A landmark court case is testing how the NSW Government assesses greenhouse gas emissions

THE NSW Department of Planning failed to brief the Planning Assessment Commission about the need to consider potential greenhouse gas emissions from a planned expansion of Wilpinjong coal mine, a landmark Land and Environment Court case has been told.

The department’s failure to alert the PAC to a “distinct requirement” to consider greenhouse gas emissions under a clause of the Mining Act was to “distract attention from what we say is that distinct requirement”, barrister Geoffrey Kennett SC for Wollar Progress Association told the court.

The PAC said “not a word” about greenhouse gas emissions in its final decision report in April, 2017 approving the mine expansion in an area between Denman and Mudgee, and near the village of Wollar, Justice Terry Sheahan was told on Thursday in a landmark test case of the NSW Government’s assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from coal mines.

The final report noted that the giant Peabody-owned Wilpinjong coal mine had a contract to supply Bayswater and Liddell power stations near Muswellbrook with coal for an extended period. But the final PAC determination report, departmental advice and assessments and the mine did not address the need for assessment of downstream or indirect greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal mined at Wilpinjong, the court heard.

This was despite Australian obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the 2015 Paris agreement and the NSW Government’s net-zero emissions goal by 2050 against which coal mine approvals need to be assessed.

Peabody applied to expand operations at Wilpinjong in January, 2016. It told the Department of Planning that failure to extend the mine operations for an additional seven years from 2026 to 2033 would cause production to decline from 2017 and risk jobs.

The mine has approval to produce up to 16 million tonnes of coal per year and employs 550 workers.

Wilpinjong’s environmental impact assessment considered the direct greenhouse gas emissions caused by activities at the mine site, including vehicle activities and energy use, to find that it would produce 0.13 tonnes of carbon dioxide over the life of the mine. It said the mine’s emissions represented 0.02 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions for the 2013-14 period.

“When compared to a number of mining operations in NSW the project would have a relatively low greenhouse gas emission rate per tonne of coal extracted,” the company told the Planning Assessment Commission.

A Department of Planning review report agreed that the expanded mine would be a “relatively low emissions project”.

Peabody did not assess downstream or indirect emissions resulting from the burning of coal at Bayswater and Liddell. Such downstream emissions “can be a significant component of total greenhouse gas emissions associated with a project”, said guidelines issued by the federal Department of Environment to determine if emissions are direct or indirect.

Mr Kennett told the court the mine made no attempt to estimate what proportion of the downstream emissions were likely to occur in NSW at the Hunter power stations because of the burning of coal for power generation, and what proportion would be burnt overseas.

The assessment failed to address the significance of the project to Australia’s obligation to meet the Paris agreement target of keeping a global temperature rise this century of less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the court heard.

“That would be one question a consent authority would need to ask itself in the light of the relative policies,” Mr Kennett told the court.

The PAC did not address greenhouse gas emissions in its final determination report despite public submissions from groups including the Nature Conservation Council which argued an expanded Wilpinjong mine’s downstream emissions would increase greenhouse gas emissions from Wilpinjong by 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, the court heard.

The hearing continues.

This story Department failed to brief commission on mine emissions first appeared on Newcastle Herald.