Coalmine expansions and developments approved in Australia so far this year are expected to add nearly 150m tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over their lifetimes – equivalent to nearly a third of the country’s annual climate pollution.
The Albanese government this week gave the greenlight to an expansion of the Gregory Crinum coalmine in central Queensland. It produces metallurgical coal, used in steelmaking.
According to an analysis by the Australia Institute, it is likely to extend the development’s life by 11 years – until the mid-2030s – and add about 31m tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere once it is burned. That equates to 6% of Australia’s annual emissions. The owner, Sojitz Blue, will have until 2073 to decommission the mine.
The environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, said the government had “to make decisions in accordance with the facts and the national environment law”, and that the mine would be covered by the safeguard mechanism climate policy. That meant the owner would have to either cut the emissions intensity at the mine by up to 4.9% each year or buy carbon offsets.
Climate and conservation groups accused the government of recklessness and hypocrisy given its promise to act decisively on the climate crisis, pointing out it had the power to change the environment law to give it the power to block new fossil fuel developments if it chose.
The Climate Council’s chief executive, Amanda McKenzie, said the mine expansion approval showed Australia’s environment laws were “absolutely broken”.
“The Albanese government has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to arrest this decline,” she said. “Strengthening our national environment law, with climate at the heart of it, will safeguard our health, grow the economy, and protect our treasured natural places.”
Other decisions on Queensland coal developments by the federal government and the environment department this year include:
Approving a nine-year extension of the Ensham thermal coalmine, creating fuel for power plants. The Australia Institute’s coalmine tracker found it was likely to lead to 106m tonnes of additional emissions over its life.
Approving the creation of a small new mine, the Isaac River metallurgical coalmine, also in Queensland. It is expected to produce almost entirely metallurgical coal and lead to about 7m tonnes of emissions across its seven-year life.
Ruling a proposed extraction of a large sample, known as a “bulk sample”, of coal at the proposed Star coalmine site did not need formal assessment under federal environment law to go ahead. The proponent can dig up 1.5m tonnes of coal before applying to develop the full mine. It is expected to lead to about 3m tonnes of emissions.
Extending the life of the Lake Vermont open cut coalmine until 2063. This decision did not increase the total amount of coal that could be mined, just its potential lifespan.
Most of these mines produce metallurgical coal, also known as coking coal, for steelmaking. Metallurgical coal is expected to have a longer future than thermal coal because zero-emissions replacements to make “green steel” are less advanced. Australia supplies about 60% of the world’s traded metallurgical coal.
The Australia Institute’s research director, Rod Campbell, said greener approaches to making steel were developing and several of Queensland’s metallurgical existing coalmines had huge available reserves that were expected to last for decades, suggesting new mines were not needed.
He said the extension of the Gregory Crinum mine was not surprising as it already had approval from the Queensland government, and the federal environment department had issued four notices relating to it this year.
“At every step along the way this new coal expansion proposal should have been stopped, because that’s what climate action requires. But it wasn’t stopped,” Campbell said
“This can’t be allowed to continue. Either the law needs changing or the government needs to get more creative in interpreting and using the existing laws.”
Campbell said Plibersek and the department had shown they “know how to stop fossil fuel projects when it suits them” by letting the approval for two “zombie” coalmines – the China Stone and Range mines, both of which had already stalled – lapse.
Plibersek said she was the first Australian environment minister to stop a coalmine – Clive Palmer’s proposed Central Queensland development – and cancelled the approvals for the China Stone and Range mine.
“We’re committed to supporting a global transition to renewables. It’s cheaper and cleaner,” she said. “That’s why in our first year we doubled the rate of renewable energy approvals.”
She said she acted within the law when assessing every project “and that’s what happened here” on the Gregory Crinium mine.
Plibersek has promised to reform national environment laws – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – next year, but not to introduce a “climate trigger”, a step that would give her the power to consider the impact of a project’s emissions in approval decisions.
The Australian Conservation Foundation’s chief, Kelly O’Shanassy, said this needed to be fixed. “It is untenable that Australia’s national environmental laws allow the approval of new fossil fuel projects,” she said.
The Greens leader Adam Bandt said: “Every new coal and gas project Tanya Plibersek approves makes the climate crisis worse and puts our country at risk.”