An uncivil war of words, money, and influence has broken out in Australia between the coal industry, which is favored by government, and the nation’s environmental interests. The ultimate prize: the greatest natural wonder of the world, the Great Barrier Reef. Friday marked the latest skirmish in the struggle over this critical internationally designated World Heritage Area.
Earth’s largest single organic construction, the Great Barrier Reef stretches 1,400 miles along Australia’s east coast. Its watery expanse contains 2,195 known plant species. The living reef provides nesting and breeding sites for 215 species of birds and is home to thousands of species of fish, turtles, crustacea, mollusks, other marine animals, and cnidaria such as jellyfish and a vast network of coral. With rain forests, coral reefs are the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. They keep our oceans and coastlines alive. Astronauts can see the Great Barrier Reef from space without visual aids. More than a million people visit the reef each year, although it is antipodean to most major population centers.
Although the northern third of the reef has stayed fairly stable over the past 35 years, the southern two-thirds have sustained heavy environmental pressures, including land runoff from human activities that causes major problems with ocean water quality. Scientists have now officially tagged the coral feature as being in “poor” health. Eurotrophication and hypoxia threaten, and the overall coral cover has declined by 15% during only the past five years because of cyclones, floods, pollution, and a plague of coral-eating starfish.
Environmental and business interests have long debated interference on the reef by corporations and/or the Sydney government. Lately, Australian conservationists and defenders of world climate have gained an unexpected ally–the tourism industry–in opposing the government’s potentially damaging plans for industrial expansion over the unmatched natural resource. UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre recently warned that development of major new port facilities would endanger the reef.
By charter, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority of Australia has authority over environmental issues on the reef. Prompted by the UNESCO statement, the Park Authority and the government of Queensland (the second-largest and third-most populous Australian state, which abuts much of the park) has assessed the condition of the reef. It is about to make recommendations on how to protect irreplaceable values while enabling sustainable development in the coastal zone. The documents are scheduled for release at the end of January. (Access further information at the Marine Park Authority’s website here.)
Meanwhile, North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation, a state-owned port authority for five locations identified to handle bulk shipments of coal and other products, firmed up plans and applied for a permit to construct a massive coal terminal on Abbot Point near the town of Bowen, just 30 miles (50 km) north of the Whitsunday Islands, which are a major scenic attraction along the reef.
The proposed facility would become one of the world’s largest coal ports. It would create a maritime superhighway across Australian waters. The export path would carry coal expected to come from the landlocked Galilee Basin area in central Australia to destinations in Asia. Indian companies GVK and Adani are the two largest miners at Galilee and are also major stakeholders in the proposed port.
India wants to use the coal reserves thought to underlie Australia’s midsection to safeguard its ability to produce electric power well into the 2020s. China, forecast to be the world’s major coal user in the current decade, reportedly has substantial interest in Australian coal shipping as well. Abbot Point and associated proposals would increase coal exports and shipping traffic through the waters about sixfold. Australia also has plans in the works to permit a large liquefied natural gas (predominantly methane) terminal in the same area.
Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, head of the Liberal National government (unlike its official name, a very reactionary and conservative body that was elected in September), gave the coal industry his go-ahead to build the mega-port.
The Abbott government seems proud to cite firm promises that it intends to hold port developers to some of the “strictest [environmental] conditions in Australian history.” These include a 150% net benefit requirement for water quality after dredging; a financial contribution of $89 million for reef health; and 95 other environmental conditions. Considered against the risks of development to the reef, these measures may appear strict to Australians, but compared to the $42.5 billion BP has thus far set aside for one single offshore drilling accident in 2010 at its Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, they fall woefully short of adequate.
Although the Abbot Point coal terminal itself would be sited outside the marine park area, the proposal for it includes dumping five-and-a-half million tons of mud and sand dredged up during port construction back into the protected waters of the Great Barrier Reef. The dredge spoil disposal is what places the port development project under the authority of the GBRMPA. The authority was expected to announce its own decision on the facility’s dumping question on Friday. However, at the very last minute that morning, the group postponed it.
The Marine Park Authority is now “carefully considering the permit application from North Queensland Bulk Ports,” GBRMPA’s biodiversity, conservation and sustainable use manager, Bruce Elliot, stated. “We have extended the time for making a decision on the dredge disposal application under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act until 31 January 2014.”
The new schedule extends the approval period by six weeks, keeping GBRMPA decisionmaking open until the public consultation on the strategic assessment and program reports–dubbed “Have your say“–is over at the end of January.
In other words, Australia’s government has just narrowly escaped the impropriety of issuing a ruling before the public has had its mandated say.
Adding to the controversy, reporter Alexander Reed Kelly pointed out yesterday that according to an independent government finding in August, dredging sediment can travel much farther than scientists had previously thought. “The risks include sediment being disturbed by severe weather. Even a cursory look at Queensland’s weather patterns near the Reef over the past decade would show that severe weather, including tropical cyclones and flooding, is a regular occurrence, even if you disregard massively destructive events like Cyclone Yasi.”
“Business as usual is not an option” in considering such a marked impact on the reef, says Marine Park Authority Chairman Russell Reichelt. You can access his description of the process on YouTube below.
The controversy thus involves much, much more than simple threats to the nesting grounds of green turtles and the humpback whale congregation area between Abbot Point and the Whitsunday Islands. The World Coal Association states that since 2000, “global coal consumption has grown faster than any other fuel. The five largest coal users–China, USA, India, Russia, and Japan–account for 76% of total global coal use.”
Australia’s coal exports are currently the largest or second-largest in the world (disparity indicated in two reliable sources). The country’s overseas coal business was worth up to $44 billion last year, a rise of 30% over the past five years. China and India are its main coal customers. This number will increase another 40% by 2017, says the Christian Science Monitor‘s correspondent John Zubrzycki.
Both this fall’s draft UN Fifth Assessment on climate change and the 19th meeting of the world climate leaders in Warsaw confirmed nearly incalculable harm in using coal to generate energy. Coal burning is by far the most potent contributor to the CO2 emissions that drive climate change, producing almost twice the impact of petroleum use.
Prime Minister Abbott has made it quite clear that he opposes the thinking of most other world leaders and 97% of scientists on climate change. The issue is intricately involved in assessing the future not only of the Great Barrier Reef, but also of Australia’s love affair with coal and desire to capture the business of the world’s two greatest emerging nations, which will continue to depending on the mineral, at least in the short run.
Abbott has made absurd claims in interviews regarding world climate and has held to them despite clear scientific consensus and several subsequent UN environmental summits. His government is even considering breaking its international climate commitments by actions such as opening the previously protected Tasmanian Wilderness to logging.
Abbott’s reasoning: “the science isn’t settled,” the earth is “cooling,” “it hasn’t warmed since 1998,” and “there’s no correlation between CO2 and temperature.” (See the one-minute YouTube clip of the Prime Minister’s opinions here. All these arguments have been thoroughly debunked.)
Greg Hunt, the government’s Environment Minister, backs the PM and his cabinet on climate issues and exploitation of coal resources. According to Queensland’s Deputy Premier, Jeff Seeney, the state also views the coal terminal positively: “We welcome this common-sense decision from the Commonwealth government that will encourage growth in Queensland’s resources sector and underpin future jobs in the coal and coal seam gas sector.” Many local businesses–apart from tourism–also see some benefit from the planned operations, albeit greatest during the construction period.
Opponents of the dredge spoil dumping and huge reef development believe that the government “needs to listen to the science, tourist operators, fishers, and concerned community members and put the needs of the reef first.” Some are involved with a watchdog and advocacy organization called “Fight for the Reef”–website here.
Richard Leck of the WWF, a 50+ year-old international conservation group, reportedly told Melbourne’s Herald Sun today that “the decision by GBRMPA [to extend the deadline by six weeks] is a temporary reprieve for the reef. But the fight’s not over yet. We call on GBRMPA to take the next step and rule against the reef being used as a dump.”
Australian Marine Conservation Society spokeswoman Felicity Wishart agreed. “The high risk posed by dumping dredge spoil in the reef’s waters and [the] uncertainty over the full extent of damage [leaves] GBRMPA little choice but to reject the issuing of a permit. An overwhelming majority of Australians want to see dumping of dredge spoil completely banned in the World Heritage waters of the reef.”
But six more weeks will probably not rein in growing, if necessarily shortlived, Australian economic hegemony over coal in the South Pacific. Nor will it provide good answers to the world’s larger questions of energy use and climate change.