Australia rejects open-pit coal mine near Great Barrier Reef

Heavy machinery moves coal as it is poured onto a stack near Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley, Australia, Nov. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia for the first time has rejected a coal mining application based on environmental law, with the government minister citing the open-pit mine’s potential harm to the nearby Great Barrier Reef.

The government is under pressure to curb climate change by blocking all new coal and gas extraction projects. Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of both fossil fuels, which are major sources of the nation’s wealth. But Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said Thursday she would decide individual projects on their merits.

“I will make each decision that comes before me on a case-by-case basis according to the law and according to the science that is available,” Plibersek told Parliament.

On Wednesday, she announced her decision to prevent the Central Queensland Coal Project from being excavated northwest of the Queensland state town of Rockhampton and less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Great Barrier Reef off the northeast Australian coast.

The project would have had unacceptable impacts on fresh water in the area and potentially on fragile seagrass meadows that feed dugongs and provide fish breeding grounds, she said.

The open-pit mine has an estimated excavation capacity of 10 million metric tons (11 million U.S. tons) of coal annually for 25 years.

Plibersek said the risk of “pollution and irreversible damage to the reef is very real.”

“The Great Barrier Reef is responsible for about 6 billion Australian dollars’ ($4.2 billion) worth of economic activity every year, about 64,000 jobs,” Plibersek said. “Given the science before me, it became apparent that the risks were simply too great.”

The mine was proposed by mining magnate Clive Palmer, who founded and finances the minor conservative United Australia Party.

Central Queensland Coal, a subsidiary of Palmer’s Mineralogy, did not respond to a request for comment.

A United Nations-backed mission recommended in November that the Great Barrier Reef be added to the list of endangered World Heritage sites, warning that without “ambitious, rapid and sustained” climate action, the world’s largest coral reef was in peril.

While warming oceans was the greatest threat to the network of more than 2,500 reefs covering 348,000 square kilometers (134,000 square miles), water quality and runoff from the Queensland coast were also risks.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s center-left Labor Party government has increased Australia’s ambition for reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions since it was elected last year.

The Parliament enshrined in law Labor’s election pledge to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by 2030. The previous conservative government had a more modest target to reduce emissions by between 26% and 28% by the end of the decade.

Labor has relied on the minor Greens party’s 12 senators to get legislation through the upper chamber.

The Greens, who lost a senator this week when Sen. Lidia Thorpe became an independent, want Australia to slash emissions by 75% by 2030 and are pressuring the government to ban any further coal and gas projects.

The government faces another contentious energy industry decision when it considers extending an offshore gas exploration license off Sydney’s northern beaches.

In late 2021, the previous conservative government rejected a two-year extension of the PEP-11 drilling license in the face of fierce community opposition only months before an election. The project proponent Asset Energy took the government to court. But that court action has ended last week with Albanese’s government agreeing to reassess the previous government’s decision.