Let's get this straight. Australian politicians are allowing some of the richest Australian billionaires combined with Chinese and Indian power corporations to destroy the Great Barrier Reef, one of the natural wonders of the world and a World Heritage site. Political approval of mining the guts out of the coal rich Galilee basin in Central Queensland destroys sensitive ecosystems like the Bimblebox Nature Reserve containing threatened species, and is forecast to substantially lower the water table impacting rural communities and agricultural productivity with possible repercussions on flow in the Great Artesian basin aquifer.
This coal will be exported through Queensland ports, but substantial dredging is required with the dredge spoil to be dumped in the marine park waters damaging the reef. The increase in ship movements will also imperil the reef. The increased CO2 emissions when the coal is burnt will also cause ocean acidification and climate change both of which are, you guessed it....damaging the coral reef systems and the Great Barrier Reef.
Related: WWF:Fight for the Reef | Australia courting danger with the Great Barrier Reef : Greenpeace - Abbot Point Dredging – Who’s really to blame? | Greenpeace petition at SavetheReef.org.au
On December 10 2013 Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt abrogated his responsibilities of environmental protection under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity and Conservation Act in giving final approval to the Abbot Point and Curtis Island port developments.
The only question that was left to be resolved was a permit for dredging spoil disposal to be issued by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). This Authority refused to make an immediate decision and asked for a one month extension. That permit was issued on 31st January 2014 by the GBRMPA, with Forty-seven environmental conditions.
“This is a sad day for the Reef and anyone who cares about its future,” said WWF Great Barrier Reef Campaigner Richard Leck. “Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt failed to show leadership on this issue. Mr Hunt could have stopped the dumping of dredge spoil in Reef waters instead he gave dumping the green light. That put GBRMPA in the position of having to refuse or issue a dumping permit."
The World Heritage Committee has already warned Australia of it's concern over development and industrialisation of the Queensland coast putting in peril the natural attributes that make the reef system important internationally. If Australia continues with port development putting the reef in peril, the status of the Great Barrier Reef heritage listing could be considered for changing to 'World Heritage in Danger' at the Committee's June 2014 meeting in Doha.
“The World Heritage Committee will take a dim view of this decision which is in direct contravention of one of its recommendations." said Leck.
Scientists argued for rejection of dumping permit
Dr Megan Saunders, a Marine Ecologist at the Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, commented on the GBRMPA decision to allow dumping of spoil in the marine park:
“There are major concerns about the policies that inform the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) that was used to guide the approval of the Abbot Point Coal Terminal, leading to dredging and dredge spoil dumping. The Environmental Offsets Policy incorporates principles developed for land-based ecosystems and could fail to protect coral reefs, seagrass and mangroves. Marine life is more sensitive to environmental change and typically difficult to rehabilitate when depleted. For example, dredging damages seagrass directly and also releases sediments that obscure the light the marine plants require to grow. Seagrass meadows provide nursery areas for commercially important species, grazing areas for iconic species such as sea turtles and dugongs, shoreline stabilisation and water filtration and are one of the most intensive carbon sinks on earth – soaking up 35 times more carbon dioxide per hectare than Amazon rainforests. They are too important to be placed at risk.”
The decision by the GBRMPA came despite numerous calls by members of the general public to reject such permission. Early this week a joint statement by 250 scientists (PDF) was issued that demanded rejection of the permit dumping dredge spoil in Great Barrier Reef's waters.
Dr Selina Ward from The University of Queensland said “The scientific consensus is that key Great Barrier Reef ecosystems are in decline and face continued pressure from human impacts and the cumulative impacts of climate change. Permission for dumping 5 million tonnes of dredged sediment in the Reef’s marine park would have a detrimental impact on the Reef and make the situation worse.
“The dumping of dredge spoils in the Reef’s waters off Abbot Point is in opposition to the Authority’s charter to protect the marine park and against the recommendations of UNESCO. As scientists, we’re concerned the impacts of dredging will exacerbate the existing stresses for the Great Barrier Reef and should not go ahead,” she said.
The statement of the scientists pointed out that approval "would be in opposition to the Charter of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.". The letter said in part:
The best available science, including the recent report commissioned by GBRMPA on transport of disposed dredge sediment, makes it very clear that expansion of the port at Abbot Point will have detrimental effects on the Great Barrier Reef. Sediment from dredging can smother corals and seagrasses and expose them to poisons and elevated nutrients. Claiming to ‘offset’ the 5 million tonnes of dredged sediment by catchment work is the wrong approach and very unlikely to be possible with the limitations of budget and workforce. We need to avoid creating this dredged sediment in the first place, whilst also working within the catchments to reduce run off.
The Great Barrier Reef is already under stress from climate change and land use practices. In order to increase the resilience of the reef, we need to improve water quality as much as possible, rather than pollute the reef with further industrialisation. Exporting the vast quantities of coal from the Galilee Basin through Abbot Point and other port developments will result in a rapid rise in future greenhouse emissions, which will further exacerbate the effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef. Increasing ship movements through the GBR will increase the probability of ship groundings, oil spills, animal strikes and the introduction of marine pests.
Political Influence of Mining far outweighs it's economic importance
It would be easy to concentrate on just the major threats to the Great Barrier Reef, but Clive Palmer's Waratah Coal China First mine is set to obliterate the 8000 hectare, category VI IUCN protected Bimblebox Nature Reserve. An agreement was even signed with the State Government in 2003 for protection of this reserve, which proved to have little value in 2010 when the Bligh Labor Government announced the development of the China First mine.
And there lies the heart of the problem. Both Labor and Liberal National Parties when in Government have been willing supplicants to the mining industry, approving major new mine developments at the expense of the environment, water considerations, agriculture and tourism impacts.
We saw how when the Rudd Government tried to introduce a Resource Super Profit Tax (RSPT) in 2010 a vociferous response from the mining industry resulted in a $22 million advertising campaign, with the Gillard government substantially watering down this tax into the Minerals Resource Rental Tax.
Employment peaked in the mining industry at 276,300 people in May 2012, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Mining represents about 9.2 per cent of GDP, roughly the same as manufacturing. About 1.9 per cent of the workforce is employed in mining. Despite mining expansion over the past seven years, mining accounts for only 7 per cent of new jobs created over that time.
In comparison, tourism employed 543,600 people in the 2013 financial year, double the number of jobs in mining, and accounted for 4.7 per cent of total employed persons in 2012-13. Tourism also contributed 8.9 per cent of Australia's total export earnings in 2012-13 according to the ABS. Over 60,000 jobs are in the Queensland tourism industry alone with the sector worth $60 billion in productivity. And yet Governments both sate and Federal prioritise mining interests over Tourism.
The same comparison could be made with mining and agriculture. Most agriculture tends to be sustainable in the long term, while mining is destructive of natural ecosystems and agricultural productivity in surrounding areas due to alterations to groundwater and water table, and often can involve long term contamination of natural water sources and soils by heavy metal detrius discarded during extraction. See Dr Gavin Mudd's article on Australia's mining Legacies.
In this Youtube video Tom Crothers, former Manager of Planning and Water Allocation in the Queensland Govt, lifts the lid on the groundwater impacts of proposed coal mining on the Galilee Basin. Cattle farmer John Graham shares his concerns. Environmental and farming activist group Lock the Gate Alliance slammed the approval of the China First Mine in December 2013.
Mining exports has also inflated the value of the Australian dollar which has negatively impacted Australian agriculture, tourism, manufacturing and education industries.
Queensland Coal a carbon bubble causing climate change
The coal will be dug up and freighted by trains on an estimated 675 km of track in two newly built rail lines some 300km to the Queensland coast to the new coal terminals of Hay Point and Dungeon Point near Mackay, and at Abbot Point near Bowen. Dredging needs to occur to enable deep water coal terminals at these locations, with the spoil now to be dumped in the Marine Park damaging the marine environment.
The Bulk ship traffic will vastly multiply, with increased probability of marine accidents damaging the reef, one of the natural wonders of the world and on the World's Heritage List. Groundings and subsequent pollution from incidents like the grounding of the Chinese bulk coal carrier the Shen Neng 1 in 2010 will have a cumulative impact.
Development of coal infrastructure also risks stranded assets with signs that both China and India are capping coal use as their renewables sectors gain in strength.
So who are some of the people behind this wanton destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and our atmosphere?
Climate criminals: Coal barons, corporations, and political corruption
Gautaum Adani and Adani Enterprises. This large Indian corporation bought substantial interests in the Carmichael mine (60mtpa), Dudgeon Point Coal Terminal (180mtpa), Rail line to Dungeon Point, TO coal terminal at Abbot Point (35mtpa), and an existing T1 coal terminal at Abbot Point (50mtpa).
See Greenpeace infographic on Adani below:
GVK and Gina Rhineheart
Another Indian power corporation, GVK, bought a major share of assets owned by Gina Rinehart's company, Hancock Mining. These include the Alpha Coal mine (30mtpa),Kevin's Corner mine (27mtpa), Alpha West mine (24mtpa), Alpha rail line to Abbot Point and the T3 coal terminal at Abbot Point (60mtpa).
Gina Rhineheart is the richest person in Australia. You may remember that Liberal and National politicians Julie Bishop (now Deputy Prime Minister), Senator Barnaby Joyce (current Minister for Agriculture) and backbencher Teresa Gambaro attended an Adani family wedding as Gina Rhinehart's guests in June 2011. Initially they claimed more than $12,000 in travel allowances for this trip, but under public pressure over travel allowance expense rorting, paid this money back. At the time Mrs Rinehart was about to clinch a $1 billion coal deal with the bride’s grandfather – G.V. Krishna Reddy, the founder of GVK, an Indian energy and infrastructure company. Read more by Kaye Lee on Gina's Bollycoal (Ad)venture
Clive Palmer and China First
Clive Palmer's company Mineralogy owns Waratah Coal which is proceeding with the China First mine (40mtpa), Alpha North mine (40mtpa), Rail line to Abbot Point and a coal terminal at Abbot Point (240mtpa) In 2012 Clive Palmer, Australia's 5th richest person, accused the CIA of funding the Australian environmental campaign to shut down the coal industry....if only it were true. (Watch the press conference via Getup). In 2013 Palmer formed and bankrolled the Palmer United Party to contest the 2013 federal election, in which he won a seat in the Division of Fairfax in Queensland, with the party winning two senate positions, one in Queensland and one in Tasmania.
Coal politics in New South Wales
There are political links also in other areas of new coal mining development. Mark Vaile, a former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and former leader of the National Party of Australia and currently the independent chairman and a non-executive director of Whitehaven Coal Limited that is developing the Maules Creek Coal mine on the Western Plains of New South Wales. Activists and farmers from the local Maules Creek community are opposing development of the coal mine which will involve destruction of a major part of the Leard state forest and threatened species found therein. The mine will also have a major assessed impact on the local water table which will affect local farmers. A blockade of mine development work commenced in January 2014.
Both Greg Hunt, the current Liberal Party Federal Environment Minister and Tony Burke, the former minister, have failed to investigate Whitehaven for false and misleading information for their Maules Creek mine proposal.
Labor party politicians, although not involved to the same extent as the conservative side of politics, are also implicated in coal development, such as former NSW Labor Party power broker Eddie Obeid. In July 2013 the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) found that Obeid, and Labor State Resources Minister Macdonald, and others engaged in corrupt conduct in relation to their actions involving the Mount Penny mining tenement in the Bylong Valley in New South Wales. The ICAC found that Obeid engaged in corrupt conduct by entering into agreements with Macdonald, whereby Macdonald acted contrary to his public duty as a minister of the Crown.
Confronting the power of Fossil Fuel Industry
If all the new coal mine projects in the Galilee Basin go into production it will mean up to 330 mtpa of coal will be produced and shipped through the great barrier reef, each year, some 11,400 bulk carrier ship visits every year. The coal from the galilee basin will result in 705mt CO2 emissions. This is slightly less than the emissions of Germany in 2012 (810mt), and more than most countries, both developed and developing.
As 83 per cent of these mines are foreign owned, most of the profits will be taken offshore. The jobs and income boost is only temporary, leaving a scarred landscape, disrupted communities and an unbalanced economy in it's wake.
Kumi Naidoo in an interview with the huffington Post on 30 January at the Davos World Economic Forum, said:
To address climate change you actually have to address the power of certain industries, industries that we need to round up and wind down and make obsolete: particularly oil, coal and gas sectors.
We have a long way to go in Australia with politicians continuing to suck up to the fossil fuel and mining lobbies. Climate change is not going to be seriously tackled until we break this political connection. As researcher Guy Pearse says, we need to kick Queensland's coal addiction.
- Greenpeace report (2013) - Cooking the Climate Wrecking the Reef
- Lead image - Capital dredging at Abbot Point (NQBP Supplementary Public Environment Report Part 2) via Greenpeace