OPINION

It's impossible to justify new coal, and it must be banned

A few years ago one of my kids asked me "Dad, where do coal mines come from?". "Well", I was tempted to respond, "when a government and a mining company love each other very much..."

Climate change protesters march through the streets of Brisbane in opposition to Adani's proposed Carmichael mine in Queensland. Picture: AAP

Climate change protesters march through the streets of Brisbane in opposition to Adani's proposed Carmichael mine in Queensland. Picture: AAP

The truth is that Australia has too many political leaders who do indeed have an unhealthy attraction to big coal, oil and gas as well as a system of laws and regulations that enables their lust. And it is local communities, vital water supplies, rich farmlands, our magnificent wildlife and the global climate that pay the price for our politician's perverse affection for these polluting and poisonous substances and the unfairness of the existing rules.

In this climate emergency, we need new rules that are fit for purpose to protect our communities and nature - and to keep all that unburnable carbon in the ground.

Instead, Resource Minister Matt Canavan and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg want to make Australia's unfit mining approvals system even worse and have asked the Productivity Commission to review resources sector regulation with a view to making it even easier for the big coal companies.

Our politicians are meant to represent their electorates and the wider Australian community. This is just another example of them preferring the interests of coal companies ahead of everyone else.

Emissions from burning coal are the number one driver of the climate emergency in Australia, contributing to crippling droughts and unprecedented heatwaves. Right now 65 per cent of Queensland alone is in drought and July is likely to be confirmed as the hottest on record, following the warmest ever June.

Coal also directly pollutes our atmosphere. In NSW coal-burning power plants are allowed to emit 666 times more mercury than in the United States and 33 times more than in China, contributing to thousands of early deaths. Big coal is also a massive user of our precious groundwater.

Resources Minister Matt Canavan has asked the Productivity Commission to review sector regulation. Picture: Attila Csaszar

Resources Minister Matt Canavan has asked the Productivity Commission to review sector regulation. Picture: Attila Csaszar

It is clear that the current system does not adequately protect people, water, land and nature from coal, oil and gas mining as some recent examples demonstrate.

Just last week it was revealed that one of the world's biggest mining companies, Glencore, has received special treatment from our government during the approval process over the last 20 years. The NSW Department of Planning and other government agencies have made it their practice to secretly workshop 'problematic' mine approval conditions and share draft conditions of consent with the mining companies prior to approval, despite no public declaration of this ongoing arrangement.

Meanwhile, up in Queensland coal miner New Acland, was fined $3152 for drilling 27 illegal bores. It is hard to imagine that paying a fine less than the cost of a decent second-hand ute will act as much of a deterrent to a company whose parent made $160 million in after-tax profit in the six months to January 2019.

Australian mining law fails to give proper weight to what is in the public interest and doesn't adequately consider the cumulative impact of approvals. Coal projects are only getting "approved" because the laws and regulations are defined so narrowly that the most important questions are not even asked. Most significantly, there is no "climate trigger" which questions whether a project should proceed, given the limits on future fossil fuel use that are essential if we are to keep global warming to under 1.5 degrees. Logically, it is impossible to justify any new coal, oil or gas mine in the face of climate emergency, but there is no law or regulation in Australia to adequately reflect this reality.

As it stands, Australia's regulatory frameworks shamefully favour mining companies over communities, often leaving no option but legal appeals. Communities such as Gloucester, Bulga, and Camberwell have had to resort to legal challenges because the planning system puts the interests of large mining companies above the amenity and in some cases viability of those communities. Already, the law is stacked against people - and in favour of the coal and gas companies - making litigation not only expensive and stressful but extremely difficult for any individual, family or community that decides to take a stand.

When the terrible health effects of asbestos mining became clear, we simply stopped it.

We are in the thick of the climate emergency, and this is a time that the federal government should be strengthening environmental protections, rather than tearing them down.

The latest United Nations IPCC report week is another stark reminder that we are living in a climate emergency. We must act swiftly to reducing greenhouse gas pollution from all sectors. The Australian government's own data confirms that Australia is nowhere near on track for meeting its obligations under the Paris Agreement on reducing emissions. It's time for our politicians to listen to the advice of the experts and to pay attention to the needs of people, rather than the profit margins of the fossil fuel industry.

When the terrible health effects of asbestos mining became clear, we simply stopped it. Now the moment has been reached when we need to similarly prohibit fossil fuel expansion. Rather than making it easier to get permission to pollute groundwater, destroy farmland and accelerate the global climate emergency, all new coal mining must be banned.

  • David Ritter is the chief executive of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.
This story It is impossible to justify any new coal first appeared on The Canberra Times.