Nemo versus Big Coal: the fight for the Great Barrier Reef

An Indian mining company plans to undertake the biggest thermal coal project in Australia’s history…on the Great Barrier Reef. This is despite public concern from parties as diverse as UNESCO, Barack Obama and the Australian public.

In this day and age, it’s incredible to believe this proposal is even being considered, yet studies for the expansion of the Abbot Point mining operation, 25km north-west of Bowen, began a few weeks ago, according to Mining Australia. If the environmental impact statement is approved Adani will be allowed to go ahead with plans to increase port capacity by 70 million tonnes per annum, all of which will be shipped away via the great Barrier Reef. The Carmichael project, as it is known, includes a coal mine, rail line and port expansion.

abbot point mine great Barrier Reef

Natural Resources and Mines minister Anthony Lynham said, “The port expansion is a critical element for unlocking the coal reserves in the Galilee basin, which has the capacity to take Queensland’s coal industry to the next level and create thousands of jobs”.

The mega-mine is touted as being able to create 10,000 jobs in regional Queensland, however this number has been disputed, with one expert suggesting the figure would be more like 1500 full-time jobs.

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While the expansion would provide a short-term boost to the Australian economy, at what cost?

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Reef, which currently brings in $5.7 billion annually and generates more than 64,000 full time jobs, isn’t in great shape.

Warming oceans as a result of climate change, run-off from agriculture and pollution from industry, including mining, are all impacting our national icon. So far 50 per cent of the reef’s coral cover has disappeared in the past three decades.

Earlier this year, after pressure from the public during the last state election, the Queensland government dumped plans to ship dredge spoil from any new developments, including the expansion at Abbot Point, out to sea or into wetlands.

Greenpeace campaigner Shani Tager told the ABC, “This is the third proposal that we’ve seen in terms of what they do for dredging and how they dispose of the spoil. Basically they’ve missed the point – that the impacts from this project are because they’re building a coal port in the Great Barrier Reef and that’s not acceptable”.

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The change to the rules was seen as a step in the right direction by UNESCO, which has tentatively decided not to list the Reef  on the “in danger” list of World Heritage sites. While government ministers rushed to pat themselves on the back, WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman, told the Sydney Morning Herald Australia was still “on probation”.

“The draft decision (by UNESCO) acknowledges progress but keeps the pressure on the Australian government to turn their commitments into real actions and results, or find themselves having to explain to the World Heritage Committee in 2017 why they’ve failed to meet their commitments. It also means that if the anticipated results of the Reef 2050 plan aren’t delivered, the Reef could be declared ‘World Heritage in Danger’ in 2020”.

Even Barak Obama has chimed in, telling leaders at Brisbane’s G20 Summit last year he wants his grandchildren to be able to visit the Great Barrier Reef and see it in full glory. His call for immediate action to protect the Reef was met with rousing applause.

Whether the Carmichael project will go ahead is yet to be seen. So far eleven of the world’s largest banks have publicly refused to fund the expansion, however analysts believe it is not finance that will bring the project to its knees but political pressure.

How do you feel about plans to expand mining in the Great Barrier Reef? In your opinion, which is more important to our grandchildren’s future, coal or the Reef?