Black-throated Finch; photo by Eric Vanderduys
Black-throated Finch; photo by Eric Vanderduys

It’s difficult to concentrate on my research into priorities for species conservation under climate change when weakening of Australia’s environmental protection laws are being proposed.

The Australian government has put forward proposed changes to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 that prevent environment groups from challenging development projects that breach the Act.

This has come to a head after the small, community-based Mackay Conservation Group challenged the approval of the Carmichael Coal mine in the Federal Court, on the grounds that Environment Minister Greg Hunt didn’t properly consider the approved conservation advices on two threatened species: yakka skink and ornamental snake. If Carmichael Coal mine goes ahead, it will be one of the biggest mines in the world, and would cancel out all gains made from Australia’s current emission reduction strategy.

The Federal Environment Minister, Adani and Mackay Conservation Group agreed that the approval should be set aside on the basis of the failure to properly consider the conservation advices. The solicitors for the Minister wrote to the Federal Court with the consent of the parties requesting the approval be set aside and the Court granted those orders. The Minister indicated that the decision would be remade in 6 to 8 weeks.

The federal government responded by attacking environment groups, calling them “vigilantes”; and now want to take away the right of environment groups to show that the government has broken the law. This is despite less than 0.4% of resource development projects being halted due to the EPBC Act.

This is at a time where countries all over the world are setting ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and Australia’s Pacific neighbours are calling on the world for a moratorium on any new coal mines to prevent dangerous climate change. Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister is stating “Coal is good for humanity”.

In addition to being home to the threatened reptiles, the Carmichael Mine site has holds the largest population of the endangered southern subspecies of Black-throated Finch. The mine would destroy the best remaining habitat of this subspecies that has already lost 80% of its range.

Transporting the coal for export is also highly controversial – as it involves expanding the Abbott Point coal terminal (likely to impact internationally significant, RAMSAR-listed wetlands), impacting on Traditional Owners’ ancestral lands, dredging and increasing shipping traffic through Great Barrier Reef.

Despite all the controversy (and here), many speculate that the mine won’t go ahead due to the economics of a declining coal price, a reluctance shown by the major banks to finance the project, and India’s plans to halt coal import in the next three years.

A version of this post has been published on the ALERT website.

Yakka skink; photo by Eric Vanderduys
Yakka skink; photo by Eric Vanderduys

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