Environmentalists fear that approval for one of the world’s largest coal ports and an associated dredging operation to create a ‘shipping super-highway’ will cause severe damage to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
The reef, which stretches 1,400 miles along Australia's east coast - roughly equivalent to the distance between New York City and Havana, Cuba - is the source of frequent tension between conservationists and business interests.
This week Australia approved the expansion of an existing coal port at Abbot Point near the town of Bowen in northern Queensland to handle projected exports from the Galilee Basin, an inland geological depression thought to hold vast coal reserves but where development has been hampered by lack of export infrastructure.
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt has promised that some of the "strictest conditions in Australian history" will be placed on the developers, but environmentalists claim that the dredging required to enable massive ships to access Abbot Point will harm the World Heritage-listed reef at a time when it is already suffering from the effects of climate change.
"It’s hard to dump five-and-a-half million tonnes of mud and sand in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park without doing massive environmental damage," says Greenpeace representative Louise Matthieson.
Australian coal exports have jumped 30 percent since 2008, driven by surging demand in China, to 339 million tons a year and are projected to rise a further 40 percent from current levels by 2017 and it's currently the second biggest coal exporter. Coal exports were worth $44 billion last year. Though there have been some concerns about Australia's mining boom and the growing reliance of its economy on resource extraction, an industry friendly Liberal-National coalition government was ushered into power in September.
The decision to green light the port expansion, together with approval to build a $18 billion liquefied natural gas facility and associated pipeline at Gladstone, was the new government's first major move to deliver on its promise that it will back the expansion of mining and gas exploitation.
The two largest miners in the Basin are Indian companies GVK and Adani, which want to use the coal to secure long-term supplies for power-starved India.
In June Unesco’s World Heritage Centre warned that the Great Barrier Reef would be placed on its "in-danger" list if there were major new port developments. The reef is now officially listed as being in ‘poor’ health by government scientists, with overall coral cover declining by 15 percent since 2009 due to cyclones and floods, pollution and attacks by the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish.
The greatest long-term risk to the reef - as it is to those around the world - isn't the possibility of sediment damage or oil spills. It's from the byproduct of burning goal and other fossil fuels being returned to the world's oceans.
The world's oceans soak about half of the extra carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by human activities and the more carbon dioxide there is in the water, the harder it is for marine animals like corals to produce their shells. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority says "in the long-term, ocean acidification is likely to be the most significant impact of a changing climate on the" reef. Since 1990 alone, the growth rate for one of the reefs major coral species has dropped 14 percent, probably because of rising Co2 levels.
Australia is currently one of the largest per capita Co2 emitters in the world, and that doesn't account for coal and gas exports that are burned elsewhere.
Greenpeace estimates the number of coal ships passing through the reef will increase from a current level of about 1,700 a year to 10,150 by 2020, significantly increasing the possibility of accidents.
Environmental groups want the main authority overseeing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to abide by its charter and block the Federal government's approval of the Abbot Point expansion. A decision is expected next week.
With the coal industry contributing more than $20 billion a year to the government’s coffers and local businesses set to benefit from the new development, environmental groups are in for a tough fight.
This time, however, they have the support of the Queensland’s tourism operators. "There's so much evidence that sedimentation is impacting the Great Barrier Reef... This is the tipping point," says Bowen reef tour operator Al Grundy.
He fears the port expansion will threaten a nesting ground for green turtles and a humpback whale gathering area in the waters between Abbot Point and the Whitsunday Islands.
Other Bowen residents, however, have welcomed the Abbot Point decision.
Bar owner Bruce Hedditch, said the announcement was supported by most of his patrons. "It's been a long time coming and they're quite happy with the manner in which the decision has been made."
Queensland Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney said the approval of both Abbot Point and Gladstone natural gas facility would be a boost to the state's coal and coal seam gas industries.
“We welcome this common-sense decision from the Commonwealth government that will encourage growth in Queensland's resources sector and underpin future jobs in the coal and coal seam gas sector,” he said in a statement.