Carmichael approval a death-knell for the Great Barrier Reef

The go-ahead for the Adani Carmichael mine in Australia will be the end of the world’s ocean jewel

By Imogen Zethoven
Published: Monday 15 July 2019
A marine turtle swims in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Photo: Getty Images
A marine turtle swims in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Photo: Getty Images A marine turtle swims in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Photo: Getty Images

On June 12, 2019, Indian billionaire Gautam Adani’s controversial coal mine project in Queensland, Australia, was given its final major approval.

Queensland also happens to be home to the Great Barrier Reef — a vast World Heritage-listed global ocean icon covering an area the size of Rajasthan.

Adani had lobbied the state and national governments for years, promising a jobs bonanza for the region.

In 2017, the state’s Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk took a delegation to India to show the state’s “support” for the project.

I travelled with an alternative delegation to challenge the Premier. How could she say she was the biggest supporter of our Reef, while promoting a massive coal mine, we asked.

We took a letter co-signed by more than 50 prominent Australians — including scientists, business figures, conservationists and cricket legends Ian and Greg Chappell — into Adani’s headquarters, asking the billionaire to abandon the project and turn his company to renewable energy.

In May, 2019, Australians re-elected a national conservative government. Conservationists wanted Australians to show they cared about the climate and our Reef, but instead, the election was won on a scare campaign about tax.

Within days, Queensland’s Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, ordered her government to finish two remaining approvals for the Adani mine.  Now her government has given those approvals, clearing the way for Adani to start work.

Adani’s project will mine 10 million tonnes of coal a year from the Galilee Basin, build 200 kilometres of rail to connect to an existing railway, before exporting the coal out of Adani’s port on the Queensland coast.  

From there, container ships will weave their way through the Great Barrier Reef and out to India and other customers, where the coal will be burned in power stations.

This route through the reef is deeply ironic, because it’s the burning of fossil fuels that is warming the oceans — the root cause of the reef’s problems.

How big Adani’s mine could get is uncertain.  The company has said its current plan would see production ramping up to 27.5 million tonnes per year, but in recent days, the company’s Australian chief said the project had “opportunity to be able to grow” to 60 million tonnes a year, in line with its approvals.

But what is worrying everybody who cares about the future of the Reef, is the prospect that the Adani mine will be just the first of five or six other coal mines that will look to exploit the massive coal reserves in the Galilee Basin.

Among those miners with interests in the Galilee is GVK Hancock — a project majority-owned by another Indian billionaire, GVK Reddy.

Opening up the Galilee Basin’s coal would be a disaster for the world’s attempts to keep global warming to 1.5°C, and a disaster for coral reefs around the globe.

When corals sit in unusually hot water for too long, the algae that gives corals their colour and much of their nutrients becomes separated from the white coral skeleton underneath. The reef has been through mass bleaching episodes in 1998, 2002, 2016 and 2017.

In the two most recent back-to-back bleaching episodes, about half the corals died in the central and northern sections of the reef.

When scientists went back to check on their recovery, they found that the amount of coral larvae had dropped by 90 per cent.  As leading Australian coral scientist Perry Hughes said: “Dead corals don’t make babies.”

This is why scientists agree that climate change is the reef’s biggest threat. But it is not just corals that are at stake here.

The Great Barrier Reef is the habitat for thousands of species of fish, dolphins, sharks and whales that thrive in a habitat that is under huge amounts of stress.

Economists have calculated that the Reef contributes about $6.4 billion to Australia’s economy every year, and gives jobs to 64,000 people in Australia.

These are compelling figures, but in fact the Great Barrier Reef is priceless. As custodians, Australia has a responsibility to look after our ocean jewel.

Every new fossil fuel project puts that jewel at risk.  

Imogen Zethoven is director of strategy at the Australian Marine Conservation Society 

A shorter version of this column has been published in Down To Earth's 1-15 July, 2019 Edition

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