The High Court has ordered fresh hearings into the planned expansion of a controversial coal mine on Queensland’s Darling Downs, potentially putting a halt to the project.
- A group of Darling Downs landholders win their appeal against the planned expansion of the New Acland coal mine
- The mine’s owners, New Hope Group, has been seeking approvals for the mine since 2007
- The case will be sent back to the Queensland Land Court for fresh hearings
The court has spent the past four months considering an appeal from the Oakey Coal Action Alliance (OCAA) against the stage 3 expansion of the New Acland coal mine, 180 kilometres west of Brisbane.
The OCAA, which comprises more than 60 landholders, has opposed the project proposed by mine owner New Hope Group since the approvals process began in 2007.
In a 5-0 ruling handed down in Canberra, the High Court allowed OCAA’s appeal and ordered the case be sent back to the Queensland Land Court.
Chief Justice Susan Kiefel, Justice Virginia Bell, Justice Stephen Gageler and Justice Patrick Keane found the Court of Appeal should have sent the case back to the Land Court for full reconsideration.
They found orders from the Court of Appeal were “not framed in a way that could produce, and had not in fact produced, recommendations that fulfilled the statutory duties of the Land Court”.
Justice James Edelman said despite arguments put forward by New Hope in favour of refusing a rehearing of the case in the Land Court, it was “insufficient to justify the highly exceptional course of this court refusing a rehearing for a party whose hearing was decided other than independently and impartially”.
The High Court also overturned a 2019 Queensland Court of Appeal order requiring OCAA to pay costs for most of the legal action, which was thought to run into about $500,000.
In December 2019, OCAA received a letter from New Hope Group indicating it would be pursuing individual members for the money.
But the High Court ruled each of the parties should cover their own costs for the legal action and that New Hope would have to pay the costs of the High Court challenge.
OCAA secretary Paul King said it was a terrific win for local farmers.
“The OCAA has been completely vindicated by the High Court,” he said, adding that he believed the decision would mean the end of New Hope’s expansion plans.
“If not, it is going to come very close to it.
Mr King said the Queensland Land Court would meet next week to discuss the High Court’s decision
“There’ll be a process started as to whether or how a new objection process and hearing will be held, if indeed it needs to be,” he said.
But Andrew Langton from the Oakey Chamber of Commerce said the decision was a blow for some locals.
“We’ve already had people in there this morning that have said how disappointed they are in the decision that has come down again,” he said.
“I think it’s gut-wrenching for most people because of the fact that if you think something can be tied up for such a long period of time in the courts, what does it say about further development in the state itself?”
New Hope said it would seek an urgent meeting with the Queensland Government to discuss the project’s future.
The company’s group chief executive, Reinhold Schmidt, said while the High Court outcome was disappointing, it had nothing to do with the approvals process.
“What we need from the Government is a roadmap for how we get the project up and running, because more delays equates to more job losses,” Mr Schmidt said.
Acting Premier Steven Miles said the Government would consider the court’s judgment.
“We will look at it closely and our next steps will be determined by what the court decides,” he said.
Coal running out
New Hope Group, has sought approvals for the project for more than a decade, but the State Government has refused to finalise the process until all legal objections are resolved.
The company still needs an associated water licence and a development approval before the expansion can proceed.
New Hope Group was forced to sack 150 workers in 2019 due to the mine’s coal reserves running out.
It has campaigned for the Government to approve the mine despite the legal challenges, warning that without the expansion the remaining 150 workers would eventually lose their jobs as well.
Keith Pitt, the federal Minister for Resources, said the High Court’s decision showed the urgent need for the Queensland Government to reform its approval process for resources projects.
Mr Pitt said the decision to send the matter back to the Land Court put hundreds of jobs in jeopardy.
“This is a classic example of the Queensland approval process allowing activists to use the courts and legal system to delay legitimate resources projects,” he said.
Long-running legal battle
The expansion has been subject to a long-running legal battle, with OCAA’s first legal objection to the project in the Land Court in 2016.
The hearing lasted almost 100 days, becoming the longest in the court’s history.
In May 2017, Judge Paul Smith rejected the application for the mining lease and environmental approval on the grounds of inadequate groundwater modelling and its impact on farming land.
New Hope Group appealed against the decision in the Supreme Court, with the matter being sent back to the Land Court in May 2018 for a rehearing.
This was on the basis of inconsistencies around noise levels and that some aspects of the mine’s groundwater and social impacts were beyond the jurisdiction of the Land Court.
Land Court President Fleur Kingham reheard the case and decided that if the miner could comply with amendments to noise limits, the environmental authority for the expansion could be approved.
OCAA appealed that decision and then New Hope cross-appealed.
These actions were both heard in the Court of Appeal, which dismissed OCAA’s case in November 2019 and allowed the New Hope cross-appeal, finding the first Land Court decision by Judge Smith had been affected by apprehended bias.
OCAA then applied for special leave to appeal to the High Court to have its whole case reheard.