What does the Rocky Hill Coal Mine defeat mean?

16.02.19 By

In an Australian first, a coal mine has been knocked back on social and climate change grounds. This ruling could change the face of climate litigation forever. 

On the 8th of February, in a landmark decision that has left environmental groups cheering, the NSW Land and Environment Court ruled that the construction of the proposed Rocky Hill Coal Mine near Gloucester should not go ahead.

Groundswell Resources Limited intended to mine 21 million tonnes of coal over a period of 16 years, which would have directly and indirectly resulted in the emission of an estimated 38,091,747 tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution.

“In short, an open cut coal mine… would be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the summary judgement read, “… the greenhouse gas emissions of the coal mine and its coal product will increase global total concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally agreed climate targets, is a rapid and deep decrease in greenhouse gas emissions”.

Our own Climate Councillor, Prof Will Steffen, gave expert evidence in the hearing.

Professor Will Steffen, an earth systems scientist who is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, successfully argued that the Rocky Hill Coal Mine would have a dire and significant impact on the health of our environment, rendering us unable to limit catastrophic global temperature increases to 2ºC.

As Professor Steffen testified, “… to have any chance of meeting the Paris 2ºC target, carbon emissions around the world need to be DECREASING rapidly and deeply; opening up and using new fossil fuel reserves or resources INCREASES carbon emissions, in conflict with what is required under the Paris Agreement… There is no room for any new fossil fuel development”.

Gloucester residents celebrate

Watch Gloucester residents celebrate as they discover the Rocky Hill Coal Mine has been knocked back here.

Will other coal mines be knocked back?

This is the first time in Australian legal history that a court has cited the global carbon budget, climate impacts and the Paris climate targets as primary grounds to reject a development proposal.

This outcome is a game-changer and a huge win for Groundswell Gloucester and the Environmental Defenders Office of NSW who argued on their behalf. Today, the law now confirms what the science has been saying for a long time.

In addition, this decision knocked on the head a common legal argument used in pro-coal defences – the “market substitution” argument –that if one entity does not mine and sell coal, another will. This  was described as inherently “flawed” by Preston, who stated that: “…an environmental impact does not become acceptable because a hypothetical and uncertain alternative development might also cause the same unacceptable environmental impact.”

This marks a significant change from accepted rulings of many Australian courts.

This decision has set a precedent with undeniably significant implications, both nationally and globally. 

In the words of Professor Steffen, “this landmark decision sends a clear message to the fossil fuel industry that it cannot continue to expand if we are serious about tackling climate change.”

To find out more about the science behind why coal mines like Rocky Hill can’t go ahead, read our report, “Unburnable Carbon: Why We Need to Leave Fossil Fuels in the Ground.”