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The federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, has approved Whitehaven Coal’s Vickery mine extension in northern New South Wales in a decision environmental advocates have described as a betrayal of Australian children.
Ley’s decision to approve the mine comes six weeks before world leaders are due to meet for the United Nations Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow where Australia is under pressure to announce tougher national emissions reduction targets.
The approval, published Thursday, is the second coalmining project Ley has green-lit in the past two weeks and follows a federal court ruling that she has a duty of care to protect young people from the climate crisis.
The eight students who brought the case, which unsuccessfully sought an injunction against the Vickery extension but found the minister had a duty to not act in a way that would cause future harm to young people, said they were dismayed by Ley’s decision.
“The decision to approve this mine comes only weeks after the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of the urgent need to stop the extraction and burning of coal to contain global warming,” said Ava Princi, an 18-year-old from Sydney who was one of the eight students who brought the case.
“In approving the mine, Minister Ley has turned her back on the federal court, the international scientific consensus on climate change, and the children and young people of Australia.”
The Vickery project would construct an open-cut coalmine near Gunnedah and extract 168m tonnes of coal over 25 years.
While it is referred to as the Vickery mine extension, there is no mine at the location it will be built. The approval is for an extension on an earlier, smaller Whitehaven project that was approved but not built.
Between 60% and 70% of the coal extracted is expected to be metallurgical coal used in steel-making and the remainder thermal coal for electricity generation.
Whitehaven said the project would create 950 jobs during construction and operation of the mine and would deliver a net $1.2bn economic benefit to NSW.
According to the NSW government’s assessment of the mine, the project would generate about 370m tonnes of carbon emissions, 366m of which would be produced once the coal is exported and used, known as scope 3 emissions.
Ley’s approval of the mine is subject to environmental conditions including a water management plan and offsets for the destruction of habitat for threatened species, including the regent honeyeater and swift parrot.
David Barnden, the lawyer who represented the students in what has become known globally as the Sharma case, said the legal team was considering the approval and further court action.
“The approval is a surprise in light of the federal court’s careful reasoning establishing the minister’s duty of care not to harm children,” he said.
“The Morrison government’s decision signals to the world that Australia does not appear prepared to act responsibly to protect children from climate harms.”
A spokesman for Ley said the minister was carrying out her responsibilities in accordance with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and was “taking into account all other relevant considerations”.
“A formal statement of reasons detailing considerations in relation to recent court decisions, environmental safeguards and strict conditions to protect water system resources will be published,” he said.
Ley has lodged an appeal to the federal court’s finding.
In a statement to the ASX on Thursday, Whitehaven welcomed the decision, which followed “an exhaustive process of technical evaluation and stakeholder consultation at both the state and federal levels spanning five years”.
The company said 62% of submissions from the public during the assessment process were supportive of the project.
“Against the current backdrop of record high coal prices and strong demand in seaborne markets, the company sees a continuing role for high-quality coal of the type Vickery will produce in contributing to global CO2 emissions reduction and containment efforts while simultaneously supporting economic development in our near region,” the statement says.
Georgina Woods, the Lock the Gate Alliance’s NSW coordinator, said Ley’s decision was a “betrayal of young people and future generations”.
“This government keep being given the opportunity to do a better job on climate change and they keep slamming the door shut on that opportunity,” she said.
“It’s absolutely gutting every time.”
Liam Donaldson, an agriculture student who comes from Boggabri near where the mine will be built, said climate and water were his number one concerns.
“I would have thought the Environment Minister would look out for the environment,” he said.
“What we want is some stability and that is not through a coalmine that is going to come in and do horrific damage instantly and then leave our community in its wake.
“This one decision has had such a monumental effect on my future.”
The Australian Greens environment spokesperson, Sarah Hanson-Young, called the decision disastrous.
“Once again Sussan Ley proves she’s the minister against the environment, not for.” she said.
“We are weeks away from the Glasgow climate summit where the rest of the world will commit to strong targets to reduce pollution and plans to move away from fossil fuels.
“Expanding coal in the middle of the climate crisis is madness.”