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Australia's biggest environmental group will launch a major legal fight against the fossil fuel industry as it shifts its focus to climate change for the first time in its 37-year history.

And its anger will be aimed at damage caused to Australian environments including WA's Kimberley and the Canning Basin.

The Wilderness Society – which has traditionally campaigned to protect native forests, bush and coastlines – says it can no longer ignore the impact of carbon emissions on the natural landscape. In a controversial move, the group will aggressively target Australia's multibillion-dollar oil, gas and coal exports.

Fossil Fuel

The Wilderness Society has fossil fuel in its sights. Photo: Jonathan Carroll

"Australia is now an emerging energy superpower and our argument is if you're serious about nature conservation, and if you're serious about climate change you can't just keep messing around with domestic issues; you've got to look at the export industry. We've got to make a decision as a country to keep large coal, oil and gas reserves actually in the ground," Wilderness Society national campaign director Lyndon Schneiders said.

Just as it took on logging giants Gunns in a bid to protect native forests, the group will consider types of legal action and pressure on investors to block and undermine fossil fuel extraction that impacts on the natural environment and community health.

"As a long-time greenie, I was always more concerned with direct threats to nature - logging or land clearing or invasive species, river health - but watching the acceleration in the mining and export industry in the last four or five years, you can't be a nature conservationist in this country any more without saying we've got to get rid of this fossil fuel addiction," Mr Schneiders said.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

The organisation's leaders recently travelled to the United States for talks with some of the world's leading environmental litigation experts as they map out a 10-year plan to target fossil fuel and the industry's investors.

They say the industry is increasingly pushing into Australia's most famous landscapes and marine environments, such the the Kimberley, Cape York, the Central Desert and Lake Eyre.

Six sites containing vast reserves of oil, coal and gas deposits will be the focus of protection, including the Arckaringa Basin in South Australia, which holds an estimated 223 billion barrels of shale oil - equal to Saudi Arabia's entire oil reserves - and 20 billion tonnes of coal, almost as much as America's entire coal reserves.

In NSW, Maules Creek, which holds 362 megatonnes of coal, and Pilliga Forest, home to 10 trillion cubic feet of gas, have been earmarked. Also on the list are the Cooper Basin in South Australia and Queensland, the Canning Basin in Western Australia and the Great Australian Bight.

Mr Schneiders said the legal campaign would scrutinise the impact assessment process of existing and proposed mining projects and seek to introduce new laws requiring consideration to be given to the global impact of greenhouse gas emissions on Australia's exported coal and gas.

A spokesman for the Minerals Council of Australia said: "The latest International Energy Agency report shows that coal provides 41 per cent of the world's electricity needs and that it will continue to be the dominant source of power for decades to come.

"The world is not going to stop using coal. Australia also provides about 60 per cent of the world trade in coal used to make steel. In advocating for the end to the expansion of the Australian coal industry, it is incumbent on the Wilderness Society to identify how the world will meet its future steel needs.”

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