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How A Lizard, A Snake And Disgruntled Bank Customers Stopped A $16 Billion Coal Mine

Green groups are hoping a federal court decision signals the beginning of the end for Australia's coal industry.

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Things are just getting worse for the coal industry in Australia. On Wednesday, what was going to be the biggest coal project in the country was overturned in the Federal Court because of concerns over two endangered species.

environment.gov.au

The yakka skink is listed as vulnerable in Queensland (Nature Conservation Act 1992) and in Australia (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999).

The court ruled that the environment minister Greg Hunt did not properly consider the effect of the Carmichael mine in Queensland's Galilee Basin on the yakka skink and the ornamental snake.

As a result, Indian mining company Adani does not have legal grounds to start building the massive mine and the minister will have to revise the project.

Lawyers for the Mackay Conservation Fund, who brought the case before the court, also alleged that Greg Hunt failed to consider Adani's environmental history and global greenhouse emissions from burning the coal produced by the mine.

Environmental activists are absolutely stoked, saying the decision could even shut down the mine for good.

The Yakka Skink & Ornamental Snake; two of the species that make AU great. Let’s protect them http://t.co/2YUR2r917V

They're calling for Greg Hunt to reject the approval for the mine altogether.

"We have won the court case and now we are asking Greg Hunt to meet with us to discuss unresolved aspects of the case," Ellen Roberts from Mackay Conservation Group told BuzzFeed News.

"Obviously the impact of the mine on species in western Queensland is massive, including clearing thousands of hectares of precious habitat, and sucking out 12 billion litres of precious groundwater," Roberts said.

She believes the concerns in the region about the mine aren't just environmental, but also about fly-in fly-out workers taking local jobs, and concerns from Indigenous traditional owners with native title claims.

The Minerals Council of Australia says the decision was just "the result of environmental groups exploiting a minor legal loophole" and is confident the mine will go ahead eventually.

"Claims by opponents of the mine that the project has been stopped permanently are arrant nonsense," said the Council's Greg Evans.

"The federal parliament should move quickly to close the loophole which provides no additional environmental protections but simply provides an opportunity for radical environmental groups to lodge vexatious legal actions designed to inflict costly delays on the project."

Roberts told BuzzFeed News the statement from the Minerals Council was "predictable, wrong and offensive" and that the company had a history of calling for slacker environmental protections for resources projects.

But the mine owners insist it's just an administrative hiccup.

Sam Panthaky / Getty Images

Workers use heavy machinery to sift through coal at the Adani Power company thermal power plant in India.

In a statement, Adani described the decision as being based on a "technical error from the Federal Environment Department".

"It should be noted the approval did include appropriate conditions to manage the species protection of the yakka skink and ornamental snake," the statement said.

"Adani will await the Minister and his department's timely reconsideration of its approval application under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act."

The government is due to look at the approval again in six to eight weeks.

The bank was advising Adani on how to get finance for the coal project, but announced on Wednesday night that it had terminated the relationship.

"We confirm that our advisory role has concluded. Due to client confidentiality we are unable to comment further," a spokesperson said.

It follows other international banks who have abandoned Adani's controversial coal project, and environmental campaigners are thrilled.

The Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) has been leading a campaign to get CommBank customers to pledge to move their money if the funding went ahead. Whilst the bank has been tight-lipped about the reasons behind the withdrawal, the AYCC says environmental concerns were a big factor.

"Three years ago we were facing six new coal ports," Kirsty Albion from the Australian Youth Climate Coalition told BuzzFeed News. "Now what we've seen is company after company walking away from this project, like Lendlease, Glencore, Xstrata and 11 international banks. Not just on the Carmichael mine but the whole Galilee Basin project," she said.

Environment minister Greg Hunt says green groups are just having a big whinge about the mine's effect on the Great Barrier Reef. After all, the Galilee Basin mine project is 500 kilometres inland.

"It is casual, uninformed and it is false and untrue," Hunt told ABC Radio when he approved the mine last year.

But there are big flow-on effects of building and operating such a big coal mine in Queensland.

It's not just about digging up the coal, they also have to process it, move it and eventually use it. Every step of the process has an environmental impact.

So even though the planned mine is inland, a coal port will have to be built at Abbot Point on the coast, and the coal will be exported on giant ships passing close to the Great Barrier Reef. But that's not all.

To make that route for the ships carrying coal, the sea bed near Abbott Point will have to be dug up, which is bad news for dugongs and turtles who eat the sea grass.

Then they have to put all 1.6 million tonnes of that sea floor they just dug up (known as dredge spoil) somewhere, so the plan is to dump it on wetlands at Caley Valley - which is bad news for the threatened species of birds that live there.

Then there's the story of the longer-term effects when it comes to burning all that coal, a narrative we know all too well.

Releasing carbon into the atmosphere warms the planet and leads to rising sea temperatures, which is not just bad news for all the sea creatures who live in the reef, but devastating for entire marine ecosystems.

It's not just environmental campaigns that have seen the huge coal development grind to a halt. The global price of coal is plummeting. Last week, a coal mine in Queensland's Isaac Plains sold for $1. Three years ago, it was valued at $860 million.

One Australian coal analyst put it simply: "I'm not sure how it could get any worse at the moment," said Robin Griffin from Wood Mackenzie.

With falling demand for coal from China, Australia has been looking to India, with its ballooning population, as a major buyer.

But even Adani is looking to clean energy technology, recently announcing that it will invest in building two giant solar plants in India, as part of the Modi government's new commitment to renewable energy.

Narinder Nanu / Getty Images

Indian workers construct part of the France-India Solar Direct Punjab Solar Park project in Muradwala.

As the world's biggest polluters start to turn to the sun for energy, Australia is still digging in the ground, even as the financial backing of its latest project crumbles.

If the coal mine in Galilee Basin doesn't end up going ahead, environmental activists could soon be telling the story of how a lizard, a snake, and some bungled paperwork finally made Australia see the light.

Alexandra Lee is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.

Contact Alex Lee at alexandra.lee@buzzfeed.com.

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