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Environment minister rejects Queensland wind farm project to save old-growth forest

The environment minister, Sussan Ley, has rejected a $100m wind farm proposal in central Queensland on the grounds it would clear old-growth forest important to vulnerable and threatened species, including the koala and greater glider.

Ley ruled the Lotus Creek wind farm, nearly 200km north-west of Rockhampton, was “clearly unacceptable” under national environment laws, in part because the site was home to species that were badly affected in other parts of the country during last summer’s catastrophic bushfires.

The Australian Conservation Foundation welcomed the decision, saying no commercial project should leave biodiversity worse off. But it noted it came less than a month after Ley approved a coalmine in Queensland’s Bowen Basin that would lead to the destruction of threatened species habitat.

The Lotus Creek proposal was to build 81 wind turbines over 48,000 hectares between Rockhampton and Mackay. The area includes 632 hectares of koala habitat, 340 hectares of greater glider habitat and 150 hectares of habitat for the vulnerable squatter pigeon.

Ley said the number and density of nationally protected threatened species in the area, and its likely future value as a refuge for them, meant the habitat was of unique quality. It was considered unlikely a suitable offset could be found if the land was cleared. The minister said the proponent, Epuron, could consider whether it wanted to modify its plans and apply again.

“In this case, there was a clear presence of species whose populations have been impacted by bushfires and that was an important consideration,” she said.

Paul Stangroom, Epuron’s general manager of development for Queensland, said the company was disappointed and would review the decision before deciding how to respond. He said the company felt Lotus Creek was “a very good wind farm project”.

The businessman Graeme Samuel is currently leading a once-a-decade review of the laws under which Ley’s decision was made, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Ley and other government MPs have emphasised the review would focus on cutting “green tape” and speeding up approvals.

Conservationists and scientists have called for the act to be toughened or replaced, pointing to evidence the plight of Australia’s threatened species has worsened significantly since it was introduced 20 years ago. Just 22 of 6,500 projects referred for approval under the act have been knocked back.

More than 240 conservation scientists last year called on the prime minister, Scott Morrison, to drop his opposition to stronger environment laws and use the Samuel review to stem an extinction crisis. More than 1,800 Australian plants and animals are listed as threatened with extinction, but scientists say this is an underestimate and the situation has worsened significantly since the bushfires that burned 8.2m hectares in the eastern states over the summer.

James Trezise, a nature policy analyst with the Australian Conservation Foundation, welcomed the rejection of the Lotus Creek wind farm as it was proposed. He agreed it would have damaged a large area of habitat important to threatened species. “Commercial projects, including renewable energy projects, should not leave biodiversity and threatened species worse off,” he said.

But Trezise accused the government of not applying the same threshold when it approved the Olive Downs coking coal project last month. He said the mine development would destroy “eight times as much threatened species habitat, albeit of lower quality”, as the wind farm.

Announcing the coking coalmine’s approval on 14 May, Ley said the company, Pembroke Resources, had agreed to conditions, including that it donate $1m to improving long-term conservation of koalas and greater gliders in the Bowen Basin. She said she had considered the impact of the bushfires on these species before reaching her decision.

Reporting by Guardian Australia since 2018 has shown the government has stopped listing major threats to species under the EPBC Act; that plans to address listed threats are often years out of date or have not been done; that there are multiple cases where money promised for threatened species funding has not gone to projects that help these species, and that funding for environment department programs has been cut by more than a third since the Coalition was elected in 2013.