Can a mining state be pro-heritage? Vital steps to avoid another Juukan Gorge



Participants in the Wintawari Guruma Rock Art Research Project record rock art near Tom Price in the Pilbara region.
Jo McDonald, CRAR+M Database, Photo reproduced with permission WGAC, Author provided

Jo McDonald, University of Western Australia

The destruction of 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge sites in the Pilbara has created great distress for their traditional owners, seismic shockwaves for heritage professionals and appalled the general public.

The fallout for Rio Tinto has been profound as has the groundswell of criticism of Western Australia’s outdated heritage laws. A path forward must ensure a pivotal role for Indigenous communities and secure Keeping Places for heritage items. More broadly, we need more Indigenous places added to the National Heritage List, ensuring them the highest form of heritage protection.

In a state heavily dependent on mining, the model for this could follow the successful seven-year heritage collaboration I have been part of on-country with Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC) and Rio Tinto in the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga).

As Director of the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management at the University of Western Australia, I am funded to undertake research supported by Rio Tinto’s conservation agreement with the Commonwealth.

This Rio Tinto funding enables research documenting the significant scientific and community values of the archipelago, feeding into the management of this estate by MAC, who represent the local coastal Pilbara groups. It also resources Indigenous rangers and trains undergraduate students.

The Murujuga conservation agreements, made between the Commonwealth and both Rio Tinto and Woodside, were negotiated when the archipelago’s one million-plus engravings and stone features were added to Australia’s National Heritage List in 2007.




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Explainer: why the rock art of Murujuga deserves World Heritage status


Murujuga is one of only seven Indigenous rock art places on the National Heritage List. There are 118 listings in total in Australia (only 20 of them Indigenous). Murujuga is the only listed Indigenous site here with a conservation agreement requiring industry to fund heritage protection.

Rio Tinto does not have a similar agreement with the traditional owners of Juukan Gorge, the Puutu Kunti Kurruma Pinikuru (PKKP) peoples — nor do any of the other Pilbara resource extraction companies with their host native title communities. These mining tenements are managed by a range of royalty agreements, which recognise native title rights but are flexible and require transparency.

Despite working closely with Rio Tinto, I have been dismayed by the Juukan incident and the fault lines it has revealed in Rio Tinto’s historically significant investment in heritage management and agreement-making with Aboriginal people.

PKKP this week expressed their distress at the company’s behavior. Clearly, there is much for Rio Tinto to improve. But similarly, the regulation process is seriously flawed.

A screenshot of a supplied video taken in 2015 showing one of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia before they were destroyed by Rio Tinto in May 2020.
PKKP AND PKKP Aboriginal Corporation.



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Conserving Aboriginal heritage

Many of the changes in the WA Government’s new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020 are welcome: in particular, the recognition of native title, allowing “stop work orders” if an Indigenous community says mining work was begun without their permission, and increased penalties for damaging heritage.

But Aboriginal groups, including many in the Kimberley and south-west WA, fear the onus for this regulatory process will be passed onto them and — despite being the appropriate people to manage their own heritage — they will not be adequately resourced to do so.

The number of heritage sites likely to be at risk in the future will number in the thousands, given the current footprint of mining is a mere 1% of the planned expansion over the next century. A new paradigm is needed in managing heritage. There needs to be a process of identifying regionally significant landscapes and earmarking them for conservation before future development footprints are determined.

And there need to be more conservation agreements like the Murujuga one, with industry-funding heritage and conservation rather than just mining clearance work.

In the Pilbara, for instance, there are three national parks, Karajini, Millstream-Chichester and Murujuga, where mining cannot occur. But more are needed in other native title areas. They need to be resourced so Aboriginal heritage rangers can manage them, with appropriate facilities for tourists.

Members of the Wintawari Guruma Rock Art Project recording contemporary values with traditional custodians, university researchers and Rio Tinto heritage personnel.
Jo McDonald CRAR+M Database reproduced with permission of Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation

Mining compliance surveys, which “manage harm” to heritage are a significant economy for many Aboriginal communities.

But a number of Pilbara Aboriginal Corporations, including Wintawari Gurama, with whom I have developed a rock art research project, don’t want to just participate in the mining economy, which is tantamount to destroying their heritage.

They want to train local rangers, and document, record and manage their own heritage estates, enabling elders and young people to earn a living on country.

A Murujuga Ranger recording rock art.
Jo McDonald CRAR+M Database reproduced with permission of Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation

This approach is equally required in places like the Kimberley, where fracking could be the next resources “boom”.

Aboriginal communities need Keeping Places.

Across the Pilbara, items such as the 7,000 heritage items salvaged from Juukan Gorge, are being housed in locked shipping containers. Secure air-conditioned Keeping Places are an urgent requirement.




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These, too, could be funded by industry, becoming the focus of heritage tourism and ranger training, and hosting collaborative research on heritage, biodiversity and conservation.

Murujuga, which has been added to the World Heritage Tentative List, has a tourism management plan. A Living Knowledge Centre is planned, and additional interpretation facilities.

Ngajarli (Deep Gorge) bird track panel on Murujuga with evidence of industry visible in the background.
Jo McDonald CRAR+M Database reproduced with permission of Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation

The state government and industry stakeholders are funding the Murujuga Rock Art Strategy, which will monitor and assess emissions from nearby industry. There are, however, concerning plans to introduce new industry in the adjacent Burrup Industrial Estate. This is an issue, too, for the federal government, which has ultimate oversight of heritage on the national list.

In WA, the state government asserts that heritage can co-exist with industry. But this will only be possible if the state recognises heritage is non-renewable — just like the mineral wealth of this country.The Conversation

Jo McDonald, Director, Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A brutal war and rivers poisoned with every rainfall: how one mine destroyed an island



Locals living downstream of the abandoned mine pan for gold in mine waste.
Matthew Allen, Author provided

Matthew G. Allen, The University of the South Pacific

This week, 156 people from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea, petitioned the Australian government to investigate Rio Tinto over a copper mine that devastated their homeland.

In 1988, disputes around the notorious Panguna mine sparked a lengthy civil war in Bougainville, leading to the deaths of up to 20,000 people. The war is long over and the mine has been closed for 30 years, but its brutal legacy continues.




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When I conducted research in Bougainville in 2015, I estimated the deposit of the mine’s waste rock (tailings) downstream from the mine to be at least a kilometre wide at its greatest point. Local residents informed me it was tens of metres deep in places.

I spent several nights in a large two-story house built entirely from a single tree dragged out of the tailings — dragged upright, with a tractor. Every new rainfall brought more tailings downstream and changed the course of the waterways, making life especially challenging for the hundreds of people who eke out a precarious existence panning the tailings for remnants of gold.

The petition has brought the plight of these communities back into the media, but calls for Rio Tinto to clean up its mess have been made for decades. Let’s examine what led to the ongoing crisis.

Triggering a civil war

The Panguna mine was developed in the 1960s, when PNG was still an Australian colony, and operated between 1972 and 1989. It was, at the time, one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines.

It was operated by Bougainville Copper Limited, a subsidiary of what is now Rio Tinto, until 2016 when Rio handed its shares to the governments of Bougainville and PNG.

When a large-scale mining project reaches the end of its commercial life, a comprehensive mine closure and rehabilitation plan is usually put in place.




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But Bougainville Copper simply abandoned the site in the face of a landowner rebellion. This was largely triggered by the mine’s environmental and social impacts, including disputes over the sharing of its economic benefits and the impacts of those benefits on predominantly cashless societies.

Following PNG security forces’ heavy-handed intervention — allegedly under strong political pressure from Bougainville Copper — the rebellion quickly escalated into a full-blown separatist conflict that eventually engulfed all parts of the province.

By the time the hostilities ended in 1997, thousands of Bougainvilleans had lost their lives, including from an air and sea blockade the PNG military had imposed, which prevented essential medical supplies reaching the island.

The mine’s gigantic footprint

The Panguna mine’s footprint was gigantic, stretching across the full breadth of the central part of the island.

The disposal of hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings into the Kawerong-Jaba river system created enormous problems.

Rivers and streams became filled with silt and significantly widened. Water flows were blocked in many places, creating large areas of swampland and disrupting the livelihoods of hundreds of people in communities downstream of the mine. These communities used the rivers for drinking water and the adjacent lands for subsistence food gardening.

Several villages had to be relocated to make way for the mining operations, with around 200 households resettled between 1969 and 1989.

In the absence of any sort of mine closure or “mothballing” arrangements, the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the Panguna mine have only been compounded.

Since the end of mining activities 30 years ago, tailings have continued to move down the rivers and the waterways have never been treated for suspected chemical contamination.




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Long-suffering communities

The 156 complainants live in communities around and downstream of the mine. Many are from the long-suffering village of Dapera.

In 1975, the people of Dapera were relocated to make way for mining activities. Today, it’s in the immediate vicinity of the abandoned mine pit. As one woman from Dapera told me in 2015:

I have travelled all over Bougainville, and I can say that they [in Dapera] are the poorest of the poor.

They, and others, sent the complaint to the Australian OECD National Contact Point after lodging it with Melbourne’s Human Rights Law Centre.

The complainants say by not ensuring its operations didn’t infringe on the local people’s human rights, Rio Tinto breached OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises.

The Conversation contacted Rio Tinto for comment. A spokesperson said:

We believe the 2016 arrangement provided a platform for the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and PNG to work together on future options for the resource with all stakeholders.

While it is our belief that from 1990 to 2016 no Rio Tinto personnel had access to the mine site due to on-going security concerns, we are aware of the deterioration of mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas, and claims of resulting adverse environmental and social, including human rights, impacts.

We are ready to enter into discussions with the communities that have filed the complaint, along with other relevant parties such as BCL and the governments of ABG and PNG.

A long time coming

This week’s petition comes after a long succession of calls for Rio Tinto to be held to account for the Panguna mine’s legacies and the resulting conflict.

A recent example is when, after Rio Tinto divested from Bougainville Copper in 2016, former Bougainville President John Momis said Rio must take full responsibility for an environmental clean-up.

And in an unsuccessful class action, launched by Bougainvilleans in the United States in 2000, Rio was accused of collaborating with the PNG state to commit human rights abuses during the conflict and was also sued for environmental damages. The case ultimately foundered on jurisdictional grounds.

Two people, one waist-deep in tailings.
Hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings were deposited in the rivers.
Matthew Allen, Author provided

Taking social responsibility

This highlights the enormous challenges in seeking redress from mining companies for their operations in foreign jurisdictions, and, in this case, for “historical” impacts.

The colonial-era approach to mining when Panguna was developed in the 1960s stands in stark contrast to the corporate social responsibility paradigm supposedly governing the global mining industry today.




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Indeed, Panguna — along with the socially and environmentally disastrous Ok Tedi mine in the western highlands of PNG — are widely credited with forcing the industry to reassess its “social license to operate”.

It’s clear the time has come for Rio to finally take responsibility for cleaning up the mess on Bougainville.The Conversation

Matthew G. Allen, Professor of Development Studies, The University of the South Pacific

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley faces a critical test: will she let a mine destroy koala breeding grounds?


Lachlan G. Howell, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, University of Newcastle

In the next few weeks, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley will decide whether to approve a New South Wales quarry expansion that will destroy critical koala breeding grounds.

The case, involving the Brandy Hill Quarry at Port Stephens, is emblematic of how NSW environment laws are failing wildlife — particularly koalas. Efforts to erode koala protections hit the headlines last week when NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro threatened to detonate the Coalition over the issue.




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Koala populations are already under huge pressure. A NSW parliamentary inquiry in June warned the koala faces extinction in the state by 2050 if the government doesn’t better control land clearing and habitat loss.

Ley could either continue these alarming trends, or set a welcome precedent for koala protection. Her decision is also the first big test of federal environment laws since an interim review found they were failing wildlife. So let’s take a closer look at what’s at stake in this latest controversy.

A koala clinging to a tree branch
This female koala is under threat from the Brandy Hill Quarry expansion.
Lachlan Howell, Author provided

The Brandy Hill Quarry expansion

The NSW government gave approval to Hanson Construction Materials, a subsidiary of Heidelberg Cement, to expand the existing Brandy Hill Quarry in Seaham in Port Stephens.

The project would provide concrete to meet Sydney’s growing construction demands, as the state fast-tracks infrastructure projects to help the economy recover from COVID-19.

The approval came despite the known presence of koalas in the area. A koala survey report, completed on behalf of the developer in 2019, determined the project would “result in a significant impact to the koala”.

The report recommended the quarry expansion be referred to the federal Environment Minister under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999, for its potential impacts on “Matters of National Environmental Significance”.




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The expansion site intersects habitat with preferred high quality koala feed and shelter trees. This habitat is established forest containing various key mature Eucalyptus trees, including the forest red gum and swamp mahogany.

The survey report didn’t propose any mitigation strategies to sustain the habitat. Instead, it suggested minimisation measures, such as ecologists to be present during habitat clearing, low speed limits for vehicles on site, and education on koalas for workers.

A disaster for koalas

In support of a community grassroots campaign (Save Port Stephens Koalas), we produced an report on the effect of the quarry expansion on koalas. The report now sits with Ley ahead of her decision, which is due by October 13.

Male koalas will bellow during the breeding season to attract females.

The expansion will clear more than 50 hectares of koala habitat. We found koalas breeding within 1 kilometre of the current quarry boundary, which indicates the expansion site is likely to destroy critical koala breeding habitat.

During the breeding season, male koalas bellow to attract females. Within 1km of the boundary we observed a female koala and a bellowing male koala 96m apart. A second male was reported bellowing 227m from the quarry boundary.

What’s more, the site expansion occurs within a NSW government listed Area of Regional Koala Significance. The expansion site actually has higher average koala habitat suitability than all remaining habitat on the quarry property.

The Koala Habitat Suitability Model from our independent report. The red boundary represents the Quarry expansion site containing high habitat suitability.
Map produced by S. A. Ryan using the Koala Habitat Information Base and arcGIS 10.6., Author provided

CSIRO research from 2016 suggests koalas in Port Stephens can move hundreds of metres in a day and up to 5km in one month. Movement is highest during the breeding season. This potential for koalas to move away was a key reason the NSW government approved the expansion.

Koalas can move in to the remaining property to breed, or they can move away from it. But habitat outside the expansion site is, on average, lesser quality, and this is where the expansion would force the koalas to move to.




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This habitat fragmentation would not only result in lost access to potential breeding grounds, but also further restrict movement and expose koalas to threats such as predation or road traffic.

Lastly, the expansion would sever a crucial East–West corridor koalas likely use to move across the landscape and breed.

Approved under the state’s weak environmental protections

It may seem surprising this destructive project was approved by the NSW government. But it’s a common story under the state’s protections.

Alarm over the weaknesses of NSW environmental protections has been raised by NSW government agencies including the Natural Resources Commission and NSW Audit Office.




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The expansion approval is an example of how the NSW government relaxed the regulatory requirements for land clearing between 2016 and 2017. This led to a 13-fold increase in land clearing approvals, and tipped the balance away from sustainable development.

Female and male koalas spotted 1 km from the quarry boundary. The male was observed bellowing 96 m from the female koala. Photo: Lachlan Howell.

The expansion shines another spotlight on NSW’s poor biodiversity offset laws.

Biodiversity offsets involve compensating for environmental damage in one location by improving the environment elsewhere. Under the expansions approval, the developer was required to protect an estimated 450 hectares of habitat as offset.

But the recent parliamentary inquiry into NSW koalas recommended offsetting of prime koala habitat — such as that involved in the quarry expansion — be prohibited, which would mean not destroying the habitat in the first place.




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The NSW decision also does not account for the Black Summer Bushfires which claimed 5,000 koalas and burned millions of hectares of koala habitat. The Port Stephens population was unburned but more than 75% of its habitat has been lost since colonial occupation. Securing this population is important for the overall security of koalas in the state.

The koalas are in Sussan Ley’s hands

Sussan Ley will now assess the expansion under the EPBC Act. A recent interim report into the laws said they’d allowed an “unsustainable state of decline” of Australia’s environment.

Rejections under these laws are rare; just 22 of 6,500 projects referred for approval under the act have been refused. However, it’s not impossible.

Earlier this year Ley rejected a wind-farm in Queensland which threatened unburned koala habitat. If Ley gives full consideration to the evidence in our report, she should make the same decision.




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The Conversation


Lachlan G. Howell, PhD Candidate | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Super funds are feeling the financial heat from climate change


Amandine Denis, Monash University

The wild fires that have ravaged the US west coast, turning skies orange, are a lurid reminder that climate change looms ever larger as an economic threat.

This week has seen a flurry of announcements reflecting that reality.




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New Zealand’s government has declared it will become the world’s first country to require its financial sector to report on climate risks.

A collaboration between Australian banks, insurers and climate scientists – the Climate Measurement Standards Initiative – has issued the nation’s first comprehensive framework to assess climate-related risks to buildings and critical infrastructure.

And another of Australia’s largest superannuation funds, UniSuper, has committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions from its investment portfolio by 2050.

UniSuper, the industry fund for university workers, is the third major Australian super fund to make such a commitment.




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The first was HESTA, the industry super fund for health and community sector workers, in June. The second was CBus, the construction and mining industry super fund, last month. “The reality is that things are coalescing fast around us,” said Kristian Fok, CBus’ chief investment officer at the time.

While the superannuation industry remains very much in transition, analysis by ClimateWorks Australia and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute indicates a new determination among Australia’s 20 largest Registrable Superannuation Entity licensees to act on climate change risks.

These 20 licensees represent about 55% of all superannuation investments in Australia, worth a total of about A$2.7 trillion.

Along with the 2050 commitments by HESTA, CBus and UniSuper, another 13 funds are actively looking to reduce their portfolio’s emissions intensity. For example, Aware Super (formerly First State Super) announced in July it would divest from thermal coal miners and reduce emissions in its listed equities portfolio by at least 30% by 2023.

Only four of the 20 – Colonial First State, IOOF, Nulis and OnePath – still have no emissions reduction targets or activities.

Managing risk

This flurry of announcements reflects a changing context.

In the past, fund managers sometimes argued that, in a heavily regulated industry, their legal responsibilities prevented them from committing to emissions reductions. They were tasked, they said, with protecting their members’ finances, not guarding the environment.

Until about 2017, super funds tended to limit action to asking companies in which they owned shares to disclose their climate risks and to offering voluntary sustainable investment options to their members.

But since the Paris climate agreement in 2015, targets of net zero emissions by 2050 (or earlier) have been adopted by governments, businesses and investors. More than 100 countries and all Australian states and territories have net zero targets in place. So do some major companies, such as BHP and Qantas.

Many businesses now recognise the financial implications of global warming.
ANZ, for example, this month announced it expected the 100 biggest-emitting customers to have a plan to adapt to a low-carbon economy – something the bank’s chief executive, Shayne Elliot, said was simply “good old-fashioned risk management”.

This accords with the perspective of regulators, with Australian Prudential Regulation Authority regarding global warming not as a moral issue but one “distinctly financial in nature”.

Charred remains at a home destroyed by fire in Berry Creek, California, September 10 2020.
Climate change is now an issue ‘distinctly financial in nature’.
Peter Dasilva/EPA

This means asset managers are increasingly thinking about how more frequent and extreme weather events will devalue property and infrastructure. They are also thinking about the future worth of companies rusted to fossil fuels as the global economy shifts to net zero emissions.

Investors must also consider the possibility of litigation. For example, 24-year-old Brisbane council worker Mark McVeigh has taken the Retail Employees Superannuation Trust to court on the basis it has failed to protect his savings from the financial consequences of ruinous climate change.

Creating the new normal

Understandably, many funds are hesitant to commit to net zero emission portfolio targets without knowing how those targets might be achieved.

But by setting targets, super funds can create a norm that spurs investment in the ways and means to achieve those goals.

With the manifestations of that warming becoming ever more apparent, pressure will grow on super funds to make net zero pledges across their entire portfolios – and then to back these pledges with both interim commitments and detailed transition strategies.




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As Kristian Fok says, change is coalescing fast. We’re seeing promising signs of the super funds responding. But we’ll need to see more yet.The Conversation

Amandine Denis, Head of Research, ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

These Aussie teens have launched a landmark climate case against the government. Win or lose, it’ll make a difference



Five of the eight young plaintiffs. From left: Ava Princi, Izzy Raj-Seppings, Ambrose Hayes, Veronica Hester, Laura Kirwan.
Equity Generation Lawyers

Laura Schuijers, University of Melbourne

On Tuesday, eight young Australians aged 13-17 filed a class action seeking an injunction to prevent federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley approving a new coal project expansion.

They are bringing their case to the Federal Court. They argue if Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine expansion in New South Wales is approved, it will contribute to climate change which endangers their future.




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Saying the environment minister owes the young plaintiffs a duty of care is a novel approach. In their view, signing off on a new coal project will breach that duty. Such an approach to a climate change case has not been tested before in Australia, and would chart new territory if successful.

Although a legal victory would appear difficult on these grounds, the implications of this case are already significant. They show young people, determined to fight for action on climate, will continue to find new ways to hold powerful people to account.

What is the case about?

The case concerns a proposal to construct an open-cut coal mine, about 25 kilometres north of the NSW town of Gunnedah. It’s an extension project, meaning it will expand a mine that has already been approved, increasing its coal production by about 25%, and emissions by 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gases over the life of the project. The coal would be exported.

Like many mining proposals, this one has been divisive. Farmers worry about competing for water, and the local community has expressed concern over the environmental record of the coal company.

Yet in August, the NSW Independent Planning Commission approved the proposal, finding the expansion is in the public interest, given the forecast jobs and revenue. It has not yet received federal approval.

What are the teenagers arguing?

The young plaintiffs are not bringing their case under environmental law, which would be the traditional way to launch a legal challenge objecting to a coal mine.

Environmental law invites government decision-makers to balance competing concerns — such as economic benefits versus environmental impact — with no clear stipulation as to how much weight to give each relevant factor.

There is limited recourse to argue a decision is wrong because the positive and negative impacts were not given particular priority by a minister. This means decision-making on major projects is largely within the political realm.

Instead, the plaintiffs are arguing the environment minister shouldn’t approve the coal proposal because doing so would breach a duty of care owed by the minister to protect them from the harmful impacts of climate change. This includes more frequent extreme weather events, and destruction of the natural systems that support human life.

The case has parallels with a landmark Dutch case, where it was successfully argued in 2019 that the Dutch Government breached its duty of care to its citizens through inadequate action on climate change.




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For the Australian case to succeed, the Court will first need to consider whether a duty of care exists in Australian law. There is no statutory duty (under laws created by the parliament), so the Court would need to “find” the duty as existing in common law.

Then, the plaintiffs would need to establish that the duty would be breached by the environment minister signing off on the coal project.

Will it succeed?

Establishing both these things is likely to be very difficult in our legal context. From past cases, we know Australian courts have been reluctant to find a causal link between climate change and individual projects, even large mines. However, this link was found in a NSW case last year.

The court is likely to look closely at the particular relationship between the minister and the vulnerable young people, who will be strongly impacted by climate change but have no voting rights. It will consider whether they represent a particular class of individuals, in relation to which the minister has a responsibility.

One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers recently highlighted a case that potentially paves the way to support this idea. In 2016, the Federal Court found the immigration minister Peter Dutton owed a duty of care to a vulnerable refugee with a history of trauma, who was detained on Nauru.

One thing in the current case’s favour is that, similar to the Dutch case, the plaintiffs are not seeking monetary compensation. If they were, the difficulty for the courts to determine what future obligation the government might have to pay out young people would, almost undoubtedly, prohibit success.

What’s also interesting about this case, unlike the Dutch case or the famous Juliana case that was recently quashed in the US, is that it’s not asking the government for broad-scale policy action on climate change. It’s only concerned with one coal mine approval. This is a more straightforward remedy which a court could be more willing to grant.

Beating the odds

If the case successfully established a duty and that it was breached, this would open up the possibility future coal approval decisions would also breach the duty — somewhat of a Pandora’s box.

Although we will have to wait and see what the Court says, the suit will draw attention to the government’s climate policies, whether or not it succeeds.

If the case succeeds, it might compel the government to stop approving any coal mines that would significantly contribute to climate change. If it doesn’t, it will remind us that it’s up to the government to respond to the threats climate change poses, rather than the courts.

Either way, the teenagers in this case are part of a growing number of people willing to find creative avenues to pursue action, even if it means taking a long shot. And beating the odds is exactly how the law tends to evolve.




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The Conversation


Laura Schuijers, Research Fellow in Environmental Law, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Japan is closing its old, dirty power plants – and that’s bad news for Australia’s coal exports



Shutterstock

Llewelyn Hughes, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Last month, the Japanese government announced a plan to retire its fleet of old, inefficient coal-fired generation by 2030. And what happens to coal power in Japan matters a lot to Australia.

Australia shipped more than A$9 billion dollars’ worth of thermal coal to Japan in 2019 – about 12% of our total thermal coal exports.

In the short term, several new coal plants are being built in Japan to replace scrapped capacity. But there are signs investors are not flocking to invest in expensive new Japanese coal technology.

And in the long run, the investment environment for new coal technology is worsening. If Japan’s commitment to coal weakens, that will mean less demand for Australia’s exports.

Coal on a ship at the Japanese port of Nakhodka.
Coal on a ship at the Japanese port of Nakhodka. Japan is phasing out its old coal infrastructure.
Shutterstock

Japan’s changing coal fleet

Almost all Japan’s nuclear power stations remain shuttered ten years after the Fukushima disaster. The Japanese government has positioned coal as a long-term hedge against the possibility the nuclear power restarts will not proceed as hoped.

However, Japan has also been criticised for its lack of ambition on plans to address climate change under the Paris Agreement.

Last month, the government signalled it will decommission about 100 inefficient coal-fired power units. It aims to reduce coal’s share of the power mix to 26% by 2030 – down from 32% in the 2018 financial year.




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The big questions are: what are the prospects for Japan’s coal fleet, and what does this mean for Australia?

The Japanese government is supporting investment in newer plants, including some that use a high-pressure “gasifier” to turn coal into gas. But these types of plants are expensive to build. With a typical coal plant expected to operate for about 40 years, companies are wary of making huge outlays with relatively limited time to recoup the investment.

Reflecting this, last year Osaka Gas withdrew plans to build a 1.2 gigawatt (GW) coal plant in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Tokyo Gas, Kyushu Electric and Idemitsu also abandoned plans to build a 2GW coal plant in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo. In total, 30% of planned investment in coal power has been scrapped since 2016.

Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with a Japanese dignitary at Loy Yang A power station in Victoria.
Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with a Japanese dignitary at Loy Yang A power station in Victoria. Japan’s phase-out of old coal plants raises questions over its demand for Australian coal in the long term.
Julian Smith/AAP

Renewables are also becoming increasingly important. Japan has big plans for offshore wind power, and renewable electricity is falling in price.

In Europe and elsewhere, such changing economics have helped drive falls in the number of hours that coal plants operate. Globally, final investment decisions for new coal plants fell from more than 100GW in 2010 to just over 20GW in 2018. Although it might take a little longer in Japan, there is no reason to expect things to be different there.

Crucially, these dynamics are underpinned by shifts in Japan’s electricity market to encourage more competition. Over time, that should mean companies find it increasingly difficult to pass the costs of expensive investments in coal technologies to final customers.




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Machinery working in a coal pile
Australia shipped more than A$9 billion dollars of thermal coal to Japan in 2019.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Dim prospects for coal

Mining company Glencore this month announced a plan to cut production from Australian coal mines, citing weak demand due to COVID-19.

The world will recover from the pandemic. But in the longer term, coal in Japan faces even stiffer headwinds – not least market competition and increasing renewables from offshore wind and other technologies.

This creates real questions about the appetite of Japanese companies to wage the increasingly risky bet that coal-fired power represents. Changes in Japan’s power market show the need for Australia to begin transiting to an economy less reliant on carbon-intensive exports.




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The Conversation


Llewelyn Hughes, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A contentious NSW gas project is weeks away from approval. Here are 3 reasons it should be rejected



Ursula Da Silva/AAP

Madeline Taylor, University of Sydney and Susan M Park, University of Sydney

New South Wales planning authorities relied on flawed evidence when backing a highly controversial coal seam gas project that may endanger critical water supplies, farmland and threatened species, our analysis has found.

Early next month, the Independent Planning Commission NSW (IPC) is due to announce its decision on the future of the A$3.6 billion Narrabri Gas Project. The commission will presumably give substantial weight to an assessment report by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE), which recommended the proposal be approved.

However, we contend DPIE has failed to substantiate its claims that the Narrabri Gas Project:

  • will improve gas security for NSW
  • does not pose a significant risk to important water resources
  • will not cause significant impacts to people or the environment.

Some 23,000 submissions were made on the Narrabri Gas Project, 98% of which opposed it. They include Australia’s former chief scientist Penny Sackett, who says the project is at odds with the nation’s Paris climate commitments.

The pending decision comes at a critical time for Australia’s gas industry. The Morrison government has flagged a gas-led economic recovery from COVID-19, and on Monday there were reports the October federal budget will contain support for the industry.

The experience of the Narrabri Gas Project so far shows government decisions on such proposals must be evidence-based and take full account of risks to the environment, people and the economy.

People protesting the gas project.
Community opposition to the Narrabri Gas Project is strong.
Paul Miller/AAP

What is the Narrabri Gas Project?

The Narrabri Gas Project aims to produce “unconventional” or coal seam gas, by sinking 850 wells in the Pilliga region near Narrabri in northwest NSW.

State authorities have spent four years assessing the project, and a decision by the IPC is due by September 4.




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Some 60% of the project is located in the Pilliga forest – the largest forest and woodlands in western NSW and home to threatened species including the koala. The remaining 40% of the project is next to prime farmland. It is also located on the traditional lands of the Gomeroi people.

As assessment by DPIE recommended the proposal be approved. We believe the evidence upon which the department based its decision was flawed. Here are three big problems we identified:

1. Gas security

DPIE says the Narrabri Gas Project is in the public interest because it will contribute to gas security for NSW. This assertion is based on a scenario in which Santos commits to providing all gas from the project solely to NSW, rather than the wider East Coast Gas Market.

Yet, DPIE’s recommended conditions for approval make no mention of Santos promising, or being legally compelled, to reserve gas for NSW consumers if the project is approved.

A woman stands in front of a gas burner.
Gas industry supporters say its expansion will shore up energy supplies.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

2. Water risks

The assessment fails to provide evidence showing the project does not pose significant risk to high-quality groundwater in a region and ecosystem highly dependent on it.

The project will drill extensively below the Great Artesian Basin, potentially contaminating groundwater, land and surface water. Despite Santos and the department’s assumptions that risks will be minimal, recent research shows methane contamination of groundwater occurs due to changes in pressures during water and gas extraction.

This risks human health and safety, and compromises water quality. Wastewater has already leaked in the proposed project area during pilot exploration and production, demonstrating the high risks involved.




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The department’s assessment of threats to the water table and management of waste brine is not robust. For example, the government’s own independent Water Expert Panel recommends brine be disposed of at landfill facilities. But brine and salt generated by the project would be highly soluble in comparison to standard landfill waste, and require robust storage management to prevent leaching and migration, according to our colleague and co-author of our assessment, Matthew Currell.

The department’s recommendation of an “adaptive management” approach – essentially “learning by doing” – is risky, given the highly complex potential impacts which are almost impossible to guard against.

Forest at the site of the proposed project
Forest at the site of the proposed project is home to threatened species.
Dean Lewins/AAP

3. Effect on people

DPIE’s assessment does not provide robust evidence that people will not be significantly harmed by the project.

Santos commissioned a social impact assessment, and the department engaged University of Queensland professor Deanna Kemp to review it. DPIE took the view that this review constitutes support for the project and states “overall, the negative social impacts of the project can be appropriately managed”.

However in correspondence with our colleague and co-author of our assessment Rebecca Lawrence, Professor Kemp expressed concern the department “misconstrued” her advice and misinterpreted it as giving the project a “green light”. Professor Kemp stated that her advice in no way constitutes a recommendation of approval of the project.




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We believe Professor Kemp was not commissioned by DPIE to comprehensively assess the social impact merits of the project, nor did she do so.

In a response to The Conversation, Professor Kemp said she did not contest the claims made by the authors of this article, and said “any suggestion that my review constitutes an approval of the project would be incorrect”.

There is sufficient evidence to suggest the social impacts in the short and long term will be unmanageable. These include social conflicts over the proposed gas project, loss of rural livelihoods from contamination of both groundwater and surface water, and effects on Aboriginal people and the broader Narrabri community – which is already socially disadvantaged and vulnerable.

Officials inspect the Narrabri Gas Project
Officials inspect the Narrabri Gas Project in the Pilliga region of NSW.
Dean Lewins/AAP

A big decision

The Narrabri Gas Project presents considerable and significantly underestimated risks to the environment, sensitive water resources and communities.

The department’s argument that Narrabri gas will increase NSW’s energy security is highly unlikely and at present there’s nothing to suggest such a condition would be legally enforced. And its assertion the project would not harm people or the environment is not backed by evidence.

On this basis, we believe the Narrabri Gas Project is unsustainable, unviable and not in the public interest.


In response to this article, the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment said in a statement it “does not agree with any of these claims”, adding:

The Department’s comprehensive assessment of the proposal was informed by extensive community consultation, advice from the Narrabri Shire Council, government agencies and independent experts, including a Water Expert Panel,“ it said.

The assessment concluded that the project is critical for energy security and reliability in NSW, would deliver significant economic benefits to NSW and the Narrabri region, and has been designed to minimise environmental impacts.

Santos has made a commitment that the gas would be provided only to the domestic gas market and has agreed to accept a condition to this effect on any petroleum production lease granted for the project.

The Department’s assessment found the project is in the public interest and is approvable, subject to strict conditions.

Comment has been sought from Santos.The Conversation

Madeline Taylor, Lecturer, University of Sydney and Susan M Park, Associate Professor of International Relations, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A single mega-project exposes the Morrison government’s gas plan as staggering folly



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Bill Hare, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Ursula Fuentes, Murdoch University

Every few years, the idea that gas will help Australia transition to a zero-emissions economy seems to re-emerge, as if no one had thought of it before. Federal energy minister Angus Taylor is the latest politician to jump on the gas bandwagon.

Taylor wants taxpayer money invested in fast-start gas projects to drive the post-pandemic recovery. His government plans to extend the emissions reduction fund to fossil fuel projects using carbon capture and storage.

The government’s “technology investment roadmap”, released last week, said gas will help in “balancing” renewable energy sources. And manufacturers advising the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission want public money used to underwrite a huge domestic gas expansion.




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Amid all these gas plans, there is little talk of the damage this would wreak on the climate. We need only look to Woodside’s Burrup Hub proposal in Western Australia to find evidence of the staggering potential impact.

By the end of its life in 2070, the project and the gas it produces will emit about six billion tonnes of greenhouse gas. That’s about 1.5% of the 420 billion tonnes of CO2 world can emit between 2018 and 2100 if it wants to stay below 1.5℃ of global warming.

This project alone exposes as a furphy the claim that natural gas is a viable transition fuel.

Woodside chief executive Peter Coleman. The company wants to build a large gas hub in northern WA.
Richard Wainwirght/AAP

Undermining Paris

The Burrup Hub proposal involves creating a large regional hub for liquified natural gas (LNG) on the Burrup Peninsula in northern WA. It would process a huge volume of gas resources from the Scarborough, Browse and Pluto basins, as well as other sources.

We closely examined this proposal, and submitted our analysis to the WA Environmental Protection Authority and the federal environment department, which are assessing the proposal.




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The likely scale of domestic emissions from the Burrup Hub will significantly undermine Australia’s efforts under the Paris climate agreement. To meet the Paris goals, Australia’s energy and industry sector can emit 4.8-6.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2018 and 2050. By 2050, the Burrup Hub would emit 7-10% of this.

Woodside’s investors are clearly concerned at the potential impact of the company’s emissions. On April 30 more than half its investors called on the company to set emission reduction targets aligned with the Paris agreement for both its domestic emissions and those that occur when the gas is burned overseas.

Woodside’s existing northwest shelf gas plant in WA.
Rebecca Le May/AAP

Not a climate saviour

Woodside has claimed the proposed Burrup Hub project would help the world meet the Paris goals by substituting natural gas for coal. This claim is often used to justify the continued expansion of the LNG industry.

But in several reports and analyses, we have shown the claim is incorrect.

If the Paris goals are to be met, the use of natural gas in Asia’s electricity sector – a major source of demand – would need to peak by around 2030 and then decline to almost zero between 2050 and 2060.

Globally (and without deployment of carbon capture and storage technology), demand for gas-fired electricity will have to peak before 2030 and be halved by 2040, based on 2010 levels.

Our analysis found that by 2050, gas can only form just a tiny part of global electricity demand if we are to meet the Paris goals.




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The electricity sector is the main source of global LNG demand at present. Emissions from gas-fired electricity production can be lowered by 80-90% by using carbon capture and storage (CCS), which traps emissions at the source and injects them underground. But this technology is increasingly unlikely to compete with renewable energy and storage, on either cost or environmental grounds.

As renewable energy and storage costs continue to fall, estimates of costs for CCS in gas power generation have increased, including in Australia. And the technology doesn’t capture all emissions, so expensive efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would be required if the Paris goals are to be met.

Beyond the Burrup proposal, Woodside says its broader LNG export projects will help bring global emissions towards zero by displacing coal. To justify this claim, Woodside cites the International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario. However this scenario assumes a rate of coal and gas use incompatible with the Paris agreement.

This problem is even starker at the national level. We estimate LNG extraction and production creates about 9-10% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. If we include exported LNG, the industry’s entire emissions would roughly equal 60% of Australia’s total emissions in 2017.

As renewables costs fall, CCS becomes less feasible.
Flickr

A big financial risk

If the world implements the Paris agreement, demand for gas-fired electricity will likely significantly drop off by 2030. Technology trends are already pointing in that direction.

This creates a major risk that gas assets will become redundant. Australia will be unprepared for the resulting job losses and economic dislocation. Both WA and the federal government have a responsibility to anticipate this risk, not ignore it.

The Reserve Bank of Australia has warned of the economic risks to financial institutions of stranded assets in a warming world, and the Burrup Hub is a prime example of this.

The economic stimulus response to COVID-19 presents a major opportunity for governments to direct investments towards low- and zero-carbon technologies. They must resist pressure from fossil fuel interests to do the opposite.


In response to the claims raised in this article, Woodside said in a statement:

We support the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rises to well below 2℃, with the implicit target of global carbon neutrality by 2050. At Woodside, we want to be carbon neutral for our operations by 2050.

Independent expert analysis by ERM, critically reviewed by CSIRO, shows Woodside’s Browse and Scarborough projects could avoid 650 Mt of CO2 equivalent (CO2-e) emissions between 2026 and 2040 by replacing higher emission fuels in countries that need our energy.

This means every tonne of greenhousa gas emitted in Australia from our projects equates to about 4 tonnes in emissions reduced globally. To put that in context, a 650 Mt CO2-e reduction in greenhouse gas is equivalent to cancelling out all emissions from Western Australia for more than eight years.

To have reliable energy and lower emissions, natural gas is essential. As a readily dispatchable power source, gas-fired power is an ideal partner with renewables to provide the necessary system stability.

Woodside remains committed to realising our vision for the Burrup Hub, despite the delay to final investment decisions on the projects in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and rapid decline in oil prices. We believe these projects are cost-competitive and investable, with 80-90% of their gas reserves to be produced by 2050.

The Burrup Hub developments have the potential to make a significant contribution to the recovery of the West Australian and national economies when we emerge from the impact of COVID-19. They will provide thousands of jobs, opportunities for local suppliers and tax and royalty revenues to the state and Australia.The Conversation

Bill Hare, Director, Climate Analytics, Adjunct Professor, Murdoch University (Perth), Visiting scientist, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Ursula Fuentes, , Murdoch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Be worried when fossil fuel lobbyists support current environmental laws



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Chris McGrath, The University of Queensland

The fossil fuel lobby, led by the Minerals Council of Australia, seem pretty happy with the current system of environment laws. In a submission to a review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, it “broadly” supports the existing laws and does not want them replaced.

True, the group says the laws impose unnecessary burdens on industry that hinder post-pandemic economic recovery. It wants delays and duplication in environmental regulation reduced to provide consistency and certainty.




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But for the fossil fuel industry to broadly back the current regime of environmental protection is remarkable. It suggests deep problems with the current laws, which have allowed decision-making driven by politics, rather than independent science.

So let’s look at the resources industry’s stance on environment laws, and what it tells us.

Cut duplication

The Minerals Council’s submission calls for “eliminating or reducing duplication” of federal and state laws.

The fossil fuel lobby has long railed against environmental law – the EPBC Act in particular – disparaging it as “green tape” that it claims slows projects unnecessarily and costs the industry money.

On this, the federal government and the mining industry are singing from the same songbook. Announcing the review of the laws last year, the government flagged changes that it claimed would speed up approvals and reduce costs to industry.

Previous governments have tried to reduce duplication of environmental laws. In 2013 the Abbott government proposed a “one-stop shop” in which it claimed projects would be considered under a single environmental assessment and approval process, rather than scrutinised separately by state and federal authorities.




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That proposal hit many political and other hurdles and was never enacted. But it appears to remain on the federal government’s policy agenda.

It’s true the federal EPBC Act often duplicates state approvals for mining and other activities. But it still provides a safety net that in theory allows the federal government to stop damaging projects approved by state governments.

The Commonwealth rarely uses this power, but has done so in the past. In the most famous example, the Labor party led by Bob Hawke won the federal election in 1983 and stopped the Tasmanian Liberal government led by Robin Gray building a major hydroelectric dam on the Gordon River below its junction with the Franklin River.

The High Court’s decision in that dispute laid the foundation for the EPBC Act, which was enacted in 1999.

In 2009 Peter Garrett, Labor’s then-federal environment minister, refused the Queensland Labor government’s proposed Traveston Crossing Dam on the Mary River under the EPBC Act due to an unacceptable impact on threatened species.

The Conversation put these arguments to the Minerals Council of Australia, and CEO Tania Constable said:

The MCA’s submission states that Australia’s world-leading minerals sector is committed to the protection of our unique environment, including upholding leading practice environmental protection based on sound science and robust risk-based approaches.

Reforms to the operation of the EPBC Act are needed to address unnecessary duplication and complexity, providing greater certainty for businesses and the community while achieving sound environmental outcomes.

But don’t change the current system much

Generally, the Minerals Council and other resources groups aren’t lobbying for the current system to be changed too much.

The groups support the federal environment minister retaining the role of decision maker under the law. This isn’t surprising, given a succession of ministers has, for the past 20 years, given almost unwavering approval to resource projects.

For example, in 2019 the then-minister Melissa Price approved the Adani coal mine’s groundwater management plan, despite major shortcomings and gaps in knowledge and data about its impacts.




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Independent scientific advice against the mine over the last ten years was sidelined in the minister’s final decision.

Countless more examples demonstrate how the current system works in the favour of mining interests – even when the industry itself claims otherwise.

The Minerals Council submission refers to an unnamed “Queensland open-cut coal expansion project” to argue against excessive duplication of federal and state processes around water use.

I believe this is a reference to the New Acland Coal Mine Stage 3 expansion project. I have acted since 2016 as a barrister for a local landholder group in litigation against that project.

When approached by The Conversation, the Minerals Council did not confirm it was referring to the New Acland project. Tania Constable said:

The case studies were submitted from a range of companies, and are representative of the regulatory inefficiency and uncertainty which deters investment and increases costs while greatly limiting job opportunities and economic benefits for regional communities from mining.

The New Acland mine expansion is on prime agricultural land on the Darling Downs, Queensland’s southern food bowl. Nearby farmers strongly opposed the project over fears of damage to groundwater, the creation of noise and dust, and climate change impacts.

But the Minerals Council fails to mention that since 2016, the mine has been building a massive new pit covering 150 hectares.

West Pit at the New Acland Coal Mine sprawling amid prime agricultural land in 2018. The right half of this pit is outside the area approved for mining under the EPBC Act in 2017 but no action has been taken by the Commonwealth to stop it.
Oakey Coal Action Alliance Inc, Author provided

When mining of this pit began, the mine’s expansion was still being assessed under state and federal laws. Half of the pit was subsequently approved under the EPBC Act in 2017.

But the Queensland environment department never stopped the work, despite the Land Court of Queensland in 2018 alerting it to the powers it had to act.

Based on my own research using satellite imagery and comparing the publicly available application documents, mining of West Pit started while Stage 3 of the mine was still being assessed under the EPBC Act. And after approval was given, mining was conducted outside the approved footprint.

The extent of West Pit on September 30, 2016 and relevant boundaries of the New Acland Coal Mine Stage 3 expansion, then being assessed under the EPBC Act. At this time, West Pit had extended into the project area still being assessed. Stage 3 was approved in early 2017, and since then West Pit has continued south, outside the area applied for or approved under the EPBC Act.
Adapted from GoogleEarth by author.

Despite these apparent breaches, the federal environment department has taken no enforcement action.

The Conversation contacted New Hope Group, the company that owns New Acland mine, for comment, and they refuted this assertion. Chief Operating Officer Andrew Boyd said:

New Hope Group strongly deny any allegations that New Hope Coal has in any way acted unlawfully.

New Acland Coal had and still has all necessary approvals relating to the development of the pit Dr McGrath refers to. It is also not correct to say that the Land Court alerted the Department of its powers to act with regards to this pit.

The Department is obviously aware of its enforcement powers and was aware of the development of the pit well before 2018. Further, the Land Court in 2018 rejected Dr McGrath’s arguments and accepted New Acland Coal’s position that any issues relating to the lawfulness of the pit were not within the jurisdiction of the Land Court on the rehearing in 2018.

Accordingly, the lawfulness of the pit was irrelevant to the 2018 Land Court hearing.

Dr McGrath also fails to mention that his client had originally accepted in the original Land Court hearing (2015-2017) that the development of the pit was lawful only to completely change its position in the 2018.

State and federal environmental laws work in favour of the fossil fuel industry in other ways. “Regulatory capture” occurs when government regulators essentially stop enforcing the law against industries they are supposed to regulate.

This can occur for many reasons, including agency survival and to avoid confrontation with powerful political groups such as farmers or the mining sector.

In one apparent example of this, the federal environment department decided in 2019 not to recommend two critically endangered Murray-Darling wetlands for protection under the EPBC Act because the minister was unlikely to support the listings following a campaign against them by the National Irrigators Council.

Holes in our green safety net

Recent ecological disasters are proof our laws are failing us catastrophically. And they make the mining industry’s calls to speed-up project approvals particularly audacious.

We need look only to repeated, mass coral bleaching as the Great Barrier Reef collapses in front of us, or a catastrophic summer of bushfires.




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Both tragedies are driven by climate change, caused by burning fossil fuels. It’s clear Australia should be looking to fix the glaring holes in our green safety net, not widen them.The Conversation

Chris McGrath, Associate Professor in Environmental and Planning Regulation and Policy, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia listened to the science on coronavirus. Imagine if we did the same for coal mining



Dan Peled/AAP

Matthew Currell, RMIT University; Adrian Werner, Flinders University; Chris McGrath, The University of Queensland, and Dylan Irvine, Flinders University

Australia’s relative success in stopping the spread of COVID-19 is largely due governments taking expert advice on a complex problem. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of decisions on projects that threaten the environment – most notably, Adani’s Carmichael coal mine.

Our research published today in Nature Sustainability documents how state and federal governments repeatedly ignored independent scientific advice when assessing and approving the Adani mine’s groundwater plans.

We interrogated scientific evidence available to governments and Adani over almost a decade. Our analysis shows governments failed to compel Adani to fully investigate the environmental risks posed by its water plans, despite concerns raised by scientists.

There is also evidence the government approval decisions were influenced by the political climate and pressure exerted by members of government.

Our findings come as the Morrison government conducts a ten-yearly review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. It is critical these laws – Australia’s most important environmental legislation – are reformed to put rigorous, independent science at the core.

Advice ignored

In mid-2019, the federal and Queensland governments approved groundwater management plans for Adani’s Carmichael coal mine. It granted the company unlimited access to groundwater in central Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

We and other experts warned the mine threatens to damage aquifers, rivers and ecosystems – in particular, the Doongmabulla Springs Complex. This system contains more than 150 wetlands which support rare plant communities found nowhere else on earth.

The springs are of major cultural significance to the Wangan and Jagalingou people.

We analysed the full suite of evidence on the groundwater plans from agencies and scientists with expertise in hydro-geology. The evidence, provided to state and federal environment ministers, spanned almost a decade and included at least six independent scientific reviews.

The evidence highlighted major shortcomings, and gaps in knowledge and data.




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Unpacking the flaws in Adani’s water management plan


For example in 2013, the federal government’s Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC) said key geological characteristics in Adani’s groundwater model were not consistent with available field data.

Expert evidence from court-appointed hydro-geology witnesses in the Land Court of Queensland reiterated this concern and raised new questions over whether the source aquifer for the Doongmabulla Springs had been incorrectly identified.

Subsequent joint reviews by CSIRO and Geoscience Australia in February and June 2019 found Adani had failed to conclusively resolve these issues. The agencies also identified further flaws in Adani’s modelling, including interaction between groundwater and the Carmichael River that was again not consistent with field evidence.

The CSIRO and Geoscience Australia concluded the model was “not suitable to ensure the outcomes sought by the EPBC Act conditions are met”.

Moses 3 Lagoon in the Doongmabulla Springs Complex. Source: Land Services of Coast and Country Inc (2014)

Governments under pressure

The federal government received the reviews from CSIRO and Geoscience Australia in February 2019. It did not publicly release them until then-environment minister Melissa Price announced approval of the groundwater plans on April 8. This was effectively the final federal approval the mine needed to proceed.

Media reports at the time suggested Price had been pressured by members of her government to issue approval before the election. What’s more, her department reportedly pushed the CSIRO to endorse Adani’s plans in just hours, and in the absence of critical information.

Within 48 hours of Adani’s approval being announced, the government called a federal election.




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The Coalition was returned to power at the election. Federal Labor suffered heavy losses in regional Queensland – a result many claimed was due to their lukewarm support for the Adani mine.

The Queensland Labor government was also required to sign off on the groundwater plans. Following the federal election result, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk directed that the assessment be completed quickly. The state approved the plans within four weeks.

This was despite being provided a scientific analysis by authors of this article and others, outlining key remaining scientific deficiencies in the groundwater plans.

Once-in-a-decade chance

Our analysis exposes flaws in how evidence informs major government decisions. It also shows why reform of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is so urgent.

The laws are currently under review. Many reputable organisations and scholars have proposed ways the legislation can better protect the environment, increase its independence from government and put science at the core.

Independent scientific committees, such as the federal IESC, are commissioned by governments to advise on mining proposals. We suggest such committees be granted greater powers to request specific data and studies from mining companies to address knowledge gaps before advice is issued.

Alternatively – or in addition – a new independent national commission should be established to oversee environmental impact assessments conducted by mining and other development proponents.

This commission should be empowered to interrogate and resolve key scientific uncertainties, free from political interference. Its recommendations to government should take into account a wide range of expert advice and public feedback.

Doongmabulla Springs, a desert oasis scientists say is at risk from the Adani mine.
Flickr

This would not only improve the evidence base for decisions, but may also speed up assessments – ensuring more effective resolution of uncertainties that often lead to protracted conflict and debate about a mine’s impacts.

Such reform is urgently needed. Australia is suffering unprecedented water stress, environmental harm and declining trust in government.

Australian governments listened to the science when it needed to flatten the curve of COVID-19. The same approach is needed if we’re to preserve the places we love and the ecosystems we depend on.




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An Adani spokesperson provided the following response to the claims raised by the authors:

Adani’s Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems Management Plan (GDEMP) was finalised and approved by both the Australian and Queensland governments almost 12 months ago, bringing to an end more than eight years of heavily scrutinised planning and approvals processes.

The approvals were confirmation that the GDEMP complies with all regulatory conditions, following an almost two-year process of rigorous scientific inquiry, review and approvals. This included relevant independent reviews by Australia’s pre-eminent scientific organisations CSIRO and Geoscience Australia.

There are more than 270 conditions within the mine approvals to protect the natural environment and more than 100 of those relate to groundwater.

We’re now getting on with construction of the Carmichael Mine and Rail project, having awarded more than $750 million in contracts to the benefit of regional Queenslanders.

We remain on track to create more than 1,500 direct jobs during the construction and ramp up of our project and some further 6,750 indirect jobs. At a time when our country is facing some of its toughest challenges, we’re determined to deliver on our commitments of jobs and opportunities.The Conversation

Matthew Currell, Associate Professor in Environmental Engineering, School of Engineering, RMIT University; Adrian Werner, Professor of Hydrogeology, Flinders University; Chris McGrath, Associate Professor in Environmental and Planning Regulation and Policy, The University of Queensland, and Dylan Irvine, Senior lecturer in hydrogeology, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.