Press Release - February 12, 2024

Environment Minister back in court for refusing to act on climate harm of new coal

After a climate-disrupted summer, Australia’s Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, is back in court for refusing to act on the climate harm of new coal mines.

A small central Queensland environment group is taking Minister Plibersek and two big coal companies back to court for failing to protect our environment from climate harm.

The Environment Council of Central Queensland, represented by lawyers from Environmental Justice Australia, has appealed last year's decision of a single judge in the Living Wonders climate cases to the Full Bench of the Federal Court.

The appeal will be heard today and tomorrow before their Honours Chief Justice Debra Mortimer and Justices Craig Colvin and Christopher Horan.

The volunteer group will argue the Environment Minister is required by law to scrutinise the climate risk of new coal and gas plans. By refusing to do so, they say she has failed to protect our environment from serious harm.

When Australia’s Environment Minister assessed the harm of these coal mines, and when she defended her decisions in the Federal Court, she used what is known as the “market substitution” argument or “drug-dealers defence”, as well as “drop in the ocean” logic.

ECoCeQ will argue this was legally irrational, involved ‘fatalistic’ reasoning and essentially allowed her to render the massive harm of Australian coal as ‘invisible’.

The dismissal of the cases last year effectively cleared the way for the Minister to ignore climate change in her risk assessment of all new coal and gas projects on her desk – of which there are more than 25.

The cases come amid a global reassessment of the climate impacts of coal and gas, with the US Biden administration recently halting all new licenses for LNG export terminals so they can be properly scrutinised for their climate impact.

The Environment Council of Central Queensland is a volunteer community group formed in Mackay. ECoCeQ's cases have attracted significant public interest and have been generously supported by people across Australia.

Environmental Justice Australia is an independent non-profit legal organisation that currently receives no federal government funding.

The cases will be livestreamed on YouTube by the Federal Court.

President of the Environment Council of Central Queensland, Christine Carlisle

“We're not backing down. We argue it is the environment minister’s fundamental job to protect our environment, not dodge her responsibilities.

Instead of standing up to fossil fuel companies, our environment minister is standing with them in court.

We're living through another climate-disrupted summer, with fires, floods and storms causing chaos.

The science is clear. Every new coal mine is adding more fuel to the fire. At the very least, they need to be properly assessed for their climate impact.

There are dozens of new fossil fuel projects on the minister’s desk awaiting approval right now, so there’s a lot riding on this appeal.”

Environment Council of Central Queensland member and Great Barrier Reef diver, Tony Fontes:

“I came to Australia as a backpacker in the 1979, fell in love with the Great Barrier Reef
and never left.

I still remember my first dive – spectacular and humbling. It changed my life forever. I saw the Reef as an everlasting fortress of coral. But time and climate change have proven me wrong.

It has been heart wrenching to watch my favourite diving spots slowly cooked by marine heatwaves. Stressed and dying corals, growing white from bleaching then disappearing under dirty brown algae.

It’s the same devastating story for our living wonders right across Australia. That’s why I’m a member of the Environment Council of Central Queensland, and why we’re back in court.

The science is clear – Australia’s environment minister needs to do her job protecting our environment from climate harm.”

Environmental Justice Australia Senior Specialist Lawyer Retta Berryman:

“By refusing to scrutinise the climate impacts of these two coal mines, our client argues the Environment Minister acted unlawfully.

Our client’s case will highlight significant legal errors in how the Minister applied our national environment laws. Our client will argue the Minister’s risk assessment of the mines was irrational, illogical and unlawful.”

The mines:

MACH Energy plans to extend the Mount Pleasant coal mine until almost 2050. It would become the largest producing coal mine in Australia, three times larger than the Adani coal mine approved by the Morrison Government.

A subsidiary of Whitehaven Coal Limited plans to extend underground mining operations at the Narrabri thermal coal mine in NSW until 2044.