Abbott govt ties itself in rhetorical knots to defend coal industry

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The Abbott government continues to tie itself in knots trying to protect the declining coal industry this week, showing ‘disrespect for the judicial system’ and announcing its intention to restrict the ability of environmental groups to mount legal challenges against coal mines in the wake of the Mackay Conservation Group’s successful case. Frustrated by the wheels coming off Indian coal company Adani’s vast Carmichael mine in Queensland, the government has launched a hysterical push to abolish a section of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC), so only those directly affected by such projects can challenge them in court. Third party appeals have affected only 0.4 per cent of such projects since the EPBC was brought in by the Howard government 15 years ago. As the Act did not impact the mining boom, the Government’s enthusiasm to change the law – like its development of climate policies that protect the coal industry – is looking more like an ‘astonishingly slapstick’ political tactic than a considered reform, especially given it is unlikely to pass a Senate vote, with at least two crossbench senators already opposing the changes. The push comes as Kiribati calls for a global moratorium on new coal plants and mines, now echoed by Nicholas Stern, as the scientific reality that new coal is incompatible with keeping average global temperatures below 2DegC of warming sinks in.

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Key Points

  • If the government and coal companies have done nothing wrong, they have nothing to fear from legal challenges. Defunding the Environmental Defenders Office did not stop community groups using their legal rights to challenge a destructive coal project and win, and the Abbott government’s hysterical over-reactive push to change the law will only draw out, not rule out, future cases. The Mackay Conservation Group’s win against Adani is among a miniscule 0.4 per cent of cases to successfully use the EPBC act since July 2000. Roughly 5,500 projects have been through the EPBC process, only 33 have been taken to court, and six succeeded. This is hardly a case of “lawfare” and, as Attorney General George Brandis should know: “vigilantes” by definition, do not operate within the legal system.
  • The biggest danger to coal is its business case, not environmental legal cases. Lord Stern has joined Kiribati’s call for a global moratorium on new coal plants and mines, as new coal is absolutely incompatible with world temperatures staying below the internationally agreed red line of 2DegC of average warming. Countries around the world are increasingly taking this reality seriously and momentum away from coal is growing. The market has woken up to this reality, and as result coal’s economic star is sinking fast.

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Key Quotes

  • “Tony Abbott’s attempt to distract from his economic management failings also risks a federal corruption blow out. If Tony Abbott wants to restrict appeal rights exclusively for national organizations, he’s essentially making appeals for ‘NIMBY’ purposes only. Do only Queenslanders care about the reef? Did only Tasmanians benefit from saving the Franklin? The job of the PM should be to unite the country – Abbott doesn’t seem to understand that Australians care about Australia, not just their own back yard.” – Executive Director of The Australia Institute, Ben Oquist
  • “The failure by governments to price coal correctly represents a huge and unjustified subsidy of hundreds of billions of dollars each year. The use of coal is simply bad economics, unless one refuses to count as a cost the damages and deaths now and in the future from air pollution and climate change. There are far more attractive routes to growth, development and poverty reduction. Now is the time for the people of the world and governments, as well as the producers and consumers of coal, to recognise just how deeply destructive this fossil fuel is to lives and livelihoods.” – Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Nicholas Stern
  • “[T]he Abbott government’s priority is taking care of its mates – while looking to slug Australians who care about the Great Barrier Reef, nature, wildlife and global warming. We believe the government is acting on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. We believe the fossil fuel industry has too much power over government.” – Greenpeace CEO David Ritter
  • “It feels like another tribal war. Another war waged against a people who do not support the Abbott government. Another war to shut down opposing voices. Like the war against unions. Like the war against the unemployed and students in the first budget. Like the war against the ABC and SBS. Like the war against the public service. Like the war against windfarms. Like the war against moderate voices in its own cabinet. And the war against media voices outside the tent. The list goes on.” – Guardian deputy political editor Katharine Murphy
  • “The biggest danger to the Adani mine is its own business case, not environmental legal cases, and the Indian energy minister has unveiled plans for a rapid expansion of domestic coal production, as well as renewables, and said India aims to stop imports of thermal coal within three years, which undercuts somewhat the idea that the Adani mine’s coal is the only thing that can possibly provide power to impoverished Indians. And the tired old meme that says environmental protection and job creation are conflicting and contradictory objectives doesn’t fly any more. And it isn’t only “greenies” questioning the impact of mines and CSG wells, it’s farmers and rural communities as well. Ones often represented by the National party.” – Guardian political editor Lenore Taylor

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