A FEDERAL Court case hailed by environmentalists as "an historic victory" has been dismissed by the Minerals Council of Australia, which says it does not affect the approval of the mine it was fought over.
In what has been hailed as another legal blow to the coal industry, the Federal Court yesterday declared that Australia's environment minister had a duty of care to protect children from "personal injury or death" from "emissions of carbon dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere".
The case brought by eight teenagers with a Melbourne Catholic nun as their legal guardian challenged plans by Whitehaven Coal to reopen the Vickery mine at Gunnedah.
The NSW government has allowed production to double from 4.5 million tonnes to 10 million tonnes of coal a year, but the students criticise it for adding 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
They lodged their case last September, seeking an injunction to stop Environment Minister Sussan Ley from approving the mine under federal environment laws.
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Justice Mordecai Bromberg dismissed the injunction application in May, while finding that Vickery would make a "tiny but measurable" contribution to global warming.
At the same time he said the environment minister had a duty of care "not to cause the children personal injury when exercising her power".
After further submissions from the students, the government and Whitehaven, which joined the case, Justice Bromberg handed down yesterday's "personal injury or death" declaration and ordered the government to pay full costs.
Lawyer for the students, David Barnden, said it was an "historic outcome", while Ms Ley's office said the government would review the judgement and assess its options.
Whitehaven declined to comment on the decision, beyond pointing to a statement it issued in May, in which it welcomed Justice Bromberg's decision not to issue an injunction, saying its "consistent position has been that this legal claim was without merit".
The NSW Minerals Council also declined to comment, saying it was a federal issue for the Minerals Council of Australia, which immediately downplayed the importance of the case.
"We are pleased to see the decision does not affect the approval of the project," council chief executive Tania Constable said.
"Projects like these are a vital part of Australian mining, which continues to produce some of the best quality raw materials in the world, enabling economic development and rising living standards abroad, while supporting jobs and communities at home.
"The minerals industry has endorsed the Paris Agreement and is working on a climate action plan to meet future goals."
"It is a historical day for climate law in Australia and it should have far reaching implications," Mr Barnden said.
He said the reasons behind the declaration were important and could have broader implications on other fossil fuel projects in future.
"The court looked at the evidence on climate science, the evidence of future harm to children as a result of emissions that were expected from the mine and burning the coal from the mine, and those factors will be important for any future decision the minister makes with respect to fossil fuel projects," Mr Barnden said.
A decision from the minister had been expected as early as tomorrow, but her office said yesterday that this was unlikely.
Yesterday's judgement reveals the government wanted the declaration confined to "personal injury or death from heatwaves or bushfires arising from emissions of carbon dioxide", but the judge said the court's findings were "broader than those countenanced by the minister".
The government also argued against it paying full costs because the students had not obtained their injunction but the judge said they were "substantially successful" and ordered the minister to pay full costs.
Applicant Ava Princi said Australia was "a global outlier" on fossil fuels and the class action was filed "on behalf of all young people around the world".
"Throughout the world, countries such as Canada and Ireland have promised no new coal projects," Ms Princi said.
"However, Australia remains a global outlier, with no firm plan other than continuing to encourage new fossil fuel projects.
"We hope this ruling will be an important step to getting Australia - and the world - on the right path to a safer future for us all."
Green groups including Lock The Gate Alliance and the Climate Media Centre welcomed the decision.
Georgina Woods of Lock The Gate said: "Whether we are dependent on coal for energy or not is not relevant because it fuels climate change either way.
"As a country, we cannot treat catastrophic climate change and the disruption, harm and death that it will inflict as the price that Australian children have to pay because we haven't taken the trouble to figure out how to live without burning coal.
"It is untenable for us to know that burning coal for electricity is stripping every Australian child of their hope of a stable and peaceful life, and then to decide to keep doing it anyway because of any immediate or short-term challenge that changing the situation might throw at us."
READ THE DECISION HERE
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