It’s been an eventful month for Australia’s greatest natural wonder.
It was widely reported this week that Abbot Point proponents Adani Group, GVK Hancock and North Queensland Bulk Ports would seek to reverse their plan to dump 5 million tonnes of dredge spoil into the marine park near Bowen, instead opting for land disposal. This has since been confirmed by deputy Queensland Premier Jeff Seeney, who will meet with environment minister Greg Hunt to approve the land-based alternative.
While the news was somewhat unexpected, there has been growing public discontent with the dredging approval following months of campaigning by environmental groups, tourism operators and local communities. The Australian Government has come under increasing scrutiny and pressure from the international community over their plans for the reef, and questions about the social and environmental track record of Indian coal company Adani have been brought to the fore.
The news has breathed life into reef campaigners who view it not as a solution, but as a step in the right direction towards a total ban on capital dredging projects within the marine park area. A Senate inquiry has supported this, calling for sediment dumping to be banned in the marine park until further studies can be conducted about its impact on the reef ecosystem.
Growing doubts over Carmichael mine
Indian coal company Adani is no stranger to controversy, insisting they will proceed at Abbot Point and the Carmichael mega-mine which will feed it. But there is growing doubt about the viability of the development.
Adani purchased Carmichael coal mine from Australian Linc Energy in 2010 during the peak of the coal boom, a deal which gave Linc royalty rights on future profits. In August, Adani agreed to buy out Linc’s future royalty stream for $155 million which they say,
“reflects Adani’s confidence in the progress of Carmichael mine, which received final federal environmental approvals from the Australian government last month.”
However, analysts have said the amount Adani is paying out, compared with the value of the future royalties, implies they have put a 25-30% probability on the development actually proceeding.
A reef in danger
In early August, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority released their much anticipated Reef Outlook Report 2014. The five year report painted a stark picture of the reef’s health not just today, but also over the coming years which will see its resilience decline further.
“Even with the recent management initiatives to reduce threats and improve resilience, the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate.”
Even Greg Hunt was forced to admit the grim outlook, particularly in the southern part of the reef where he said there were “some real negatives”.
The report outlined climate change as the main threat over the coming decades, which is why building a resilient reef system is vital in combating the associated rising sea temperature, ocean acidification and increased storm activity,
Crucially, coastal development was named as a key factor affecting the reef locally. These impacts are set to increase as shipping through the marine park increases by 250% over the next 20 years.
The report stressed the large knowledge gaps which still exist about the impacts of dredging and dumping on the reef ecosystem.
“Increasing port activities directly affects local areas and uncertainty remains around ecosystem effects of dredging and the disposal and re-suspension of dredge material.”
Considering the rate at which port developments and expansions are being approved, this is particularly alarming.
The politics of environmental approvals
Four Corners followed up the release of the report with ‘Battle for the Reef‘. The investigation revealed the internal clashes within the GBRMPA in the months leading up to the approval of the Abbot Point dredging and dumping permit. It shone a light on the huge political pressure within the GBRMPA to green light the approval, despite widespread concerns among its own scientists that sea disposal was socially and environmentally unacceptable.
The revelations in the report have led to calls for a complete overhaul of the GBRMPA, leading to the creation of a new and truly independent authority who will protect the Great Barrier Reef from politically motivated approvals.
The question of political dollars buying environmental approvals gained further traction in recent weeks amid allegations that a large donation to the LNP from a Queensland property developer preceded the approval of a dredging permit for the expansion of his Airlie Beach marina.
It was revealed that long time LNP supporter and donor Paul Darrouzet gave a $150,000 donation to the party a mere week before gaining approval to dredge. Naturally, Mr Darrouzet denied any link between the two with QLD environment minister Andrew Powell quickly following suit.
Following these reports LNP MP George Christensen, whose electorate covers the Whitsundays, made a dramatic admission that he was wrong to support the sea disposal of dredge waste from Abbot Point. According to Christensen, he
“didn’t foresee the angst the dumping of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef marine park would cause tourism operators and the residents of the Whitsundays.”
A line in the sand
While Christensen is most likely trying to save his political skin after widespread criticism and discontent within his electorate, the move represents the growing pressure on the government over Abbot Point, and more largely over their actions against the environment during their first year in power.
In light of this, Greg Hunt has sought to paint himself as the good guy, saving the reef from negligence “on someone else’s watch”.
Interviewed during the Four Corners investigation, Hunt promised that Abbot Point would be the last time sea disposal of dredge waste would be permitted in the marine park, that it was a ‘line in the sand’.
Greens Senator Larissa Waters sought clarification of these vague promises in the Senate but the government backed away from Hunt’s comments. According to Waters, the words were worthless and ‘full of holes’, failing to specify if projects already applied for will be approved.
In addition, Hunt’s promise is limited to capital dredging, meaning maintenance dredging such as at Hay Point will still be allowed. Approval for the 378,000 cubic metre maintenance dredging project at Hay Point was granted this year, despite real concerns over the damage caused to corals during the initial 2006 dredging.
Australia falling behind
While Australia regresses into a coal mining, climate-change denying stupor, the rest of the world is moving forward in its transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.
Even the main recipient of our coal is moving in the right direction. In an unprecedented move, the Indian Supreme Court this month ruled all coal licenses from 1993 to 2010 illegal, deemed to have been granted unfairly and without transparency. Coal mining had become a source of massive corruption and controversy in India in recent years, with over 200 leases granted to private steel, cement and power companies without proper regulation.
While the move is sure to put pressure on India’s power supply, Australian coal is not in line to fill the void. New PM Narendra Modi aims to roll out solar power across the nation over the next 5 years with renewable energy one of the new government’s top priorities.
Meanwhile our government has decided to scale back the successful RET, crippling our renewable energy sector for supposedly driving up electricity prices – which has since been shown through independent modelling and reviews to be false.
The fact that the review was headed by self-professed climate sceptic and Caltex Australia chairman Dick Warburton (in the words of Scott Ludlam, SRSLY?) would lead anyone to question the independence of this review. But fear not, Warburton has assured the Australian public that his personal beliefs had no bearing on his findings.
Hunt continues to paint environmental groups, concerned locals, tourism operators and concerned Australians who add their name to a GetUp! petition as “as the extreme left of the Australian political scheme”. By doing so, he is alienating the majority of Australians who are rising up to demand stronger action on climate and greater protection for our reef.
This article was first published on the Australian Independent Media Network on 07/09/2014