Do Carbon Emissions from a Coal Mine Have Significant Environmental Impacts?
What kind of question is that? Isn't the public finally convinced that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming and coal is one of the biggest culprits? Unfortunately, the legal system has still not resolved this issue -- proving Dickens' point that the "law's an ass," and a particularly stubborn one at that.
One of our most venerable environmental statutes, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), requires that the federal government assess and publicly disclose the environmental impact of its actions. If the impact might be significant, the government must investigate, respond to public comments and compare alternatives. Many states, and other countries, have similar laws.
U.S courts have been mixed on whether, and to what extent, greenhouse gas emissions must be considered in the assessment. A court in Austrialia, however, recently ruled that the impact that large projects have on global warming -- such as the coal mine planned for Anvil Hill (viewed above) -- must be considered. The decision involved the Anvil Hill open-cut coal mine -- the last significant area of bush land on the floor of the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, home many endangered species, including the koala and 14 varieties of birds. If approved, Anvil Hill will be another huge mine in Australia, already the world's largest coal exporter. (Like the U.S., Australia has failed to join Kyoto.)
A group of citizens challenged the mine, arguing that government had to consider both the direct consequences of the mining, as well as the "downstream" impacts -- particularly the burning of the coal, even though much of it would be burned overseas.
Although the judge refused to interfere with the approval process for the mine, she ruled that the downstream impacts must be considered. The decision may not stop the Anvil mine itself, but climate activists believe it will have significant consequence on future developments.
As Nikki Williams, Chief Executive of the New South Wales Minerals Council, stated, New South Wales has "300 thousand business owners and each one of those is going to be dramatically affected potentially, if this decision is taken to its logical conclusions because all of our activities, all of our business, produce greenhouse gases. So where do you draw the line? Is it just coal exports or are we going right down the chain to the building of your suburban home?"
We can only hope.