Australia's coal-lump caressing prime minister won't speak its name, but a NSW judge has cited climate change in a landmark ruling on Friday, blocking plans to develop an open-cut coal mine in the state's Hunter Valley region.
Chief judge Brian Preston dismissed an appeal by Gloucester Resources, which was seeking – via the NSW Land and Environment Court – to overturn the state government's rejection of the Rocky Hill mine, proposed for around 1km from a retirement community.
The NSW Department of Planning rejected the development application of the Gloucester Resources project in October 2017, citing the impact it would have on the nearby town, its people and amenity, but not mentioning climate.
In delivering his judgment, Preston – who co-founded the NSW Environmental Defenders Office – said that an open-cut coal mine in the Gloucester Valley 'would be in the wrong place at the wrong time'.
'Wrong place because an open cut coal mine in this scenic and cultural landscape, proximate to many people's homes and farms, will cause significant planning, amenity, visual and social impacts,' he wrote.
'Wrong time because the GHG emissions of the coal mine and its coal product will increase global total concentrations of GHGs at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally agreed climate targets, is a rapid and deep decrease in GHG emissions.
'These dire consequences should be avoided. The project should be refused.'
The decision is being hailed as an historic moment for Australia, where coal maintains a firm grip on industry and politics, despite the huge global shift away from fossil fuels, driven by cheap renewables and the growing threat of climate change.
The controversial Rocky Hill mine had faced strong local opposition, particularly from the community of Gloucestor, north of Newcastle, which had already successfully battled against AGL Energy plans to mine coal seam gas in the area.
Justice Preston not only rejected the miner's appeal of the government's decision – based on the impact on the nearby town – but put the coal mine's inevitable contribution to climate change and its 'dire consequences' front and centre, where the world's leading climate scientists say it should be.
Tim Buckley – director of energy finance studies at IEEFA, and an expert witness for the EDO NSW in the Rocky Hill case – praised local activist group, Groundswell Gloucester, and climate science expert Will Steffen, for their contributions to the 'landmark' decision.
He said it was Professor Steffen who convinced Justice Preston that there was a finite global carbon budget, and that it was rapidly being used up by existing fossil fuel projects.
'This NSW Land and Environment Court decision this morning on the Rocky Hill coal mine is a landmark case, setting an excellent precedent that carbon emissions need to be included in any assessment of the cost-benefit analysis of new project developments,' Buckley told RE.
'My testimony was that the global financial markets are rapidly moving towards coal divestment, and with ever lower cost renewable energy and new technology developments, an energy system disruption is well underway in a converging global landscape.
'Also, with an implicit if not explicit price of carbon now increasingly being factored in by corporations globally, proposals like Rocky Hill had rising stranded asset risks that means the proposed benefits put forward by the proponent were highly questionable, and far outweighed by the costs to the community.'
Former Greens MP turned NSW Independent, Jeremy Buckingham also welcomed the decision, and applauded the efforts of the 'indefatigable' Gloucester community.
'The cumulative impact of carbon emissions from coal mining has never been properly recognised in the planning process in NSW. I'm pleased that this judgment recognises this most important factor in an age of climate change.
'The court result today recognises that we can't have new coal mines and protect people and the planet from the worst impacts of climate change,' Buckingham said.
Greens climate and energy spokesperson Adam Bandt described the ruling as a 'game changer.'
'A court has ruled that a coal mine can't proceed because Australian coal, whether burned here or abroad, will make climate change worse,' he said.
'Now we as law makers need to follow suit. I'll introduce legislation when Parliament resumes to stop new coal mines and phase out coal mining.'
'From floods in Queensland, drought in the Murray Darling to fires in Tasmania, climate change is hitting Australia hard. It shouldn't be left up to judges to act. Labor and Liberal politicians must join the Greens to pass a law to keep coal in the ground.”
Sophie is editor of One Step Off The Grid
and deputy editor of its sister site, Renew Economy
. Sophie has been writing about clean energy for more than a decade.