Don't Let The Election Doom The Reef


Ennui is the word used by one of my mates to describe his response to the election campaign. My daughter puts it more simply by mewling and whining every time Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott appear on the nightly news while asking, "Are we there yet?"

No, we are not nearly there yet. With another three weeks to go, this federal election campaign already feels like it has taken too long.

Of greater concern than a bored and cynical electorate is the sense that there is so little between the two major parties in most of the critical areas of national interest. This is particularly true when it comes to protecting the Great Barrier Reef and dealing with the carbon liability of our coal exports.

Greenpeace and the Queensland Resources Council have both celebrated the delay of decisions on Abbot Point dredging, the construction of Terminal 0 at Abbott Point and the GVK mine in the Galilee Basin. It’s fair to say various stakeholders are just biding their time until after 8 September when all hell will break loose, but for entirely different reasons.

From the coal industry’s point of view these projects represent the last chance to get the stuff out of the ground before the window closes entirely – a future well detailed recently by Goldman Sachs in their report, The window for thermal coal investment is closing.

For environmentalists, tourist operators, fishermen and those who simply love the reef, a decision to OK the dredging of Abbot Point, the construction of Terminal 0 and/or the construction of the GVK-owned mine in the Galilee, would be viewed as a direct threat to the viability of the reef and an intolerable down payment on further climate change.

Internationally UNESCO will be watching these approval processes and decisions very closely. Indeed they have requested the State Party submit to the World Heritage Centre, by 1 February 2014, an updated report on the state of conservation of the property (the reef). Ideally, this will result in the inclusion of the reef on the List of World Heritage in Danger. 

Given that both Federal Labor and the Coalition have been boosters for the exploitation of the Galilee Basin – with the accompanying roll out of extra railway lines and ports – it is highly likely they will approve all three projects. The Coalition have pledged to cut green tape, should they win. They are likely to fast track the approvals as an opportunity to signal a tough new attitude towards environmental regulation.

Newly elected politicians, keen to turn Abbot Point and the reef into a proxy battle, will be the cause of much suffering — all for the sake of a few political reputations. Adding insult to injury, the smart money says these projects will be stranded sooner rather than later, but will continue to litter the Queensland coast for decades. As Deutsche Bank said in a report published in early May, Thermal Coal: Coal at a Crossroads:

“We believe this trend will develop out of emissions control standards, higher renewables output, a structural shift in the Chinese economy, improved transport infrastructure, and stagnating US demand,” Adding: “As demand disappoints versus producer expectations, rational decision-making will require that major expansion projects be delayed.”

In this kind of economic climate the idea of developing massive new coal mines in the middle of Queensland, necessitating the construction of vast new coal ports, must surely rate as a risky investment.

The contest to save the Reef from this kind of ruin will be hard-fought. Those who love the Reef will not sit back quietly watching its destruction. These proposals will fail because the Indian companies who are funding them are on the wrong side of history.

As reported in Bloomberg

"The world’s richest nations, moving to combat global warming, are cutting government support for new coal-burning power plants in developing countries, dealing a blow to the world’s dominant source of electricity.

"First it was President Barack Obama pledging in June that the government would no longer finance overseas coal plants through the US Export-Import Bank. Next it was the World Bank, then the European Investment Bank, dropping support for coal projects. Those banks have pumped more than $10 billion into such initiatives in the past five years."

In our vapid election campaign, it seems like neither Kevin Rudd nor Tony Abbott have considered the implications of such profound geo-political shifts in policy and energy use – let alone what it will mean for the Great Barrier Reef and the communities that rely on it.

That’s why these decisions cannot be left to a political elite or a handful of cowboy companies. This is why we – the entire Australian community – are all under heavy obligation to think these issues through and be willing to take the action necessary to preserve the places we love and the communities that support us.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.