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Thanks to Dredging and Coal, the Great Barrier Reef Is More Threatened Than Ever

One prominent scientist says the reef has 20 years left.
December 24, 2013, 2:35pm
Satellite image of the reef, courtesy NASA

On December 10, the Australian government approved the expansion of a coal port at Abbot Point in Northern Queensland. A victory for Australia's booming coal economy, it may also massively wound the nearby Great Barrier Reef.

That decision, however, has proved so massively controversial that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has now delayed its decision on whether to grant permits to dump the dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park until January 31.


Expansion of the coal port will entail dredging 3 million cubic meters of mud from the site, which will then be dumped into land infill projects. Australia's environment minister Greg Hunt told Reuters that the current agreement was reduced from 38 million cubic meters of dredging to protect the environment, while Greenpeace countered that any dredging on this scale will have disastrous effects on the reef. Adding to the environmental toll is the 120 million tonnes of added coal shipping capacity the port's four new terminals will provide.

Abbot Point will handle exports from the Galilee Basin, a geological depression that boasts massive coal reserves, but which up to now has lacked export infrastructure. The project will also create a coal-shipping highway directly through the Great Barrier Reef for thousands of ships to export coal to energy-hungry Asia. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Australia's coal exports, already the largest in the world, have increased by 30 percent within the last year alone.

Indian firm Adani Group, seeking resources for the subcontinent’s similarly massive energy demands, will helm the Abbot Point project. Greenpeace estimates that the number of ships passing through the reef will increase from 1,700 a year to 10,150 by 2020. An $18 billion liquid gas facility and pipeline will also be built at nearby Curtis Island.

Construction of the Abbot Point coal port reached provisional approval directly following the election of Prime Minister Tony Abbott—a climate denier—whose conservative Liberal-National coalition took power in September amid promises of mining and gas industry expansion. Hunt approved the construction of the coal port along with the proviso that it will be built with the “strictest conditions in Australian history."

Despite those assurances, both environmentalists and the Australian tourism industry were enraged by the December 11 decision. According to a report from the reef's government authority, the Great Barrier Reef boosted the Australian economy by $5.68 billion from 2011-2012, and created 69,000 full-time jobs, mostly in tourism. Those numbers, however, are dwarfed by the $20 billion a year in tax revenues paid by Australia's coal industry into federal and state budgets.

If the dumping permits are granted, it’s just the latest blow to the Great Barrier Reef. The world’s largest structure constructed by living beings, the reef stretches 1,400 miles along the east coast of Australia, and can be seen from space. It’s also a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Great Barrier Reef, and coral reefs like it, are among the world’s most diverse ecosystems, playing host to about a quarter of marine life, despite only covering 0.2 percent of the ocean’s total area.

While the dredging problem will likely remain relatively localized, the Great Barrier Reef has already been hit hard by climate change, and massive growth in the Australian coal industry will only make the problem worse. The reef's coral cover has declined by 50 percent over the last three decades due to pollution, ocean acidification, floods, cyclones and the epidemic spread of the crown-of-thorns starfish, which eats coral. Atmospheric carbon dioxide has also made it increasingly difficult for marine animals, including corals, to produce shells. That's on top of nearly a century of reef-killing agricultural runoff and development. Charlie Veron, chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, has predicted that the Great Barrier Reef has no more than 20 years left.