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Abbott cracks down on 'lawfare'

Jennifer Macey, Sydney
September 11, 2015

As Australia's executive pushes for reform of environmental laws, momentum is growing against development of coal energy in the country. But the matter is still far from settled.

Yakka skink
Image: Mackay Conservation Group

The Australian House of Representatives on Thursday (10.09.2015) approved controversial reforms to the country's federal environmental law, which if passed by the senate, could make it harder for green groups to challenge development projects.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott wants to gut the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act - a bedrock of the country's environmental law framework - after an Australian federal court temporarily halted a controversial coal mine on environmental grounds.

For the past five years, the Indian energy company Adani has been struggling for federal and state approval to start building the Carmichael mine.

If built, the open-cut would be Australia's largest, and could produce 60 million tons of coal per year. It is worth about 16 billion Australian dollars, or 10 billion euros.

In August, one of Australia's highest courts set aside federal government approval for the mine, finding that Environment Minister Greg Hunt had failed to take into account its impact on two vulnerable species: a small reptile called the yakka skink, and the ornamental snake.

Critics say the attempt to reform the law in Australia represents a systematic - and over-exaggerated - attempt to repress the growing popular movement against coal there.

David beats Goliath - Goliath beats back

For decades, Mackay Conservation Group has warned of the impacts of coal mining on the ornamental snake and yakka skink. The small community group took the Australian government to court over its approval of the mine - and won.

Australian ornamental snake (Photo: Stewart MacDonald)
The rare ornamental snake is endemic to central eastern QueenslandImage: Theodore Plains

"If you really want to protect biodiversity, you have to go through the court system," said Patricia Julien, a research analyst for the group. "But its very expensive, and not something we do lightly," she added.

The case enraged the pro-coal government - and prompted a strong backlash.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the "mine was legally sabotaged by green activists, running a strategic campaign against the coal industry."

Abbott has forwarded changes to environmental laws - specifically, to prevent green groups from using legal action to stop mines or other big projects.

Accusations of legal abuse

Australia's mining industry supports moves to reform the national environment laws.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announcing climate pledges
Some observers say Tony Abbott has made fighting environmentalists a personal battleImage: Getty Images/S. Postles

Michael Roche, CEO of the Queensland Resources Council, said the government needs to step in and stop environmental activism. "It would be a huge tragedy to allow the activists tactics to prevail, the demand for this coal is there," Roche said.

So-called environmental "lawfare" is putting jobs at risk, according to Australian Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane. He claims that tens of thousands of jobs would be at stake if the Carmichael mine does not go ahead - despite Adani's own forecasts that 1,464 jobs would be created.

MacFarlane criticized how one development project after another is apparently being held up in various Australian courts. "Environment groups are taking this war against development to a whole new level," he said.

Yet in the past 15 years since the environment laws came into effect, the vast majority of projects have been approved.

Ben Oquist - executive director of the Australia Institute - pointed out that of the 5,500 projects that have gone through this legal procedure, only 33 ended up in federal court.

Of those, only six were legally successful - and only two have been stopped by a third-party appeal, Oquist told DW. "It's a deliberate distraction from the government," he added.

Lawyers from the New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office, who acted on behalf of the Mackay Conservation Group, described the government's reaction as extraordinary. Executive director Jeff Smith said all Australians have the right to use the courts.

"There's no evidence that environment groups were using the courts vexatiously or inappropriately," Smith told DW. "In fact, a review of the act after 10 years found that the laws were working well, and that the provisions should be strengthened."

Vast environmental impact

Not only the Carmichael coal mine itself, but also planned infrastructure around the mine has been controversial.

Aerial photo of the Abbott Point coal port terminal on the Great Barrier Reef (Photo: Tom Jefferson)
The port expansion at Abbott Point is just one infrastructure project planned to support coal developmentImage: Tom Jefferson

The Galilee Basin, where the Carmichael mine would be built, is 500 kilometers inland from Australia's east coast, and a dedicated railway line would be needed to transport the coal for export.

The port at Abbott Point, which would have to be expanded to support the extra coal being shipped overseas, sits at the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.

This would require dredging adjacent to the fragile coral ecosystem of the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef - and would inevitably lead to an increase in ship traffic through the reef system.

Blair Palese, CEO of 350.org Australia, said if the coal dug from this mine is burned, it could tip the global budget carbon to dangerous levels.

"Shipping coal through the Great Barrier Reef is an environmental risk - but opening up gigantic coal mine areas at a time when we're talking about phasing out coal is ludicrous, Palese told DW.

Growing divestment push

Companies like Adani have been targeted by environmental groups such as 350.org and Greenpeace, which continue to urge institutions to divest from fossil fuels.

The Carmichael mine has already lost a potential major customer: Korean electronics giant LG pulled out from its intention to buy four million tons of coal from the mine.

After the groups' focus on new coal projects, dozens of councils and universities nationwide are now phasing out investment in fossil fuels, Palese said.

Alpha Coal test pit, Galilee Basin, Qld the proposed site of Australia's largest ever coal mine (Photo: Greenpeace/Andrew Quilty)
The alpha test pit is a sign of what might come for the Galilee Basin if the Carmichael mine moves forwardImage: Greenpeace/A. Quilty

"There's real momentum going in Australia, based on frustration that the government is not acting," Palese said on the climate issue. "People really get that the time for building new coal mines is over."

The National Australia Bank has also pulled out from what would be the country's largest coal mine - joining 13 other international financial institutions including Deutsche Bank, HSBC and Credit Agricole in refusing to lend money to the mine.

"The project is in trouble financially - coal is in structural decline, the price of coal is way down, India is talking about banning coal imports within three years," Oquist said.

"The project isn't going to stack up financially," he concluded.