Coal Giant Australia Must Consider Climate in Mine Approvals

Australia’s government has been ordered to 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 Ltd. is permitted to extend an operation in New South Wales, Judge Mordy Bromberg said in a Thursday 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,” Bromberg said in the judgment.

Whitehaven declined to comment on the judgment. The producer’s shares closed 2.7% lower in Sydney trading.

It’s 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 Plc 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 Center for Climate Change Law.

Bromberg earlier dismissed an injunction aimed at halting the mine expansion sought by campaigners in Australia, a group that includes an elderly nun and a group of Greta Thunberg-inspired teenagers. The decision in their favor 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 ($249 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,” 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 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the life of the operation, Bromberg said in May. Australia’s emissions in 2020 were 499 million tons, according to government data.

Australia’s government “will review the judgement closely and assess all available options,” Ley’s office said in an emailed statement.

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