The case concerns the applications by Waratah Coal Pty Ltd. (WC) for a ‘mining license’ and an ‘environmental authority’ under the Australian mining regulation and environmental protection legislation. These would allow it to mine coal in areas of the Galilee Basin, including parts of a protected area under the nature conservation law.
The case reached the Land Court of Queensland on account of objections by environmental groups to WC’s applications. The Land Court of Queensland’s role was to provide a recommendation to the governmental authorities responsible for deciding on the applications after reviewing their merits (considering the compatibility of the proposed project with the environmental laws in Australia). However, the Court also found that the human rights implications of the coal mining project were relevant. The justification for this was that the court was directly bound by the Human Rights Act 2019 to not make a decision that is incompatible with human rights.
In its lengthy judgment, Court concluded on the basis of the evidence available to it and the interests at stake that it could not recommend the approval of WC’s applications.
The objectors to WC’s applications raised several contentions in regards to the local and global environmental impacts of allowing coal mining in the Galilee Basin (including its contribution to climate change), as well as interference with private property rights. WC refuted these contentions and found that several issues raised by the objectors were irrelevant to the decision of their applications.
In regards to climate change, WC disagreed that the emissions produced by foreign consumers of the mined coal are a relevant consideration. It argued that approving the mining of coal does not entail approving its combustion, and that the responsibility for the emissions from the latter falls on importing countries which decide to do so. WC also argued that the mine will make no difference to total emissions because it would displace lower quality coal with higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The Court framed its recommendation as pertaining to the specific coal mining project in question rather than coal mining in general. It was not convinced by the evidence put forth by WC with respect to the adequacy of its plans of offsetting the environmental impacts which would follow from the coal mining project.
In relation to climate change, the Court found that the mitigation of climate change was amongst the public interests which needed to be considered in the balance against the public interest considerations in support of the project (such as economic development). While the Court acknowledged that the project itself would not necessarily put Australia over its greenhouse gas emissions budget or lead to an exceedence of the temperature limits set by the Paris Agreement, Australia’s limited carbon budget and the risks of exceeding the 1.5° and 2°degree C temperature limits, and Queensland’s intention to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, were strong factors which supported the refusal of the project.
The Court rejected WC’s contentions in regards to foreign emissions from the combustion of the coal mined by WC, finding that not considering them would be inconsistent with the public interest criterion in the environmental protection legislation.
The Court found that the human rights to life, protection of children, culture of First Nations People, privacy and home, property, and the enjoyment by certain groups of rights without discrimination were engaged by the coal mining project. In its assessment, the project constituted a ‘limit’ to these rights owing to its causal link with climate change which, in turn, affects the enjoyment of these rights. The Court concluded that the economic and other public interest benefits of the project were not sufficient to justify the limitation of human rights which would result from the project.
For full judgment of 25 November 2022, see here.
Suggested case citation:
Land Court of Queensland, Waratah Coal Pty Ltd v Youth Verdict Ltd & Ors (No 6)  QLC 21, 25 November 2022, President Fleur Kingham.
03 August 2023.