The NSW Independent Planning Commission has refused development approval for the Bylong Coal mine, citing the long term impacts the mine would have had on the state’s environmental, heritage and agricultural values, in another key ruling that further dents the viability of new coal projects.
The significant decision, which goes against advice from the NSW Department of Planning and Environment which supported the thermal coal project and recommended its approval, is another substantial slap down of proposed coal mines in NSW following an earlier ruling against the Rocky Hill project.
The proposed Bylong Valley mine, located around 160km north-west of Newcastle, would have delivered up to 120 million tonnes of thermal coal over a 25-year operating life. The coal was destined for coal generators in South Korea.
In its statement of reasons for the refusal, the independent commission estimated that over the life of the project, the mine would have generated around $290 million in royalties for the state government, and supported the creation of hundreds of jobs.
However, the commission also found that the mine would create “unacceptable” impacts on the local environment including groundwater contamination, negative impacts on regional heritage value, and significant loss of quality agricultural land, with an area of more than 1,7000 hectares impacted by the project.
The commission also noted that the greenhouse gas implications of the coal mine remained “problematical”.
Notably, the commission applied the arguments and reasons adopted by Chief judge of the NSW Land and Environment Court Brian Preston CJ, in his landmark decision in the case of Gloucester Resources Limited v Minister for Planning which cited the impacts of increased greenhouse gas emissions amongst the reasons for blocking the Rocky Hill coal mine earlier in the year.
The application of the Rocky Hill legal decision by the independent commission highlights the growing difficulties that new coal mines face, at least in some parts of Australia, to justify the increases in greenhouse gas emissions that coal projects will ultimately be responsible for.
“It is clearer than ever that the Rocky Hill judgment sets a best-practice standard when considering new fossil fuel developments,” EDO NSW CEO David Morris said in a statement.
“This mine would have been even bigger – in fact much bigger – than Rocky Hill, with concomitantly bigger carbon impacts. In helping to stop this development, we acted in the public interest to constrain emissions and climate change impacts.”
The decision is being hailed as a win for local community groups that opposed the coal mine development, who agreed with the planning commission that the prospects of a handful of new jobs for the region were not worth the long-term impacts the project would have on the community.
“The IPC is to be applauded for recognising the need to consider the climate impacts of new coal projects,” secretary of the Bylong Valley Protection Alliance Warwick Pearse said.
“The serious threats to water and agriculture in the Bylong Valley have also been recognised by the IPC and they have decided that the long term, adverse and irreversible effects of coal mining in the Bylong Valley outweigh the short-term gain in local jobs.”
In rejecting the development approval, the Independent Planning Commission ruled that on the balance of the project’s financial benefits against its long term negative impacts that the project did not stack up, and would leave New South Wales worse off in the long run.
This was a direct repudiation of the conclusion of the NSW Department of Planning and Environment.
“The Project is not in the public interest because it is contrary to the principles of ESD (ecologically sustainable development) – namely intergenerational equity because the predicted economic benefits would accrue to the present generation but the long-term environmental, heritage and agricultural costs will be borne by the future generations,” the Independent Planning Commission said.
The Bylong coal project is being developed by KEPCO Bylong Australia, a local subsidiary of the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) the largest electricity generator in South Korea, supplying around 85% of the country’s power.
Coal produced by the Bylong mine would have been used to supply the company’s coal-fired power stations in South Korea.
Despite the clear barriers that are emerging to the development of new coal projects in NSW, the NSW energy minister Matt Kean still views the expansion of fossil fuel industries in the state as a crucial part of the Berejiklian government’s plans.
Kean told a NSW budget estimates hearing last week that while he welcomes new renewable energy developments, the energy minister believes new gas projects will be required to provide supplies of backup power supplies in NSW.
“Renewable energy is fantastic and the technology is evolving very quickly. However, it needs to be firmed up so other technologies are needed to support that. The best technology available to support and firm up renewable energy is, at this stage, gas—it can quickly come on and come off when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing,” Kean told the estimates hearing.
“In order to achieve that objective, we need to open up new access to gas reserves in New South Wales.”
“I obviously am keen to see more gas supply coming into New South Wales,” Kean added.
The NSW Department of Planning and Environment is currently considering the planning application for the mammoth Narrabri Gas Project and is facing pressure from developer Santos to approve the project.
The Narrabri gas project will almost certainly be referred to the Independent Planning Commission by the department for review and will face further scrutiny over its own contributions to climate change.