NSW to try to stop mine projects being blocked because of their overseas emissions

Lisa Cox

The New South Wales government has announced it will introduce legislation to try to stop planning authorities from blocking mine developments based on emissions from coal once it is burned.

The push is a response to the historic Rocky Hill verdict delivered by the NSW Land and Environment court earlier this year and comes just days after the government launched a review of the state’s Independent Planning Commission (IPC).

Environment groups and the legal firm that represented Groundswell Gloucester have described it as a capitulation to the mining industry, which has waged a campaign over recent planning decisions that either rejected mining projects outright or imposed conditions on them related to their impact on the climate.

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“The government is effectively banning planning bodies from considering the biggest environmental challenge of our age,” the Nature Conservation Council chief executive, Chris Gambian, said.

The NSW deputy premier and resources minister, John Barilaro, said the government would introduce legislation to parliament in the next week to prevent “the regulation of overseas, or scope-three, greenhouse gas emissions” in mining approvals.

For a coalmine, scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions are largely from the burning of the coal after it is sold into the market, including overseas.

“The government has a very clear policy when it comes to the consideration of scope-three emissions and this will now be enshrined in legislation and through changes to the Mining SEPP (state environmental planning policy),” Barilaro said on Tuesday.

The changes the government is proposing include amending the State Environmental Planning Policy (Mining, Petroleum Production and Extractive Industries) to remove the requirement to consider downstream emissions (emissions after coal or gas is sold and burned).

It also plans to amend the Environmental Planning & Assessment Act so that planning authorities are prohibited from imposing conditions on developers related to downstream emissions.

“These changes will help restore NSW law and policy to the situation that existed prior to the Rocky Hill decision and will provide the mining sector with greater certainty,” Barilaro said.

The proposal is not unexpected and was foreshadowed by the government earlier this month following a campaign by the NSW Minerals Council, which has attacked a number of recent decisions by planning authorities in NSW.

In February, the land and environment court rejected the Rocky Hill coalmine near Gloucester, citing the impact it would have on climate change, including through the burning of coal in other countries.

In August, the NSW IPC approved the expanded United Wambo coal project near Singleton but as a condition said the coal could only be exported to countries that have ratified the Paris agreement.

In September, the commission rejected the development of a greenfield coalmine in NSW’s Bylong Valley, citing the impact the mine would have on groundwater, agricultural land and on climate change.

David Morris, from the Environmental Defenders Office NSW, which represented Groundswell Gloucester in the Rocky Hill case, said the government’s response was “a rushed announcement, a thought bubble, rather than a serious attempt at law reform” and it was unclear how the proposal would actually work.

“It’s not clear how the deputy premier sees this working in practice. We’ll have further comment once we’ve seen the substance of the bill,” he said.

“The most significant climate judgment in this nation’s history was based on scientific evidence. The government’s decision today is based on a kneejerk capitulation to the mining industry without regard for future generations.”

The Lock the Gate coordinator George Woods said the government had gone “completely over the top” in trying to deal with what was essentially a trade issue for NSW and “blown it out of proportion to try to wash their hands of the issue keeping Australians up at night”.

“It’s over the top and out of touch with the community and the greatest strategic, economic and environmental issue we’re all facing,” she said.

“(The planning minister) Rob Stokes is going to be remembered for taking NSW backwards on the most important issue of our century.”

NSW Labor’s environment spokeswoman, Kate Washington, said Labor had sought a briefing from the government.