EDO is at the forefront of the legal battle over Adani’s Carmichael Coal Mine and other proposed mines in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.
Over the past decade, Environmental Defenders Office lawyers have successfully represented the community against Adani and other coal miners to protect the Great Barrier Reef, our water resources and climate.
We have acted to ensure both governments and corporations stick to the rule of law, and stood up in court on behalf of our clients to defend the Galilee’s unique wildlife and landscapes.
The Galilee Basin
The Galilee Basin is a 248,000 km2 geological area of central Queensland with diverse wildlife and landscapes – including nationally significant wetlands and aquifers that are part of the Great Artesian Basin.1 The area includes the traditional lands of the Wangan and Jagalingou people.
The Galilee holds one of the world’s largest reserves of coal, with an estimated untapped store of 27 billion tonnes.2
The burning of coal is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
While Adani’s Carmichael mine has been the focal point of opposition from the community, there are at least six other mines planned for the region. Waratah Coal proposal, Galilee Coal Project is the next cab off the rank in the approvals process.
The Queensland Minerals Council has described the Adani mine as the ‘ice breaker’, which will provide infrastructure and clear the way for the next wave of Galilee mines.3
The Adani group of companies is a multinational conglomerate with interests in mining and energy, headquartered in India.
Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine has become a touchstone for Australia’s climate change efforts. This has seen communities express their significant opposition via the media and nationwide protests and challenging aspects of the Project and decisions made about its approvals in court.
Since Adani first announced its intention to build the Carmichael mine, EDO has represented several clients to ensure government decision makers and the company comply with the law.
EDO’s work on the Adani mine includes:
- February 2020: Adani admits providing false or misleading information to the Queensland Government over its land clearing activities, after an investigation sparked by evidence discovered by the Environmental Defenders Office’s client Business Services of Coast and Country Inc.
- February 2020: Lawyers from EDO and Environmental Justice Australia write to the CEO of Adani contractor Siemens outlining Adani’s environmental breaches. Siemens is to provide signalling equipment for Adani’s railway line, however its contract states that the German company has “the right to pull out of the contract if our customer violates the very stringent environmental obligations.”
- June 2019: For the Australian Conservation Foundation, EDO successfully had the Federal Government concede in the Federal Court that it had failed to consider some of the thousands of valid public submissions about if and how Adani’s North Galilee Water Scheme should be assessed, in breach of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
- December 2018: EDO submitted persuasive evidence on behalf of client Coast and Country that led to the Queensland Government launching prosecution of Adani for allegedly providing false or misleading information about the commencement of works for the Carmichael mine – a criminal offence that carries a maximum penalty of up to $2,838,375 for the company if guilty.
- August 2015: EDO successfully challenged the Federal Government’s initial approval of the Carmichael coal mine on behalf of the Mackay Conservation Group. The Minister conceded that he had not considered conservation advice for two threatened species in making his decision, which he was in fact required do.
- March 2015: EDO represented Land Services of Coast and Country in its objection to the grant of mining leases and the environmental authority for the Carmichael coal mine. While the Land Court ultimately recommended the mine be approved, this case was instrumental in highlighting the environmental risks of the mine. It also exposed Adani had vastly overestimated the jobs that the mine can be expected to generate, with the company’s own expert admitting reducing earlier estimates of between 6,000 – 10,000 jobs down to a net 1,464.
The Federal Court has found that Federal Resources Minister Keith Pitt’s decision to grant $21 million of public money to private company Imperial Oil & Gas to pursue fracking in the Beetaloo Basin was invalid.
Federal Court Justice Griffiths found it was “legally unreasonable” for the Minister to enter into contracts over the grants while they were the subject of court proceedings, an action which breached model litigation obligations.
However, the court found that in this particular case, Federal Resources Minister Keith Pitt did not need to consider the risks of climate change when deciding to grant the public money to private company Imperial Oil & Gas to pursue limited exploration in the Beetaloo Basin.
It was found that the greenhouse gas emissions from the seven wells for which the grant was awarded were not significant, due to being solely for exploration for fracking.
“This case was critically important and put fossil fuel subsidies in the spotlight,” said Elaine Johnson, Director of Legal Strategy at EDO.
“The findings reinforced that Federal Ministers have a legal obligation to make reasonable enquiries about the proper use of public money when making funding decisions of this nature,
“In this case, the court found those reasonable enquiries didn’t extend to climate risk given the project does not involve extensive gas extraction and production.
“Importantly, the door has been left open for climate risks to be considered in other decisions around the use of public funds for fossil fuel projects.”
“Fracking in the Beetaloo Basin would see a significant increase in global emissions, so it is critically important that government is held accountable for any decisions to use public funds for new gas in the Beetaloo.
“This decision underscored the primacy of the rule of law, highlighting the need for the Federal Government to act appropriately and respectfully when litigation is on foot.”
Kirsty Howey, Co-director of Environment Centre NT said the decision “doesn’t close the door on the scrutiny of fossil fuel grants”.
“Fossil fuel subsidies are not a reasonable use of public money. Under Australia’s commitment to the global Glasgow Climate Pact, we need to phase out funding of new oil, gas and coal projects.
“The Northern Territory is already suffering significantly from the impacts of climate change, and this will only worsen unless we take drastic action. Our own Environment Minister recently said that the Northern Territory may become uninhabitable for humans due to climate change. The public has an expectation that taxpayer money will not be used to accelerate climate catastrophe by funding projects that will release vast amounts of emissions, without due consideration of these risks.”
“Unfortunately, we’re being left behind in the global renewables transition by our government, which insists on propping up polluting fossil fuel projects with taxpayers’ funds.”
In July 2021, Minister Keith Pitt announced that the first grants from the $50 million Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program would go to Imperial Oil and Gas to support three new exploration wells “to help accelerate development of gas projects in the Northern Territory.” Imperial Oil and Gas is a wholly owned subsidiary of the publicly listed Empire Energy.
On 29 July 2021, the Environment Centre NT (ECNT), represented by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), commenced judicial review proceedings in the Federal Court challenging the lawfulness of the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program and the grants to Imperial.
The Court heard in November that fracking the Beetaloo Basin could lead to a 13% increase in Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions on 2020 levels, and fail to generate any economic benefit.
EDO argued on behalf of ECNT that the Minister was required to make reasonable inquiries into a range of matters before giving Imperial a large amount of taxpayer money, including how exploitation of the Beetaloo sub-basin would impact climate change and Australia’s ability to meet its Paris Agreement obligations.
Grants under this program are subject to the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 (Cth) which requires that the Minister not approve the expenditure unless he is reasonably satisfied that it is an efficient, effective, economical, and ethical use of public money.
Abbot Point Coal Terminal
EDO has acted to protect the environment around the Abbot Point Coal Terminal in North Queensland and hold its owners Adani accountable.
Located between Townsville and Mackay, Abbot Point is Australia’s northernmost coal export terminal4, bordering the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and right next to the nationally significant Caley Valley wetlands. Adani plans to expand the port to service its Galilee operations.
EDO has represented three conservation groups in separate court cases to stop the dumping of dredge spoil from the Abbot Point port expansion in Reef waters, as well as on the Caley Valley Wetlands.
These cases contributed to the historic new ban on dumping dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area in 2015.
Other legal action involving Abbot Point was triggered in March 2017 when Adani allowed coal-contaminated stormwater discharges from the port to the marine environment and to the Caley Valley Wetlands. It allowed a similar discharge to occur into the wetlands in February 2019. EDO has closely scrutinised events, reports and government decision making, providing detailed advice to community clients every step of the way to keep a check on responding government action.
After Adani contested an infringement fine for the 2017 breach, the Queensland Government commenced prosecution. However, in May 2019 Government accepted an enforceable undertaking from Adani to install a water monitor at the discharge point, which had the effect of discontinuing the prosecution.
Adani was issued another fine for the wetlands discharge in February 2019 – but this time paid the $13,055 fine.
Alpha Coal Project
In 2008, GVK Hancock, part-owned by Gina Rinehart, was the first company to propose mining the Galilee Basin, with the Alpha Coal Project.
The six open-cut coal pits from Alpha are planned to produce 30 million tonnes of coal per year.
The project has faced opposition and legal challenges from a number of groups and individuals.
EDO represented Coast and Country Association Qld (CCAQ) in its Queensland Land Court objections to the mining lease and environmental authority applications for the project.
The Court heard the objections in 2013 and upheld concerns about groundwater impacts of the mine, recommending that the applications for the mine be refused or, alternatively, that the applications be granted subject to further assessment of the groundwater impacts.
EDO led a series of appeals for its client against the Land Court decision, including about how the Court considered but gave no weight to the greenhouse gas emissions from the transport and burning (‘scope 3 emissions’) of Alpha coal. The appeals were the first time higher Queensland Courts had considered the powers of the Land Court under Queensland’s environmental and mining laws.
While ultimately, in 2016, CCAQ was not granted special leave to appeal to the High Court, the preceding litigation in the Court of Appeal saw significant steps forward about the need to consider the impact of scope 3 emissions from Queensland coal mines.
Kevin’s Corner Mine
The proposed Kevin’s Corner mine is situated in the Galilee Basin as the sister project adjacent to the Alpha coal mine.
The mine would run for 40 years producing around 45 million tonnes of coal per year – another megamine proposal that would be one of the largest coal mining projects in Australia.
EDO represented Coast and Country Association of Queensland in its Queensland Land Court objections to the mining lease and environmental authority applications for the project, focusing on impacts to groundwater, economics and the public interest.