Why is a minister claiming to ‘save the reef’ now in court for ‘failing’ to protect it?

Key Points
  • Environment minister Tanya Plibersek will face federal court this week.
  • She is being accused of refusing to act on the climate science.
  • The verdict could have implications on new gas and coal mining projects in Australia.
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek is facing accusations of failing to protect the Great Barrier Reef and other climate harm caused by coal mining.
The Federal Court will hear the case against Plibersek in Melbourne this week and those behind it say the outcome could have implications for major coal and gas projects across Australia.
after she refused its request to reconsider the full scope of climate impacts from two coal mining projects at Narrabri and in the Hunter Valley in NSW.
The companies behind the projects – Whitehaven Coal subsidiary Narrabri Coal Operations, and MACH Energy – have joined the proceedings in support of the minister.

The accusations follow the UN’s move last week not to place the Great Barrier Reef in a list of world heritage sites “in danger”, which Plibersek credited to Labor’s environmental policies.

Why is the council taking Plibersek to court and what are their arguments?

Lawyers from Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) are representing the council and will argue federal environment laws generally require the assessment of climate impacts, caused by fossil fuels, on 2100 matters of national environmental significance.

They range from entire ecosystems such as the reef and the Tasmanian wilderness to individual species including the critically endangered Baw Baw frog and the blue-top sun-orchid, which is down to 130 plants.

“Our client argues it was unlawful for Australia’s environment minister to refuse to act on the climate science, outlined in thousands of scientific reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and her own department,” says EJA senior lawyer Retta Berryman.
“Our client asserts the minister has a legal responsibility to face up to the harm new coal and gas will cause to Australia’s unique plants, animals and places.”

Christine Carlisle is the president of the Environment Centre of Central Queensland and says she’s relieved the matter is now in the hands of a court.

Great Barrier Reef aerial image.

Tanya Plibersek if facing accusations that she’s failed to protect the Great Barrier Reef by not thoroughly considering implications of coal mines. Credit: Jumbo Aerial Photography/AP

“We hope not just to win these cases, but to set a precedent that all new coal and gas projects must be properly assessed for their climate risk to our environment.

“We didn’t want it to come to this … We’re doing this because we’re so tired of the sound bites. So tired of photos of ministers posing with koalas, saying all the right things but failing to act.”
The case is centred on Whitehaven’s plan to extend underground mining at the Narrabri thermal coal mine until 2044, and MACH Energy’s intention to expand open-cut thermal coal mining at Mount Pleasant in the Hunter Valley until almost 2050.

Climate Council research director Simon Bradshaw says it’s reckless for the government to be approving new coal mines without considering the climate harm that comes from burning those fossil fuels.

“These two coal mines’ lifetime emissions total 1.35 billion tonnes of carbon pollution, that’s roughly triple Australia’s total emissions last year, and that will contribute to the warming of our planet.”
“Any missed opportunity to leave coal and gas in the ground increases the danger we will face, and is condemning future Australians to greater hardships.”

The minister declined to comment due to the looming proceedings, as did Whitehaven Coal. AAP also contacted MACH Energy but did not receive a response.

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