Anvil Hill Decision: Impractical and Uncompetitive
Last week the NSW Land and Environment Court found that a proposed coal mine at Anvil Hill in the Hunter Valley was being approved without adequate consideration of the likely impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. While many consider the judgment a big win for the environment, with national implication, on careful analysis it's perhaps just an example of the pointlessness of trying to deal with global warming through regulation and legislation.
A young environmental activist, Peter Gray, brought the action. The Minister for Planning is now obliged to consider ecologically sustainable development principles including the precautionary principle in relation to the Anvil Hill Project. The Minister has to balance environmental against economic considerations.
Mark O'Neill from the Australian Coal Association has said that if Anvil Hill does not go ahead, not one molecule less carbon dioxide will be emitted because customers will simply buy their coal from elsewhere.
But the Coal Association is overreacting because the mine is still expected to go ahead. Indeed the affected coal company, Centennial Coal, has stated that the current approval process for the Anvil Hill mine remains on track and that they have already prepared a document that comprehensively deals with the downstream greenhouse gas impacts.
Indeed even Mr Gray has said: 'The thrust of the case was not that you should not approve Anvil Hill but that it should be assessed [for climate change] before it goes ahead.'
But this is absurd. It is possible to determine the likely amount of carbon dioxide generated by the mine and emitted by the burning of the coal from the mine, however, it is not possible to determine the impact of this carbon dioxide on global climate.
Think for a minute what fraction of a per cent coal from that mine would constitute relative to all the coal mined and burned in all the world not forgetting industry growth. For example, every 10 days a new coal-fired power station opens somewhere in China.
It is also interesting to ponder all the potential non-carbon sources of global warming including methane and nitrous oxide emissions and that a recent published study indicates the United Kingdom may be emitting 92 per cent more methane than it declares and France 47 per cent more.
Then there are also significant uncertainties associated with the models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with latest official projections suggesting anything from a 1.4 to a 5.8 degree Celcius increase in average surface temperatures over the period 1990 to 2100. Furthermore, the IPCC does not assign any probability to these projections and acknowledges that there is a need for better models and better scientific understanding.
In short, given the many and growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, the uncertainties in carbon accounting and the models, it is simply not possible to calculate the likely environmental impact of the Anvil Hill mine on climate yet this is what the law, at least in NSW, now seems to expect.
Climate change is emerging as the environmental issue of this century, but the Anvil Hill decision illustrates the extent to which all the campaigning, good intentions and regulation are unlikely to achieve anything except a further increase in the regulatory burden on industry.
The NSW Labor government says it intends to make climate change a campaign issue at the next state election, but at the same time wants the Anvil Hill coal mine to go ahead. So it's nothing more than lip service to greenhouse?
Most of the coal from Anvil Hill is to go to Japan. But Japan is not dependent on Australia for its energy needs. Indeed Japan recently reached an in principle agreement with Indonesia -- already the third largest exporter of coal to Japan -- for a bilateral free trade agreement including an energy security partnership. So Mark O'Neill is correct, if it's not mined here it will be mined somewhere else.
Interestingly even Germany, a country bound by the Kyoto Protocol, is building new coal-fired power stations and at the same time allowing them to opt out of the European Union carbon trading scheme until 2022.
In other words, global consumption of coal is not going to be limited by supply from Anvil Hill or the Kyoto Protocol.
Peter Gray, once a university student studying Ancient History, has been hailed the winner in a David versus Goliath battle.
But in the end, the original action and the ruling are all about process and amount to no more than a requirement that the parties acknowledge greenhouse, not that they change their ways. What is the net result -- apart from an increase in the regulatory burden on Australian industry? It's business as usual as long as everyone pays lip service to global warming in an increasingly energy-hungry world.