queensland, two months after approval was set aside by the Federal Court because Environment Minister Greg Hunt had failed to comply with the requirements of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to consider the impact on threatened species, in particular the yakka skink and the ornamental snake.
A new challenge to the minister’s approval, brought about by the Australian Conservation Foundation, will argue that Hunt failed to consider the impact on the coal burned from the mine on the Great Barrier Reef. The coal from the mine would result in emissions of 4.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide over the life of the mine, and the ACF argues that Hunt failed to consider the effect on the World Heritage Values of the Great Barrier Reef from emissions from the mine’s coal.
ACF boss Kelly O’Shanassy told Crikey the case would be historic because no one had challenged the mine on the grounds of Australia’s international obligations for the Great Barrier Reef.
“It’s unlike the other cases that have been brought up against the Carmichael Coal Mine, and we think it is a really important thing to test because we have international obligations for the reef, and climate change, which is the major element of our case in that this mine will be one of the biggest in the world, and the biggest in Australia,” she said.
“It will produce an enormous amount of pollution, and that pollution will make climate change worse, and climate change will affect the reef. We feel [Hunt] has not adequately looked at his World Heritage obligations to protect the Great Barrier Reef, and he has those obligations under environmental law. That’s what we’re testing.”
According to the application to the Federal Court, seen by Crikey, there are four grounds for the case, including the Great Barrier Reef claim. Two others relate to the characterisation of emissions from the coal mine, and the final ground is whether Hunt failed to adequately consider the impact of the project on the black-throated finch.
Under former prime minister Tony Abbott the government had passed legislation through the House of Representatives that would gut section 487 of the EPBC Act by removing the ability for public interest litigants such as conservation groups to challenge approvals in court, despite the fact that there had only ever been two successful challenges for applicants with standing under the EPBC Act. The legislation now sits in the Senate but is not listed for debate this week.
O’Shanassy said that if the legislation passed it would make it harder for an organisation like the Australian Conservation Foundation to get standing in cases such as the one it has filed today.
“The environment can’t stand for itself, and can’t speak for itself, so the act essentially says that environment groups working on these issues are able to speak up for the environment … we should be able to prove standing [under the current act], but [the amendment] would certainly make it harder. It certainly makes proving standing the first hurdle we need to get over.”
O’Shanassy says taking on legal action is a big step for environment groups given the cost involved.
“Even ACF, one of the largest environment groups in the country, had to think about this carefully, and we had to, of course, have very sound legal advice and look at all of the risks. These changes are all put in place to try to make it harder and harder for environment groups to make these difficult decisions,” she said.
“It’s about the fair implementation of the law, and we don’t think the minister has done that in this case, so we feel it is our responsibility to challenge that because this mine will have such devastating impact on the reef and on Australia’s environment.”
The case could last between three and six months.
It’s unclear now whether the Turnbull government will still proceed with the legislation limiting the ability for environmental groups to challenge projects such as the Carmichael mine in court. A spokesperson for the Environment Minister did not respond by deadline.