Press Release - June 14, 2024

Australia’s environment laws in the spotlight as High Court application lodged over new coal and gas  

A small community group from Central Queensland has applied to the High Court over the Environment Minister’s refusal to act on the climate impacts of plans for two large coal mine expansions.  

The Environment Council of Central Queensland (ECoCeQ) has applied for special leave to Australia’s highest court to appeal the Full Federal Court’s dismissal of the landmark Living Wonders climate cases. 

Represented by lawyers from Environmental Justice Australia, ECoCeQ argued in these cases that the Environment Minister is legally required to protect our environment – including koalas, the Alps and the Great Barrier Reef – from the climate harm of two huge coal mine expansions in NSW: the Narrabri Underground Extension Project and Mount Pleasant Optimisation Project.  

Mining companies Narrabri Coal Operations (a subsidiary of Whitehaven Coal) and MACH Energy joined Minister Tanya Plibersek in Court, defending her refusal to act on the scientific evidence of climate risk.  

Christine Carlisle, Environment Council of Central Queensland (ECoCeQ) President said:

“We’re a small volunteer group. We don’t want to go to the High Court, but our climate is breaking down and we feel we have no choice.  

“We’ve applied to the highest court in the land because there are currently 117 new coal and gas projects in the pipeline in Australia – and 35 new coal projects on the Environment Minister’s desk awaiting approval right now.  

“MACH Energy wants to run the biggest coal mine in Australia until nearly 2050 at Mount Pleasant. Whitehaven wants to keep mining mind-boggling amounts of coal from Narrabri until 2044. These two coal mines will fuel billions of tonnes of climate emissions in coming years. We argue that damage needs to be carefully assessed under our environment laws.  

“We’ve applied to the High Court because the Environment Minister could imminently greenlight these huge coal mines without properly assessing their climate risk to our environment. 

“The outcome of this High Court application stands to impact all pending coal and gas projects currently awaiting approval on the Minister’s desk.” 

Ellie Smith, ECoCeQ volunteer said:

“The Environment Minister’s fundamental job is to protect our environment. We say it’s unlawful for her to ignore the climate risks that huge new coal mines pose to our environment.

“Instead of standing up to fossil fuel companies, Australia’s Environment Minister keeps standing with them in court, defending her refusal to act on the climate harm of new coal and gas mines.

“The Environment Minister says she accepts that coal and gas mines have profound and devastating effects on our climate and environment. But she’s refusing to act on that harm.

“The science is clear. We are in a climate crisis, and every new coal and gas project is pouring more fuel on the fire.

Environmental Justice Australia Co-CEO Elizabeth McKinnon said:

“ECoCeQ has applied to the High Court because they argue the Living Wonders climate cases present a question of law of significant public importance.

“If leave is granted, our client will ask the High Court to clarify the Australian Environment Minister’s legal obligations when assessing huge coal mines for their grave risk of climate harm.

“Australia’s High Court has never considered the scope or operation of Australia’s national environmental law, or the requirements around environmental risk assessments and the Minister’s power to approve or refuse proposed projects.

Media contact: Miki Perkins (03) 8341 3110 or [email protected]

Media background


These High Court applications again put the spotlight on Australia’s national environment laws.

Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act):

  • Australia’s current Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has so far approved 8 new gas projects and 5 coal mines and expansions.
  • There are currently 117 new coal and gas projects in the pipeline in Australia.
  • Right now, there are plans for 35 new coal mines and expansions on the Minister’s desk awaiting approval.
  • Since the EPBC Act came into force 25 years ago, Australia’s Environment Ministers have approved 740 new coal and gas mines and expansions.


Narrabri Underground Mine Stage 3 Extension Project: A subsidiary of Whitehaven Coal plans to extend underground mining operations at the Narrabri thermal coal mine until 2044, an additional 13 years.

  • The evidence presented in the Federal Court painted a devastating picture of the climate impact of the Narrabri coal mine, which would potentially fuel 259 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The Whitehaven subsidiary plans to extract approximately 82 million additional tonnes of coal.
  • Locally, it would also destroy 500 hectares of critical habitat for endangered koalas.

Mount Pleasant Optimisation Project: MACH Energy plans to significantly expand open cut thermal coal mining in its Muswellbrook Mount Pleasant mine site in the NSW Hunter Valley, until almost 2050.

  • If approved, Mount Pleasant would become the biggest coal mine in Australia, three times larger than the Adani coal mine approved by the Morrison Government.
  • MACH Energy seeks to double its annual coal extraction to a total of 444 million tonnes and extend the mine’s operations until 2048.

Vision of the Mount Pleasant mine is available here.


Legal challenges – In July 2022, the Environment Council of Central Queensland (ECoCeQ) requested the federal Environment Minister reconsider the environmental risk assessment for 19 large coal and gas projects under Australia’s national environment laws. ECoCeQ argued the risk assessment of these coal and gas projects should recognise that their climate impact will harm close to 2,000 nationally significant species, places, and ecological communities includes iconic wildlife like koalas and turtles, as well as World and National Heritage areas like the Great Barrier Reef, the Tarkine and Kakadu.

Environment Minister accepts the evidence but refuses to act – While the Minister accepted the evidence that these projects will have adverse effects on our climate and on very many protected species and places across our environment, she refused to act on that evidence to change the risk assessment of Whitehaven’s Narrabri coal mine expansion, MACH Energy’s Mount Pleasant Optimisation Project, and Idemitsu’s Ensham coal mine extension.

Federal Court cases – ECoCeQ challenged the Minister decisions in the Federal Court and appealed to the Full Federal Court, arguing the Minister made key legal errors when she denied the impact of the serious and irreversible climate harm these new coal projects are likely to cause. In May 2024, the Full Federal Court dismissed the Living Wonders appeals.

ECoCeQ has now applied for special leave to the High Court, arguing this is a question of law of significant public importance. ECoCeQ is asking the High Court to clarify the Australian Environment Minister’s legal obligations when assessing two coal mines for their grave risk of climate harm right across the Australian environment.

Legal arguments: ECoCeQ argues that, when Australia’s Environment Minister assessed the risk of these coal mines, she used what is known as the “market substitution” argument or “drug-dealers defence”, as well as “drop in the ocean” logic, enabling her to sidestep the climate impacts. She successfully defended her use of this reasoning in the Federal Court. With their High Court special leave application, ECoCeQ continues to argue that this is dangerous logic that is out of step with the law, with science and with public expectations.

Media contact: Call or email Miki Perkins on (03) 8341 3110 or [email protected]

The Environment Council of Central Queensland is a small volunteer group acting as a voice for the environment in the region. Surround by reefs, rainforest, koalas, and a staggering number of coal mines, the group formed out of rapidly growing concern for the health and future of the local environment and the impact local developments are having on our planet’s climate.

Environmental Justice Australia is a national public interest legal organisation. For more than 30 years, EJA has used the law for safe climate, thriving nature, environmental justice and a radically better world.