THE village of Wollar takes on a multinational coal company and the NSW Government on Thursday in a landmark first test of legislation requiring greenhouse gas emissions to be adequately assessed in coal mine approvals.
The NSW Land and Environment Court case of Wollar Progress Association v Wilpinjong Coal is “very significant” as governments, companies and sections of the community struggle to accept Australia’s obligations under the Paris agreement in response to climate change, said climate scientist Professor Will Steffen.
“It needs to be raised really clearly. Any expansion of the coal industry is simply incompatible with our Paris targets,” he said.
Wollar residents on the border of the giant Wilpinjong mine will argue that a NSW Planning Assessment Commission failed to consider greenhouse gas emissions when it approved the seventh expansion of the mine between Denman and Mudgee in a decision in April, 2017.
This is despite concern about greenhouse gas emissions caused by coal burnt from the giant mine being raised in submissions by individuals and environmental groups at a public hearing to consider the expansion.
A PAC determination report in April, 2017 noted the greenhouse gas submissions but the report did not address the issue. The Wilpinjong case is significant because while mining companies have argued NSW decision-makers do not have to address greenhouse gas emissions from exported coal, the Peabody-owned Wilpinjong supplies coal to Bayswater and Liddell power stations under a long-term contract.
Professor Steffen said he was not surprised the PAC had not considered greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of Wilpinjong coal because of the attitudes held by some Australian governments, companies and sections of the community on climate change.
“But as a climate scientist I am surprised at the omission because greenhouse gas emissions are one of the huge environmental impacts of fossil fuel burning,” he said.
It was a “pretty damning indictment” that it wasn’t considered, he said.
Australia’s signing and ratification of the global Paris agreement means it aims to respond to the climate change threat by keeping a global temperature rise this century of less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It has also committed to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The Environmental Defenders Office NSW said the Wollar/Wilpinjong case is the first time clause 14 of the mining State Environmental Planning Policy – which requires the consent authority to assess greenhouse gas emissions in line with state policies – is tested.
It will argue the NSW Government has set a net-zero emissions goal by 2050 against which coal mine approvals need to be assessed.
Wollar Progress Association spokesperson Bev Smiles said the case was the most significant on greenhouse gases since the late Peter Gray’s successful 2006 court challenge to the NSW Government’s assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions of the Anvil Hill mine at Wybong, now named Mangoola.
In a landmark ruling the NSW Land and Environment Court found the mine had not been adequately assessed because the government had not considered the greenhouse gas pollution it would cause when the coal dug out of Anvil Hill was sent to Asia for burning in power stations.
Ms Smiles said a win in the Land and Environment Court against Wilpinjong would make the recent expansion approval invalid.
Environmental groups heavily criticised the PAC’s Wilpinjong decision in April, 2017 which was delivered a week after the public hearing. Peabody applied to expand its Wilpinjong operation for an additional seven years to access tens of millions of tonnes more coal.
The mine argued it provided jobs for 550 people. If it cannot expand operations until 2033 its production would start to decline from 2017 and the mine would close by 2026, it told the PAC.
Professor Steffen said Australia’s Paris agreement target required it to leave more than 90 per cent of coal reserves in the ground, including coal that had already been approved for mining.