As NSW burns, Berejiklian marches to the coal industry’s tune

On a catastrophic fire day for NSW, November 12, the Liberal-National government had planned to push through a bill to weaken the state’s planning laws, in favour of coal and gas corporations.

A snap action outside NSW parliament that day drew hundreds of people from across the state. They made their opposition to the bill known and expressed support for the NSW Rural Fire Service, which is battling the flames with shortages of equipment and personnel due to budget cuts.

The fact that the government is determined to push through a bill at the behest of the NSW Minerals Council (NSWMC) at a time when the state is facing untold catastrophe by fire, is criminal negligence.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian joined the chorus repeating the ridiculous line that we should not talk about climate change while bushfires are raging.  But, she hastened to add, she “believes” in climate change — as if it were a matter of faith.

She also believes in working hard for the fossil fuel lobby. They want to muzzle the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) and the NSW Land and Environment Court after they rejected the Rocky Hill coal mine near Gloucester in February and a huge new open-cut thermal coal mine in the Bylong Valley, near Mudgee, in September.

The IPC said the Bylong mine proposal was “not in the public interest because it is contrary to the principles of ecologically sustainable development — namely intergenerational equity.” 

The IPC decision cannot be appealed.

NSW resources minister John Barilaro wants the bill to force the IPC to not consider “scope 3” emissions — greenhouse gas emissions from burning export coal at its final destination. He wants coal mines, including the unpopular United Wambo coal project in the Hunter Valley, to be approved.

George Woods from Lock the Gate Alliance said on October 22 that any proposal to prevent the IPC from considering scope 3 emissions when assessing mining projects would be “a shameless capitulation to the coal lobby”.

“The government is capitulating to mining industry pressure and winding back laws to address the most important strategic, economic and environmental challenge of our century,” Woods said.

She said the unprecedented bushfire season and one of the worst droughts on record, due to climate change, mean that we need “all responsible agencies to use the powers available to them to act to avoid harm to our communities and our environment”. 

This is a “political act of vandalism”, Woods said, especially against those on the frontline of global warming in rural communities.

The NSWMC has spent large sums of money on a campaign to change the planning laws, which CEO Stephen Galilee said makes mining project outcomes “a lottery” because an “unelected” body — the IPC —  gets to make the final decision.

The NSWMC has failed against the IPC decisions on the Bylong and Dartbrook mining projects, and is furious that the Rix’s Creek South coal mining project, near Singleton, has not already been approved.

While the mining lobby feigns concern about jobs in regional Australia, it says nothing about climate change-driven fires and the destruction it is causing to those same communities.

Environmental Defenders’ Office NSW Special Counsel Brendan Dobbie described the proposed planning amendment as a "retrograde step” that would “undermine the ability of decision-makers to properly assess and regulate the climate impacts of coal mines on local communities in NSW”.

It is no secret that the new bill is a “direct attempt to counter the influence” of the Land and Environment Court and the IPC’s recent decisions that took climate change into account, Dobbie said.

“The bill also responds to another recent IPC decision — this time to approve the United Wambo ‘super pit’ in the Hunter Valley but with a condition requiring coal from the mine to be sold only to countries that are signatories to the Paris Accord, or that have equivalent policies in place.”

Dobbie said the government’s reaction is not surprising given the bipartisan pro-mining approach from successive NSW governments. He also said the bill should be scrapped and called for a process to “properly plan for climate change and the necessary constraints it imposes on the mining sector (including provision for a just transition from mining jobs into other industries compatible with a safe climate)”.

Woods said: “Instead of pretending we have no stake in global action on climate change, we need a plan that recognises that the Hunter region will need to adjust to declining coal use worldwide and to prepare our communities for the severe weather extremes that are bearing down on us.”