Australian environment minister blocks coal mine near Great Barrier Reef

Central Queensland Coal Project

Central Queensland Coal Project — Image courtesy Map Data 2023 @Google

In a rare environmental victory, Australia’s environment minister Tanya Plibersek has rejected a proposed open-cut coal mine in Queensland. Open-cut mining, or pit mining, is a process where rocks and minerals are extracted from a large open-air pit, which can cause changes to the vegetation, soil, bedrock, and nearby bodies of water and can also lead to the release of harmful pollutants, depending on the type of mining and minerals being excavated.

The Central Queensland Coal Project is very close to the Great Barrier Reef, which has been a World Heritage site since 1981. The decision follows a consultation process after an initial assessment in August 2022. Earlier in the year, the Queensland Department of Environment and Science (DES) released a statement saying the mine “poses a number of unacceptable risks and is not suitable to proceed.”

The reef has been the centre of controversy for several years, with climate change just one of several factors posing threats. In 2021, UNESCO proposed classifying the reef as “in danger.”

The mine rejection was based on the “risks of damage to the reef, freshwater creeks and groundwater.” The possible negative impact of the mine on climate change was not part of the decision.

In an unusual move, the minister announced her decision on social media rather than through a press release. The accompanying video quickly gained traction on social media:

Her department released a brief official Notification of decision under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC) containing the legislative grounds for their decision:

Notification of decision – screenshot of PDF document

Plibersek’s announcement was met with mostly warm reactions on social media.

Kate Wylie, chair of the Climate and Environmental group of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, echoed the sentiments of many Twitter users:

As with the Twitter replies, the same video on her Facebook page attracted a lot of positive comments, with some criticism mixed in.

Jo Jackson King was enthusiastic:

Tears in my eyes. Thank you Minister and all those working alongside you.. This is a beautiful act for our beautiful imperiled planet.

On the other hand, William Monteith was not convinced:

Funny, only yesterday, I watched a programme on the Great Barrier Reef, where the scientists and people who actually work on the Reef say it is thriving and in great condition.

Who is telling the truth, as only a few years ago we were being told the Reef was dying.

I am no expert but from what I understand this proposed mining is nowhere near the Reef, can someone tell me how many kilometres is it from the Reef.

Community groups such as the Lock the Gate organisation, a grassroots anti-mining coalition, also welcomed the news. Their Queensland coordinator, Ellie Smith, commented:

We welcome Minister Plibersek’s decision to reject this coal mine. It was an outrageous proposal that would have carved up farmland and bushland, draining local groundwater and dumping toxic mine water into the reef.

…The reality of climate change is that no government anywhere in the world can open new coal and gas projects if we want to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of anthropogenic global warming.

They are many Australians who would like to see ministerial action to stop other fossil fuel projects. However, associate professor Justine Bell-James, an academic with expertise in environmental and climate change law, is pessimistic about future use of these federal powers. This applies in partricular to climate change-related instances:

…persuading the federal minister […] will not be easy. That’s because the law contains no explicit requirement for the minister to consider the climate change impacts of a proposal.

She argues that even a change of the law to include climate considerations might not help:

Such arguments are difficult to run. That’s partly because they string together a number of causal links. In other words, they rest on the assumption that one action is definitively responsible for another, and so on down the chain.

There is a highly charged undercurrent to the minister’s ruling. The project’s owner, billionaire Clive Palmer, is a high-profile and controversial participant in Australian politics. He leads the right-wing United Australia Party (UAP). One of his mining companies donated AUD 116 million [USD 81 million] to the UAP before the 2022 federal election. It has one senator in the national parliament.

Mastodon user Bin Chicken is clearly not a Palmer fan:

Palmer has indicated that he will be taking further action over the mining proposal, according to Australian Mining magazine’s website:

There will be action taken. I can’t really talk about it. I’m not the sort of person who doesn’t do anything, as you’ve probably realised from my history.

He has some support on Facebook such as Craig Lankester:

Pay back to Palmer. The reef is 100km away, only listening to anti mining advocates. The real hypocrisy is the feel good banning mining in Australia and watching that same mining occur overseas. No net gain for the environment just a loss of income to Australia and a substantial increase in virtue signaling.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the political spectrum, the Greens party is linking support in the Senate for government climate legislation to the ending of all new coal and gas projects. Their leader Adam Bandt tweeted:

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