Albanese government faces decisions on coalmines

Anthony Albanese

The Albanese government could have to make decisions on whether to approve up to 28 coalmine developments that would make it harder to meet targets set under its newly approved climate policy, according to a new analysis.

A coalmine tracker website published by the Australia Institute includes a breakdown of all projects that have been formally referred to the government for approval under national laws.

The group estimated that if all 28 coal projects that have been referred went ahead as proposed, it would add up to 16m tonnes to the country’s annual carbon dioxide emissions. There could be up to another 564m tonnes a year released overseas after the coal was exported and burned in Asia.

Combined, they could add nearly 18bn tonnes of emissions if the mines operated for their proposed lifetimes.

While it is unlikely all 28 proposals will go ahead at full scale, the website stresses that the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, will face decisions on a significant list of fossil fuel projects at odds with warnings from the world’s climate scientists.

The biggest projects on the list are the China Stone coalmine (linked to an estimated 4.9bn tonnes of emissions), the Peak Downs coalmine (3.2bn tonnes) and Alpha North coalmine project (3.1bn tonnes). All are in Queensland.

In addition to the coal projects, there are several proposed gas developments seeking approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

The future of new coal and gas has been at the heart of negotiations over a planned revamp of a policy known as the safeguard mechanism.

The government rejected the Greens’ call for a ban on new fossil fuels – which was in line with what climate scientists and major international institutions have said is necessary from OECD countries if countries are to meet their promises to avoid an escalating climate crisis.

But it agreed to a deal that promises a rolling five-yearly cap on total onsite industrial emissions, expected to start at a level equivalent to about 140m tonnes a year and come down over time, and a requirement that some gas developments spend more than previously agreed on carbon offsets. The Greens argue both steps could prevent some fossil fuel developments from going ahead.

The Australia Institute’s research director, Rod Campbell, said the coalmine tracker provided more in-depth information about the coal proposals before the government. He said Plibersek had clear power over whether to approve them.

“New coalmines don’t just suddenly appear on the day they are approved,” he said. “These processes take years and involve multiple decisions from different parts of government.”

A spokesperson for Plibersek said all relevant projects would be subject to the redesigned safeguard mechanism. According to the agreement between the government and Greens released on Monday, it includes a requirement that the climate change minister would have to assess whether any new project that emitted more than 100,000 tonnes of CO2 a year was consistent with the goal of bringing down industrial emissions under the scheme.

“The government’s reforms have been supported across the parliament by the minor parties and independents because they are critical to cutting emissions to put Australia on a path to net zero,” Plibersek’s spokesperson said.

Independent senator David Pocock confirmed on Tuesday that he would support the safeguard mechanism changes. He said he welcomed the government including a cap on pollution, which he said gave Australians “certainty that there will be a reduction in emissions under the policy”.

But he said he would have preferred a bolder reform that included an economy-wide carbon price and a limit on how many carbon credits some industries could use. “Reforms to the safeguard mechanism are imperfect, but represent a step towards a credible climate policy,” he said. The safeguard changes will require more than 200 industrial facilities, including fossil fuel mines and production sites, to cut emissions intensity by up to 4.9% a year by either paying for onsite cuts or buying carbon offsets. The government expects to pass the legislation this week and for the changes to start on 01 July.