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Issue #1551      13 June 2012

UNESCO warning prompts battle over Barrier Reef

Last week the United Nations organisation UNESCO warned that if proposed developments along the Queensland coast went ahead, particularly those associated with the coal industry, it would consider placing the Barrier Reef on the list of endangered places of world significance.


Approval at both state and federal levels is crucial for the protection of places of world heritage significance from ill-advised or corrupt government initiatives. Pictured – coal loading facility at Abbot Point.

Federal Minister for the Environment Tony Burke subsequently “stopped the clock” on the Queensland government’s application for federal approval of the proposed Alpha coal mining project in central Queensland’s Galilee Basin, because of inadequacies in the environmental assessment on which the application was based.

Queensland premier Campbell Newman was enraged, and called on the Prime Minister to rein in her “rogue minister”. He appears to have rubber-stamped the Alpha assessment, which was prepared for the proponents, a consortium of Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Coal and the Indian mining giant GVK. He also appears to have assumed that Burke would do the same thing.

The UNESCO warning

The UNESCO report concerned the whole range of development along the Queensland coast by the mining, agricultural and tourism industries, and the subsequent runoff of fertilisers, pesticides, coal dust and other pollutants into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

The report was particularly concerned about coal mining. Applications for 35 major new coal industry developments are to be considered over the next 18 months. They include seven huge new coal mines and a six-fold increase in port facilities, which will result in 10,000 coal freighters navigating the reef each year.

The Alpha project involves not just the huge Galilee Basin mine, but also construction of a 500-kilometre rail line to a vast new coal loading facility at Abbot Point. The largest in the southern hemisphere and potentially the largest in the world, its massive terminals would be run by BHP-Billiton, Waratah Coal and Adani.

Other major port developments would occur at Gudeon Point and Gladstone, and a huge liquefied natural gas facility would be built at Curtis Island off the coast.

The UNESCO report stated that proceeding with a number of these developments without having appropriate strategic assessments and sustainable plans would “directly risk irreversible impacts” on the Reef, and would “provide the basis to consider inscription of (the Reef) on the List of World Heritage Places in Danger”. It declared: “The outstanding universal value of (the reef) is threatened and decisive action is required to secure its long-term conservation.”

The “Green tape” excuse

Prior to the Queensland elections Newman had promised to cut “green tape” (i.e. unnecessarily complex procedure regarding the environment) in order to halve the time it takes to get development approvals.

The federal government has also attempted to delegate responsibility for approvals to state government where possible. However, the Commonwealth has a legal responsibility to protect the Great Barrier Reef because Australia is a signatory to international covenants regarding areas of world heritage significance.

Burke’s letter of rejection specified areas of concern, including the impact of run-off from the port, railway and nearby rivers on the reef’s marine life, which appear to have been downplayed or simply ignored in the Alpha environmental assessment.

For Newman, “green tape” consists not only of a duplication of environmental approval processes at state and federal levels, but also of the need to scrupulously assess the impact of development on living species.

In fact, both processes are essential to protect the environment. The desire to implement industrial projects does not justify the loss of, or irreversible damage to a species. Nor does it justify ignoring environmental impacts in cases where acknowledgement might jeopardise the chance of gaining government approval for the project concerned.

Moreover, the Alpha saga is demonstrating that approval at both state and federal levels is crucial for the protection of places of world heritage significance from ill-advised or corrupt government initiatives.

For her part, Prime Minister Julia Gillard backed Burke’s decision, which was certainly well justified. However, she noted that short-changing the environmental assessment and then engaging in a war of words would delay the approval process, implying that expediting the project was desirable.

She offered no criticism of the current mad expansion of coal and gas mining operations. She should have. Protecting the Reef doesn’t just involve pollution of the sea from coal dust run-off or other pollutants. The biggest long term threats to the Reef are rising sea levels, which will reduce the level of light reaching the coral polyps, and the rising sea temperature, which will exceed the level that polyps can tolerate.

Both these phenomena result from climate change. This is caused by increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, most of which comes from the burning of coal in power stations around the world. Yet no Labor or Coalition MP has ever suggested that coal production should actually be phased out, or even stabilised at current levels.

Big Coal heading for a reef

The Alpha consortium’s plans are now under threat from a number of sources.

The social media organisation GetUp is seeking donations for full-page Asian newspaper advertisements advising potential investors of community opposition to the project. Greenpeace is also campaigning against the project, as well as other Queensland coal developments.

Greenpeace program director Ben Pearson commented: “It’s disappointing to see the Queensland government falling over itself to please the big miners instead of considering the long-term future of the 50,000 Queenslanders who rely on the Great Barrier Reef for employment. … The scale and pace of proposed development is out of control.”

The Australian Conservation Foundation has also declared its opposition. Its chief executive Don Henry stated: “The UN report clearly shows how essential it is that our national environmental laws prevail over parochial state interests.”

Environmental groups are now taking mining corporations to court, for example in the current dispute over the proposed Wandoan mine in southern Queensland.

Newman sneered that Burke was just attempting to curry favour with Greens voters in Melbourne and Sydney. However, he is likely to find that voters everywhere will rise in revolt at the coal industry’s proposed rape of the Great Barrier Reef.  

Next article – CFMEU WA statement – Combined unions call off Gary Gray protest

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