Australian govt must consider climate risks to kids in decision on coal mine expansion, court rules

The Australian federal court ruling could set a precedent for all fossil fuel projects.
The Australian federal court ruling could set a precedent for all fossil fuel projects.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Australia's federal court has ruled that the government must consider risks posed to young people from climate change in a looming decision on a coal mine expansion - a ruling that could set a precedent for all fossil fuel projects.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley must assess the consequences of additional greenhouse gas emissions from raw materials produced if Whitehaven Coal is permitted to extend an operation in New South Wales, Judge Mordy Bromberg said in a Thursday (July 8) ruling at the Federal Court of Australia.

"The risk of harm that the minister must take reasonable care to avoid is personal injury or death to the children arising from the emission of carbon dioxide from the burning of coal extracted from the extension project," he said in the judgment.

Eight schoolchildren and an octogenarian nun brought the case to court.

Whitehaven declined to comment on the judgment. The producer's shares were 2.7 per cent lower in afternoon trade in Sydney.

This is the latest legal challenge to the fossil fuel industry as climate campaigners seek to use courts to press companies to accelerate efforts to address global warming.

A May ruling in The Hague ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut emissions faster than planned, and there are about 1,800 climate litigations pending around the world, according to Columbia Law School's Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law.

Judge Bromberg earlier dismissed an injunction aimed at halting the mine expansion sought by campaigners in Australia. The latest decision that the government must weigh climate risks will likely complicate the task of considering Whitehaven's proposal.

The judgment could pose challenges to any applications for the approval of new fossil fuels projects in Australia, a key global producer of coal and liquefied natural gas. Earnings from energy and mining exports are forecast to rise to A$334 billion (S$337.5 billion) in the current fiscal year.

"The reasons underpinning the duty set a precedent for the minister to take reasonable care over the risks any fossil fuel project before the minister poses to children," Mr David Barnden, lawyer for the Australian campaigners, said by phone.

Whitehaven's planned Vickery mine expansion involves a "tiny but measurable" impact on climate change, and would produce about an additional 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions over the life of the operation, Judge Bromberg said in May.

Australia's emissions last year were 499 million tonnes, according to government data.

Australia's government "will review the judgment closely and assess all available options", Mrs Ley's office said in an e-mail statement.