The industrialisation of the Great Barrier Reef

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Feature Story - 13 December, 2013
In weighing up the interests of the Great Barrier Reef against those of transnational coal companies, Greg Hunt decided it was more important to protect the latter, writes David Ritter.

Great Barrier Reef

© Darren Jew / Greenpeace

The clue should be in the title. Australians should reasonably be able to expect that the Minister for the Environment is actually for the environment. And surely, if there is one place that Australians can expect our Minister for the Environment to be for protecting, it is our very own wonder of the world, the Great Barrier Reef.

But earlier this week, the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt decided against protecting our Reef, instead giving the go-ahead to build what could become one of the world's largest coal ports in the surrounds of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

The scene of the proposed action is a middling port at Abbot Point in Northern Queensland, near the town of Bowen. Dolphins and dugongs swim the surrounding Coral Sea, and the nearby Caley Valley wetlands fringe the sand. Yet this once paradisiacal place has been greedily eyed up by the Indian and Chinese coal companies who hope to develop mega mines for thermal coal in Queensland's Galilee Basin. These coal companies see Abbot Point as the prime location to export their product and want to massively expand the port's berthing capacity.

So the stage was set: a black and white choice lay before Mr Hunt. On the one hand, our Minister for the Environment balanced the fragile wonder of the Great Barrier Reef; on the other, the greed-driven plans for the industrialisation of the Reef by transnational coal companies.

Australia's Minister for the Environment sized up the situation and chose to flick the ministerial switch for the miners.

Among the approvals given, Mr Hunt okayed three million cubic metres of dredging of Abbot Point, which means the Queensland Government-owned Queensland Bulk Port Authority (QBPA) digging up the sea-bed. He also approved the construction of massive new coal export facilities, which will be built by Indian company Adani, enabling Abbot Point to potentially become the biggest coal port in the world.

Hunt, a courteous and driven man with great ability and a seemingly genuine concern for the environment, has said that the harm caused by the project will be minimised by the conditions that he has set. However, the dismal reality is that the Minister has chosen the dredging option that is most destructive for the Reef - and the 50,000 or so jobs in tourism and other industries that depend on it - but cheapest for coal miners.  

A closer look also reveals that those conditions that have been set are more distraction than substance. The dredgers, for example, will be required to 'offset' the sediment entering the Reef as a consequence of dredging by reducing the sediment pouring out of two nearby rivers. This particular condition seems on the face of it absurd; more grim satire than any attempt at serious administration. Eminent reef scientist Jon Brodie has offered a sobering assessment of the prospects for such schemes.

To be fair to Mr Hunt, it is hardly as if the former Labor government had a decent record on protecting our Reef from the coal industry. Indeed on this issue, the government and the opposition may recently have changed, but you would hardly know. As former Howard government adviser Guy Pearse has outlined in his own work and more recently in joint authorship with David McKnight and Bob Burton, the coal industry relies on smothering the voices of ordinary Australians with a blanket of corporate influence over politicians. The result is a unity ticket of political short-sightedness, double-talk and irresponsibility, all made more egregious by the declining economic viability of the coal industry.

And of course, looming over the direct threats to our Reef is the ecumenical danger of climate change. According to research, between 60-80 per cent of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies are 'unburnable' if the world is to have a chance of not exceeding global warming of 2°C - the target that is accepted by all of Australia's mainstream political parties. Whatever conditions put in place to mitigate damage to the Reef, the construction of new coal ports is immoral and unjustifiable on climate grounds.

While some environmental issues may seem complicated, the question of whether or not to permit the industrialisation of the Reef is surely about as simple as it gets. But given the failure of the Minister for the Environment to protect our Reef, we will have to rely on the common sense and tenacity of ordinary Australians who are prepared to stand up to the out of control coal industry to halt this madness.

David Ritter is the chief executive officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. View his full profile here.

This blog appeared first on ABC Enviro.

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