Federal environment officials have agreed to look again at 18 proposed new coal and gas projects after a Queensland environment group submitted requests to have the effects of climate change considered.
None of the 18 projects has been approved under the country’s environment law, but have been through a process where the environment minister determines the nature and scale of their likely impacts.
In July, lawyers for the Environment Council of Central Queensland sent documents to the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, asking her to reconsider decisions made under previous ministers going back to 2011.
Projects from major coal and gas companies – including Woodside, ConocoPhillips, Whitehaven and Glencore – were included in the request.
In a statement, the federal environment department said on Friday that “after careful consideration” it had decided each request was valid and all new information had been placed on its website and was open for public comment until 24 November.
“As this is a legal process, and the minister is the decision maker, she is unable to make public comment at this time,” the statement said.
Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, projects are considered by the minister at two stages.
At the first stage, the minister lists the habitats, species and ecological communities that could be affected by a project. At the second and final stage, the minister either denies environmental approval, or grants it with conditions.
The Environment Council of Central Queensland used a little known process related to the first stage known as a “reconsideration request” where new information is submitted that had come to light since original decisions were made.
Expert reports from two Australian climate science experts, Prof David Karoly, of the University of Melbourne, and Prof Lesley Hughes, of Macquarie University, are part of the new evidence.
The council’s president, Christine Carlisle, said: “Until now, former environment ministers failed to take climate change into account when considering which animals, plants and places could be harmed by a coal or gas proposal.
“Assessing the risks and harm of new coal or gas should account for all the evidence, including how it would contribute to climate breakdown.”
Hollie Kerwin is the principal solicitor at Environmental Justice Australia, which is representing the council.
“What these requests really do is ask the minister to take into account the global scientific consensus and the granular information on the impacts of new coal and gas on all of these living wonders,” Kerwin said.
The requests are looking to test how the act defines an impact and whether the government can exclude climate change.
“A climate change impact is no different than any other impact and it fits within the meaning of an impact under the law,” Kerwin said.
Among the evidence submitted to the government are the findings of recent UN climate assessments, the government’s own State of the Climate report, peer-reviewed scientific articles and maps of the impacts of the black summer bushfires on different species.
The council said climate change was threatening more than 2,120 species and places considered by the EPBC Act as matters of national environmental significance.
Kerwin said the intervention was a deliberate challenge to the fossil fuel proposals.
“There are proposals to dig up more coal, bids to stay open for decades longer and to drill major new gas wells,” she said. “The science is clear. More coal and gas would just be adding fuel to the fire we need to put out.”
The Greens environment spokesperson, Sarah Hanson-Young, welcomed the reassessments, saying: “An enormous amount of scientific evidence showing the detrimental effect of climate change on Australia’s matters of environment significance – from the Great Barrier Reef to koalas – was given to the minister. She must not ignore it in her decision making.
“Any project, not just these 18, that comes across the minister’s desk must be assessed according to the climate and nature crisis we are in right now.”