Australia plans law change to stop 'sabotage' by activists

SYDNEY • Australia plans to change the law to stop environmental groups from launching "endless legal sabotage" against developments, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said after a court blocked a massive India-backed mine this month.

The legal move, which must pass through Parliament, comes after a court revoked approval for the A$16.5 billion (S$17 billion) Adani- backed Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, which has the potential to be one of the world's biggest.

Mr Abbott said all projects needed to pass strict environmental standards, but once this had been done and had been approved, they needed to proceed to generate jobs and economic growth.

"They shouldn't be subject to endless legal sabotage because the law gives green groups an unusual level of access to the courts," Mr Abbott said yesterday.

Environmental groups accused the government of attempting to "gut" the Environment Protection, Biodiversity and Conservation (EPBC) Act by changing provisions that allow Australians to question federal approvals in court.

"The... EPBC Act has lasted 16 years without bringing the economy to a shuddering halt," said Mr Glen Klatovsky from a coalition of environment groups, including Greenpeace, the Wilderness Society and WWF-Australia.

Mr Klatovsky said the current system provided a safeguard against biased decision-making and better accountability.

The Federal Court decision against the Carmichael mine, which requires the government to reconsider its approval on new advice, was brought by a small environmental group.

It had challenged the approval of the open-cut and underground coal mine on the basis of the amount of greenhouse gases it would create, its impact on vulnerable species and Adani's "poor environmental record".

Activists have also argued that the controversial project could impact the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world's most biodiverse marine areas, because the coal would have to be shipped out of a nearby port.

The government has accused green activists of a deliberate campaign to damage coal mining in Australia, a key export commodity and driver for the economy.

The changes are expected to remove a provision allowing environmental organisations to initiate legal challenges, although the government said locals directly affected by projects could still question the approval process.

"We're just saying if people live 600km away from a coal mine or from a development proposal, what right do they have to prevent that proposal from providing an economic boost to the region," Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Tuesday.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2015, with the headline 'Australia plans law change to stop 'sabotage' by activists'. Print Edition | Subscribe