Just 10 days into his new tenure as Minister for Climate Change and Environment, Mark Butler has inherited a major controversy. Abbot Point in north Queensland, just south of Cape Upstart and north of the Whitsunday Islands, has become the battleground for the future of the Great Barrier Reef. The latest scandal is the dumping of dredge sludge in the marine park, but the broader story is even slimier.
Abbot Point is part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and hosts the reef’s most threatened marine mammal, the Australian snubfin dolphin, as well as dugongs and marine turtles. It also boasts a turtle nesting beach and an internationally significant coastal wetland. Three imminent developments for expanded coal exports threaten this area and have become the litmus test for two of the most fundamental environmental challenges Australia faces: conserving the reef and limiting global warming to below two degrees above pre-industrial temperatures.
Two proposed coal terminals for Abbot Point would be built by GVK and Adani, the same Indian companies that are also seeking to build new black coal mines, the largest Australia has ever seen. GVK’s “Terminal 3” has already received approval from the Federal Government; but a criminal investigation is underway into whether GVK subsidiary Hancock Coal Infrastructure used misleading and false information to obtain it.
If that is found to be the case, the Environment Minister, Mark Butler, has the power to revoke the approval. Adani’s Terminal 0 has just last week released its final Environmental Impact Statement, which means Mark Butler has until 16 August to decide if it will go ahead.
For these two coal terminals to go ahead, a third development must be approved by the Minister: a capital dredging project to deepen the waters around the small existing coal terminal, to allow hundreds of large bulk carriers to berth and load the coal. North Queensland Bulk Ports is the proponent of this capital dredging. It wants to dump the resulting dredge spoil offshore in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, but has declined to specify where exactly this dumping will take place.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Chair, Russel Reichelt, told Senate Estimates in May that it would be best practice “to have a specific location" before a decision to allow the port expansion was made. One would think so. Local commercial fishermen have indicated that offshore dumping is a red line for them and want it ruled out altogether. The minister this week delayed his decision on this development until 9 August.
The potential impacts of these developments are not trivial, and neither are the consequences if Australia fails to protect the Great Barrier Reef from development. The World Heritage Committee noted at its meeting in June that limited progress had been made in implementing some of its previous recommendations, particularly with regard to coastal development.
The Committee urged Australia to “ensure rigorously that development is not permitted if it would impact individually or cumulatively on the [outstanding universal value]of the property” and decided to consider listing the Great Barrier Reef as a World Heritage site “in danger” at its meeting next year, if further progress is not made.
There is an even greater matter at stake: Will Australia take part in fulfilling its commitment, along with the 196 other countries that are party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to limit global warming to below two degrees above pre-industrial levels? Meeting that commitment will take extraordinary effort.
Global greenhouse pollution must peak and decline by the middle of this decade, and global demand for coal must begin to rapidly decline after 2016. In Queensland and NSW, 91 new and expanded coal mines are seeking approval by the end of the critical decade for global warming. It looks like Australia has no intention of staunching the flow of our coal to Asia, and working to limit global warming. It looks like we are actively choosing not to take action to stop the globe warming to a degree that will create, according to the Climate Commission “unprecedented changes in climate so severe that they will challenge the existence of our society as we know it today”.
In Queensland, the bulk of the expanded coal volumes are proposed to be shipped from export terminals in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Reef scientists say that we do not stop global warming, coral reefs worldwide are unlikely to survive at all, which means slime. Literally. An update last week from University of Queensland researchers studying the impact of ocean warming and acidification on outer reefs in the Great Barrier Reef revealed the corals are likely to dissolve faster than the researchers had expected. The Great Barrier Reef will bleach, dissolve, and cease to exist on our watch.
The previous Environment Minister sought to characterise this awful confluence of threats to the Great Barrier Reef as environment groups not being “genuine” about our love for the Reef. As if the threat to the Reef from global warming were a stalking horse for our efforts to protect everything else we love from climate change, too. It is Australia that has been disingenuous: the decisions we’re making now will become the Great Barrier Reef’s destiny. It is as real and intense as that. Mark Butler now has 30 days to make a decision about Abbot Point. To safeguard the Reef he has no choice: He must say “no” to the coal industry.