Already threatened by pollution, rising temperatures and ocean acidification, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef could soon face a surge in shipping traffic and port construction to feed coal and liquefied natural gas exports to Asia.
While industry and local economy might profit from the trade, environmentalists say burning the coal and gas will produce millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide that will stoke climate change and accelerate the demise of the reef and the $6 billion local tourism industry.
Photo: Already huge coal port slated for massive expansion at Abbot Point in Queensland, adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef.
Much depends on a decision before Christmas by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which must rule whether a huge coal port development at Abbot Point in Queensland will proceed or should be delayed.
Approval could accelerate development of some of Australia’s largest coal mines that could more than double current coal exports and fuel a spike in global carbon emissions.
The federal government last week approved the multi-billion dollar expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal near the town of Bowen. But the park’s authority must rule by next week on whether to approve a plan to dump three million cubic metres of dredging material in the Marine Park or ask for more time to look at the proposal, which includes an alternative dumping site suggested by the port’s operating authority, North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation.
The Abbot Point project is one of a number of approved or planned coal and LNG terminal expansions along the Queensland coast. Environmentalists say the projects will involve large-scale dredging and destruction of sensitive areas around and within the reef area.
Dredging could smother sea grass meadows vital to dugongs, while cloudy waters can affect the growth of the reef and the fisheries that thrive there.
“What we do know is the dredging and dumping that’s been approved is the equivalent of 150,000 dump trucks bumper to bumper from Brisbane to Melbourne,” Felicity Wishart of the Australian Marine Conservation Society told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio last week.
Australia’s Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, also approved the Arrow liquefied natural gas plant on Curtis Island to the south of Abbot Point. This project and the planned major expansion of Gladstone Port will also lead to large amounts of dredging, though Hunt has said this material should be used as landfill rather than being dumped at sea.
Environmentalists also fear increased pollution from a sharp increase in shipping traffic that must cross the marine park to reach the coast.
In a 2012 report “Cooking the climate, wrecking the reef”, Greenpeace estimated up to 11,400 coal ships could pass annually through the reef if all the proposed port and terminal expansions went ahead. That is up from 1,722 ships in 2011.
The development plans have alarmed UNESCO, which has already cited the prospect of major industrial developments along the Queensland coast as a possible reason to review the reef’s World Heritage status. A UNESCO decision on whether the reef should be listed as a “World Heritage Site In Danger” is expected next year.
The reef runs 2,300 kilometres in an arc along the Queensland coast and is the largest living structure on the planet. The marine park covers 344,000 square km, about twice the size of Florida.
Already, large areas have been damaged or destroyed by development, climate change and plagues of coral-eating crown of thorns starfish.
Scientists fear escalating damage from rising temperatures caused by higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Coral reefs are particularly sensitive to spikes in ocean temperatures and increases of just one or two degrees Celsius over a prolonged period can lead to bleaching and eventual coral death. It can take years for a reef to recover. Rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere are also increasing ocean acidity levels, threatening animals that need calcium to produce shells or skeletons.
A study published last year found the Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral in little more than a generation. And the pace of damage had picked up since 2006.
Conservationists and reef tourism operators say major port developments will only add to the threats to the reef and the local economy.
Hunt said he imposed 95 environmental conditions for Abbot Point and 53 for Curtis Island LNG.
“Some of the strictest conditions in Australian history have been placed on these projects to ensure that any impacts are avoided, mitigated or offset,” he said in a statement. Among these was a requirement for water quality targeting a long-term net reduction of fine sediments entering the Marine Park from rivers.
But Wendy Tubman from the North Queensland Conservation Council says that is unachievable.
“You’ve got water of a certain clarity, then you add three million cubic metres of dredge spoil, finds, sands, sludge,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “Now I don’t know about you but I can’t see how that’s going to improve water quality.”
Hunt approved the expansion of Terminal 0 at Abbot Point owned by Indian power firm Adani. He also approved dredging for terminals 0, 2 and 3. If fully developed, Abbot Point’s current 50 million tonne per annum capacity could increase to more than 200 Mtpa.
BIG COAL, BIGGER EMISSIONS
Adani is planning to develop a 60 million Mtpa thermal coal mine in the north Galilee Basin in central Queensland. The A$10 billion mine, rail and port project would be among the largest investments of its type globally, though Greenpeace last month doubted Adani had the financial resources to succeed. Adani dismissed the claims.
The Indian firm GVK and Australia’s Hancock Coal are developing the Alpha mine in the Galilee Basin. The multi-billion-dollar project, including rail and port construction, aims to produce 32 Mtpa of coal. The project was granted state and federal approval last year.
The Galilee Basin contains vast reserves of thermal and coking coal and mining firms are eager to meet demand from Asia, particularly China and India.
Greenpeace says nine major projects planned for the basin could potentially produce 330 Mtpa of coal, which would equate to more than 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide when burned, not including emissions from the mines themselves. That is more than Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions of about 550 million tonnes a year.
A report published on Monday by Oxford University and the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment says there are 89 coal projects planned for Australia, with a total potential production capacity of 550 million tonnes per year, based on government data. Most of the projects are planned to meet export demand and many of the largest projects are in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.
By comparison, Australia produced 347 million tonnes of coal in 2011-12 and exported 301 million tonnes. The emissions associated with the jump in coal exports, and rapidly growing LNG exports, would make Australia one of the world’s top greenhouse gas exporters, environmentalists say.
“Our coal exports are causing massive environmental, social and economic damage. These costs are not factored into coal’s export price,” wrote Brett Parris, a senior economist at the Australian Conservation Foundation, on The Conversation news site in September.
“If our coal exports were to reach 1,000 Mt by 2020, they would be producing around 2,390 Mt of CO2 and up to A$370 billion in global damage each year,” he added. This would also make it almost impossible for the planet to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
The good news is there is growing doubt that a number of the planned coal projects will proceed given current low global coal prices and China’s embrace of emissions trading, increasing energy efficiency and growing unrest over rising pollution. China now consumes nearly half the world’s coal and is a major price setter.
A downturn in demand from China could scupper some of the more than A$100 billion in Australian coal mining projects either publicly announced, in the feasibility stage, committed or completed over the next 15 years or more, the Oxford report said.
For now, miners and environmentalists are eagerly awaiting the marine park authority’s decision on dredging spoils. But there are lingering doubts about the impartiality of the agency after two of its board members were accused by Greenpeace in October of conflict of interest because of their links to resources firms.
Both men denied any wrong doing and Hunt quickly ordered an investigation.