Mining lobby seeks to silence environmental defenders

Funding cuts to Environmental Defenders Offices will make it easier for the mining lobby to push through with new coal and gas mines.

Despite widespread opposition to new coal, state governments gave final approval to two mines last month.

Nine years after Adani submitted its initial application, Queensland Labor has signed off on the controversial mine in the Galilee Basin. Meanwhile, the Wallarah 2 Coal Project, near Newcastle, NSW, which was first proposed 13 years ago, received the imprimatur from the re-elected Coalition.

Sustained community opposition to these coalmines included legal challenges at both state and federal levels that, for a time, were successful in halting approvals.

The legal challenges highlighted weaknesses in environmental laws, as well as inadequacies surrounding the processing of mining applications.

Responding to the delays and legal challenges, the mining lobby — aided by the corporate media and major parties — wants to weaken advocates for communities seeking to stop the environmental damage mining incurs.

The Environmental Defenders Office in Queensland (EDO Qld) and NSW (EDO NSW) acted on behalf of communities and conservation groups in their legal challenges to the Adani and Wallarah 2 coalmines.

The legal challenges bought by these groups have shown up faults in the application process and led to stricter approval conditions.

Without public hearings, mining corporations and state governments would not have been held so accountable.

Now the mining lobby is fighting back: it wants “reform” to “reduce green tape”. It hopes to eliminate the need for both federal and state approvals and wants strict time limits on applications.

The mining lobby has a history of attacking public interest groups, such as the EDOs, and pushing governments to defund them.

EDOs have received federal funding for more than 20 years.

In 1997, then-PM John Howard imposed a rule that ensured EDO funds could not be used for litigation.

Federal annual funding of $100,000 to each EDO ceased in July 2014.

This followed from the then-Queensland Liberal National Party Premier Campbell Newman’s cuts to the EDO Qld in 2012 and NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell’s cuts to the EDO NSW in 2013.

Freedom of information documents have revealed that the NSW Minerals Council leant on O’Farrell, urging him to cease EDO funding as “a matter of urgency”.

The NSW Coal Association made similar appeals in March 2012, arguing it was “perverse” that EDO funds were being used to challenge the decisions of elected representatives.

Yet, court decisions to uphold those challenges showed that the decisions made by elected representatives were unlawful.

At a February 2014 Senate estimates hearings, South Australian Greens Senator Penny Wright questioned then Attorney-General George Brandis about whether he had been pressured to cut funding to EDOs. He admitted he had received a letter from the NSW Minerals Council.

A subsequent FOI query revealed that NSW Minerals Council CEO Stephen Galilee had urged Brandis not to fund the EDO NSW.

The Minerals Council of Australia has launched a new assault on EDO Qld alleging “frivolous and vexatious” litigation.

EDO Qld has accused mining corporations of “trying to undermine us so nobody is around to hold them to account in court and ensure the law is applied to their projects”.

According to retired Supreme Court judge Alan Wilson QC, who once presided over the Planning and Environment Court of Queensland, “without organisations like the EDO, the environment would have no properly-qualified voice in [the court] system”.

“Public funding for organisations like the EDO helps to ensure that environmental law is, at least, a slightly more equal playing field.

“To describe the efforts of lawyers fighting for clients against, often, well-funded mining companies as ‘vexatious’ is unfounded and misguided.

“The ‘political agenda’ claimed by Minister [Matt] Canavan sadly indicates an unwillingness to allow the courts to properly examine and adjudicate vital environmental cases, involving issues of profound and critical importance to our whole society, and its future,” Wilson said.

On June 22, EDO NSW CEO David Morris accused the Minerals Council of Australia and the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association of not respecting the rule of law.

Morris said: “The fossil fuel lobby has a track record of making the unsubstantiated claim that EDOs engage in vexatious litigation.

“Despite being over-utilised, this claim remains a troubling proposition … Not once in our history have our clients’ cases been found to be ‘frivolous or vexatious’.”

Morris added that the mining lobby will not rest until it succeeds in cutting the “small amount of state government funding” the EDO NSW receives to provide free legal advice.

[You can help the EDOs in Queensland and NSW by signing the petitions on their websites, writing to the relevant ministers and getting involved in the campaigns against new coal.]

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