Environmentalists battling to protect Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have condemned the decision by Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt to give the green light to the controversial expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal in northern Queensland.
If the project does go ahead, about 1.1 million cubic metres of spoil will be dredged in proximity to the Reef.
The expansion would make Abbot Point one of the world’s largest coal terminals. The terminal is about 19 kilometres from the closest coral.
The Indian mining company Adani plans to use the expanded terminal for export shipments of up to 60 million tonnes of coal a year from its proposed Carmichael mine, if that project goes ahead.
Under the the Queensland government’s new Abbot Point plan, the dredge spoil will be disposed of on land and not in the Great Barrier Reef marine park, as was originally proposed.
The federal environment minister said the approval had been granted with strict conditions.
Queensland organiser for the campaigning group GetUp, Ellen Roberts, said the fact that there will be less dredging at Abbot Point than originally proposed was “cold comfort”.
Demonstrators gathered outside the Brisbane office of Queensland’s Minister for Natural Resources and Mines, Anthony Lynham, yesterday (Tuesday) in protest at Hunt’s decision.
They attempted to deliver a petition, but were refused entry to the building housing Lynham’s office.
Approval ‘at odds with Paris agreement’
The Australian Greens climate change spokeswoman, Senator Larissa Waters, said the federal government’s decision was directly at odds with the global agreement reached at the recent climate talks in Paris.
Australia’s community campaigner for the international environmental organisation 350.org, Moira Williams, said: “The Turnbull Government can’t seriously sign on to deals which limit climate damage to two degrees and then give a green light to massive coal export projects that guarantee that the two-degree target can never be met.”
Williams says the Abbot Point project is “a gateway for foreign mining companies to unlock one of the largest stores of climate-wrecking carbon on the planet” – the Galilee Basin coal mines.
It was ludicrous, Williams said, that Hunt had given approval to a project that had no money, no social licence, was universally hated and would wreck one of the greatest wonders of the natural world – and which had been rejected by most of the world’s largest banks.
“With coal prices at an all-time low and support for climate action and protecting the Great Barrier Reef at an all-time high, the Turnbull Government is treading a dangerous line in approving this climate- and reef-wrecking mega coal project,” Williams said. “Their actions will come back to bite them at the ballot box next year.”
Waters added: “Minister Hunt’s dangerous decision is bad news for our Reef, jobs, and the climate,”
Waters says that destruction carried out on behalf of big mining companies like Adani would be paid for by the state Labour government at the expense of Queensland taxpayers. “The federal Liberal and state Labour governments are teaming up to do Adani’s dirty work to turn our Great Barrier Reef into a highway for coal ships to cook the planet.”
The Great Barrier Reef was facing a mass coral bleaching event over summer, Waters added, and the last thing it needed was for millions of tonnes more coal to be dug up and burnt.
“Why dredge up the Reef for a project that isn’t economically viable and becomes even less so every day as the world powers ahead into the clean energy future?”
Queensland’s future, Waters says, is in 21st-century industries like renewable energy and tourism, “not in the dying coal industry, which is already sacking workers who need a transition plan”.
Greenpeace reef campaigner Shani Tager said Hunt and the Queensland government were living in an alternate reality if they truly believed that dredging 61 hectares of untouched marine habitat wouldn’t have far-reaching environmental impacts.
“A muddy plume of sediment will be made from disturbing this area. It will affect nearby reefs and could spread over kilometres to the Great Barrier Reef marine park. It’s like throwing fistfuls of dirt into a fish tank and saying everything will be OK.”
Polling conducted by Essential Research and commissioned by 350.org Australia has found that two-thirds of Australians believe coal mining should be phased out because it causes global warming and damages the Great Barrier Reef.
GetUp’s Ellen Roberts said: “We need to be using Australia’s environment laws to make sure our precious places like the Great Barrier Reef are protected.”
She says that, in previous approvals for the expansion project, there were limitations that would have protected the coral, turtles and seagrasses, but there were no such limits this time.
Larissa Waters says the planned dredging of the Reef floor would mobilise about 10,000 tonnes of fine sediment, smothering seagrass habitat for dugongs and turtles.
The area around the port is also a habitat for dolphins and giant manta rays and on the migration path for humpback whales.
The North Queensland Conservation Council (NQCC) says it has uncovered secret plans for a tugboat harbour that would heighten the cumulative environmental impacts of the port expansion.
The harbour proposal, the NQCC says, was not included in a draft Environmental Impact Statement made by Queensland’s state development department.
Queensland’s land court has dismissed a challenge to the Carmichael mine brought by the state Environmental Defender’s Office on behalf of the green group Coast and Country.
The land court president, Carmel MacDonald, recommended that the state government approve the mine, but with extra conditions related to monitoring the impact on waterways and a local threatened species, the black-throated finch.
There have been numerous other legal challenges against both the Carmichael mine and the Abbot Point expansion.
The Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners’ Family Council says it has not consented to an indigenous land use agreement with Adani. There is an ongoing judicial review of the National Native Title Tribunal’s decision to allow the Queensland government to issue mining leases for Carmichael.
Murrawah Johnson from the family council said a first judicial review hearing took place in November and a second was scheduled for February.
“The Carmichael mine will be the largest open-cut mine in the history of the southern hemisphere. It would destroy our country and poison our water. It would cut the cultural and spiritual connection we have to our land.
“We have rights that are acknowledged by people all around the world. Our state and federal governments should be protecting us as a people of this country.”
The Carmichael complex would consist of six open-cut pits and up to five underground mines.
The Queensland state government and the federal government, Johnson says, have a pro-mining agenda “and that means that they are trying to licence the destruction of our people”.
‘An act of folly’
WWF spokeswoman Louise Matthiesson said it was disappointing that Hunt had approved the Abbot Point expansion despite the damage it would cause.
“Although we’re pleased that the dredge spoil can no longer be dumped at sea, it’s not appropriate to place it beside an internationally significant wetland when there are better locations available further inland.
“Over the past 12 months we’ve seen more and more banks abandon the sinking ship that is the Carmichael coal mine, which, if built, will feed the Abbot Point coal terminal expansion.
“Why risk building a port that will become a white elephant, and will damage the homes of dugongs and turtles, for a mine that might never be built?”
Ellen Roberts added: “The Queensland government made a commitment at the last election that it was not going to push forward with this project unless Adani could show that its mine was financially viable.
“The latest up-to-date forecasts are showing the coal price continuing to slide so there’s no commercial need for this project. We need to see a bit of responsible government from Queensland at this stage.”
At least 13 international financial institutions have either pulled out of the Adani project or have said they want to have nothing to do with financing the mine. This, and the decline in the price of coal, are strong arguments on the side of those battling to protect the reef, and traditional aboriginal lands.
“The recently concluded Paris agreement on climate change signalled clearly that the fossil fuel era is ending, so pushing ahead with the Carmichael coal mine is a total act of folly,” Shani Tager said.
“The Queensland government must stick to its election promise and hold off on any work at Abbot Point as Adani still doesn’t have the $16 billion in finances it needs for this project.”
The expansion of Abbot Point still requires approval from the Queensland state government, which is awaiting assurances that the Carmichael coal mine will proceed to the construction phase.
Lynham, who is also Queensland’s development minister, said Adani still needed to demonstrate financial closure for its project before the port expansion was cleared by the state.
Adani has blamed the opposition to its mine for delays in moving the project to the construction phase.
The company welcomed the federal government’s go-ahead and said the Abbot Point expansion was integral to the Carmichael mine’s development.
Adani says its project will generate thousands of direct and indirect jobs and 22 billion AUD in state taxes and royalties.
Environmentalists say Adani is understating the employment opportunities already provided by tourism and other Reef-related activities and that these jobs need to be protected.