Say Goodbye To The Great Barrier Reef


Environment Minister Greg Hunt's approval this week of several massive new extraction processes on the Great Barrier Reef coastline – including the creation of one of the world's biggest coal export terminals at Abbot Point – signals the Coalition government's embrace of the industrialisation of one of the most beautiful and fragile coral ecosystems on Earth.

The port expansion proposals at Abbot Point are a combination of four terminals that will make it possible for an additional 190 million tonnes of coal to be shipped and burnt every year, for decades to come. It means continuously loading coal onto 1500 ships every year. The plan is for the coal to come from several proposed "mega-mines" in the Galilee Basin, 1000 kilometres north-west of Brisbane.

Hunt has given the project approval to dump 3 million tonnes of dredging waste in the ocean. That’s equivalent to 150,000 dump trucks, lined up bumper to bumper from Brisbane to Melbourne, tipping waste into the ocean.

And when it comes to climate change, the proposed mines in the Galilee Basin will produce 700 million tonnes of carbon pollution a year. To put that in perspective, the difference between a 5 per cent and 25 per cent cut in Australia’s domestic pollution, over which we have endured years of political palpitations, is a mere 113 million tonnes.

The emissions from the proposed mines in the Galilee Basin will be greater than the United Kingdom’s national emissions. If the Galilee Basin was a country and Abbot Point its capital city, it would be one of the largest polluting countries in the world (pdf).

All this means Abbot Point will become a new global environmental battleground, like the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in Canada.

Keystone XL is a proposed network of 3462 kilometres of pipes that would transport oil from Canada’s tar sands into the US, via Nebraska. Opening up the tar sands would be a disaster: they hold up to 240 gigatonnes of carbon, half of what scientists say we can burn before we exceed 2 degrees of global warming.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has already warned Australia that the World Heritage Listing of the Great Barrier Reef is under threat. Abbot Point will be the last straw for a fragile ecosystem already under intense pressure.

In June this year UNESCO made a number of recommendations to Australia regarding the reef, including that we maintain and increase financial investment in water quality, that we do not permit development that would impact negatively or cumulatively on the outstanding universal value of the Reef, and that Australia should "not permit port developments or associated port infrastructure … within or adjoining the property."

UNESCO further warned that the committee would "consider the Great Barrier Reef for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger at its 38th session in 2014 in the absence of a firm and demonstrable commitment on these priority issues." Clearly the course the current Australian government has chosen is flying directly in the face of the World Heritage Committee's recommendations.

Greg Hunt's decision to approve Abbott Point is a decision to devastate the World Heritage Listed Great Barrier Reef. Thankfully, he is not the only decision maker, and this latest round of decisions are not the last required before 190 million tonnes of coal are shipped and burnt every year.

The whole exercise could become a gigantic white elephant. Coal demand is dropping, causing coal prices to drop. Investors such as HSBC are seeing a "carbon bubble" for investors: companies are valuing coal assets on the assumption that they will be able to sell them, while climate scientists are telling the world the coal must remain in the ground.

Coal export terminals are proposed from Gladstone to Cape York. In addition to Abbot Point, expansion of an existing coal terminals is under way at Hay Point and Brisbane Coal Terminal while new coal terminals are proposed at Cape York, Wiggins Island, Balaclava Island. Total coal tonnage is proposed to increase more than six-fold by the end of this decade.

Now is the time to speak out and raise our collective voices against these regressive decisions. Activists continue to oppose Keystone XL in Canada and the US. The Australian Conservation Foundation and others will do the same here, campaigning for our political and financial decision-makers to listen to the scientists, not the coal CEOs. The massive industrialisation of our most treasured national environmental icons cannot be allowed to proceed. The stakes are too high.

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