Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek this week knocked back Clive Palmer’s plans for a Queensland coal mine, and it’s not the first time this has happened to the mining magnate.
Plibersek cited the adverse environmental impacts of the open-cut mine, which was planned just 10km away from the Great Barrier Reef.
“I won’t be approving the central Queensland coal project,” Plibersek said. “The adverse environmental impacts are simply too great.”
Plibersek’s decision was empowered by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC), which regulates matters of national environmental significance.
Plibersek’s decision was reported as the first time an Australian coal mine had been rejected on such grounds, though it was not the first instance of a broader coal project meeting the same fate.
The EPBC also formed the basis of former Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett rejecting port and coal loading facility in 2008. That proposal – named the Galilee coal project – was put forward by Waratah Coal, whose chair at the time was Clive Palmer.
The 2008 rejection
The intended site of the Galilee coal project was Queensland’s Shoalwater Bay. The plan proposed the development of a rail line and coal port as part of a $5.3 billion project to produce 25 million tonnes of coal per year for export.
Garrett rejected the proposal under section 74B of the EPBC, arguing that the project would have unacceptable impacts of matters protected by the Act.
Garrett pointed to the adverse effects of the proposal on the Shoalwater and Corio Bay Ramsar wetlands, which are protected under Part 3 of the Act.
“This proposal would have clearly unacceptable impacts on the internationally recognised Shoalwater and Corio Bay Ramsar wetlands and the high wilderness value of Shoalwater, which is acknowledged in its Commonwealth Heritage listing,” Garrett said in a 2008 statement.
“I wish to make it abundantly clear that I have rejected this proposal because of the impacts the route of the rail line and the location of the coal port would have on the environment.
“This decision does not prevent an alternative proposal being lodged that does not have unacceptable impacts on Ramsar and heritage values, for consideration under the Act. I would encourage Waratah Coal to consider alternative sites for the port.”
In response to the Minister’s rejection, Waratah Coal applied for judicial review on the grounds that the Garrett’s decision was handed down outside of the timeframe mandated by the EPBC.
The court dismissed the application, ruling that the Minister’s failure to reach a decision within the set time limit did not invalidate the decision itself.
After the multi-billion-dollar project was flattened by the court, Palmer and his associates were forced to revise the plan, as per the Minister’s suggestion.
Waratah Coal formed a new proposal in 2009, moving its intended site of operation out of Shoalwater Bay and away from vulnerable Ramsar Wetland area to Abbot Point.
After a long bureaucratic process and many hurdles along the way, the revised project was approved by the Federal Environment Minister in 2013, Greg Hunt.
Where to for the latest project?
Stepping back into the present, while there remains the possibility of a judicial review, Waratah Coal has yet to publicly comment on the decision.
The possibility of the review will rest on whether Palmer and his associates can point to any legal error in Plibersek’s judgement.