Coral Not Coal - Australian Activists Fight To Save the Great Barrier Reef

Australian politicians are putting the Great Barrier Reef at risk by approving one of the world's largest coal mines, say activists and marine scientists. MAXINE NEWLANDS reports
The Great Barrier Reef, sitting alongside the new mine, is vulnerable to long-term damage from the increasing carbon dioxide levels that will be generated

Indian Mining Company Adani, has won a six year battle to build the Carmichael Mine in central Queensland. Carmichael, with its six open cut and five underground mines, will be built at a cost $22 billion (AUD). The coal is set to provide electricity for up to 100 million people in India and will be sold into Asian markets.

The mega-mine will be Australia's largest thermal coal mine, producing up to 705 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year - an increase of 1.3 times Australia's current annual emissions. 

The Great Barrier Reef, sitting alongside the new mine, is vulnerable to long-term damage from these increasing carbon dioxide levels. Higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere raise water temperatures and ocean acidification. When carbon dioxide connects with seawater it forms carbonic acid. The more carbon dioxide in the sea, the less calcium carbonate is made, a vital source for corals to survive. 

Queensland Green's Senator Larissa Waters says: "Reef scientists are unanimous in saying the biggest threat to the Reef is global warming, which caused the recent devastating coral bleaching. Yet the old parties' Reef policies totally ignore the threat of global warming by promoting expansion of coal and other fossil fuels".

Economic Boom or Bust?

Carmichael mine will provide 600 initial jobs to a region suffering with 10% unemployment, the second highest in Australia. Original predictions of 10,000 jobs were disproved in court, with "the correct jobs figures" downgrading the jobs estimated by Adani. There will be 1,464 net jobs, not the Adani figure of 10,000," says Environmental Defence Office (EDO) CEO, Jo-Ann Bragg.

Adani estimates the project will generate at least $16.5 billion for the Australian economy over its lifetime. With a lifespan of between 25 and 60 years, the mine will bring in anywhere between $660m (£388m) and $275m (£161m) per year between now and 2077. The Great Barrier Reef is worth $5.4 billion (£3.2 bn) a year to the Australian economy, providing roughly 70,000 jobs for Queenslanders.

Political Support a Tipping Point for the Reef  

The final few hurdles were overcome this month, with Queensland government approving the last 20 miles (31.5 km) of railway link needed to complete a 240 mile (389 km) track that will take coal to the Abbott Point Port and out through the Great Barrier Reef.  

Australian Prime Minister, Malcom Turnbull invited Adani to apply for a $1b (£587m) government loan to build the railway line linking the mine to the Reef and expanding ports at Townsville and Abbott Point. Ships travelling between India and Australia will bring supplies in through the Great Barrier Reef at Townsville, and ship the coal back out 200 miles (320 km) to the south at Abbot Point Port.

The Great Barrier Reef, sitting alongside the new mine, is vulnerable to long-term damage from the increasing carbon dioxide levels that will be generated

Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), CEO Kelly O'Shanassy says "It seems Prime Minister Turnbull is preparing to put the interests of big polluters ahead of the interests of the Australian people and misuse a billion dollars of public money to support the mega-polluting Carmichael coal project".

Long Battle over Court Cases, Coral, Climate Change and Coal 

The latest legal battle to halt the mine collapsed last month. Like so many before, in this long running saga, the case was dismissed on technical not environmental grounds. Environmental Defence Office (EDO) reasoned the granting of a mining license was given without correctly complying with section five of Australia's Environmental Protection Act (1994); meaning the mine was missing the best ecologically sustainable development measures.

EDO CEO and Solicitor Jo-Anne Brag said the "judgment is a loss for the people and a loss for our precious environment. It says the decision is not unlawful, but is not an endorsement of the merits of the mine". 

In 2014 and 2015 two more court cases attempted to challenge then Federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt's decision to approve the mine. One case, to protect the nature habitat of the Brown Yakka Skink lizard and ornamental snake was initially won. But, the decision was later overturned on a technical point that Minister Hunt hadn't followed due process.

Indigenous campaigner Mr Burragubba brought a court case against the Queensland government on behalf of the Wangan and Jagalingou people. Burragubba's unsuccessful case pivoted on whether the Queensland government had taken into account all the facts over land rights and the issuing of mining licences.

Last year, Queensland Land Court heard a case from Land Services of Coast and Country testifying additional carbon dioxide emissions would impact on climate change and global warming. The Land Court agreed, but as Bragg says, "The extent of the impact was not really disputed, with evidence given from experts on global warming and the Great Barrier Reef. The real dispute in this case was the question of what action should be taken - whose fault is it?  There wasn't a disagreement on climate change and water".

Proving any potential mining project could increase global temperatures and contribute to climate change is difficult, and often means relying on evidence of scope three emissions.  Scope 3 emissions are indirect emission from organisational activities, such as business travel, rubbish disposal, investments or "environmentally harmful global greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the transportation and burning of coal after its removal from the proposed mines". 

Adani successfully used a "market substitution" defence, on the basis that if it wasn't going to burn the coal someone somewhere else would. In other word, any harmful emissions would simply be produced by another company.

Off-setting in Renewables and Reclaiming Land

Adani's proposal to establish a large-scale solar project near Moranbah is welcomed by Queensland government. With mine investment so far at $4 bn dollars, a promised $200 million investment in solar is just 5% of the total investment being put into coal.

Queensland and Australian government have put in place 200 environmental measures.  Failure to meet these rigorous environmental controls will mean immediate consequences that could jeopardise the project. Port expansion needed for the mines to export, will include capital dredging of 11.4 million cubic metres of sediment to be reused to create 152 hectares of reclaimed land for the port, and an assurance that dredge spoil won't be dumped in the Great Barrier Reef.

Even with a $1bn loan from the Australian government, Adani is yet to secure the full funding. Earlier uncertainty on the project viability and thermal coal market saw 14 banks walk away. Last year a host of US and European banks - including Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays, as well as Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs - all refused to fund Adani's plans to expand the port, with some concerned over potential damage to the Great Barrier Reef. ACF CEO Ms O'Shanassy says, "If Adani is unable to fund the mine, Australia will be left with a railway to nowhere and an unpaid billion dollar loan".

Activists will continue to fight against the mine, and push for greater renewable energy investments from the Queensland and Australian governments. North Queensland Conservation Council, President, Gail Hamilton, told a recent rally in Townsville, "even if we have to chain ourselves to the bulldozers down in Collinsville [near Carmichael] we will do so".  The Adani mine is due to open mid-2017.


This Author

Maxine Newlands is the Ecologist's Australia reporter. @Dr_MaxNewlands.


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