Last summer UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee threatened to downgrade its listing of the Great Barrier Reef from World Heritage Area to Heritage Site in Danger. Downgrading the listing could repel tourists, and ought to be a blow to national pride.
The GBR has suffered stress from the usual suspects for decades – overfishing, mining, Crown-of-Thorns starfish plagues, run-off from adjacent mainland coastal farms. Now add to those the coral bleaching and intense cyclones of recent years associated with climate change, as well as the looming devastating impact of ocean acidification. Not surprisingly, half the coral cover has been lost or damaged since the 1980s.
The World Heritage Committee based its threat on the recent developments at Gladstone and nearby Curtis Island, at the southern end of the reef. Gladstone has become the largest center for coal export in Australia – there are huge seams of coal running north-south in the eastern part the country adjacent to the reef. The coal is sent where you would expect, to Japan, China, South Korea and India. Now the port of Gladstone is being dredged even deeper to handle ever more and larger ships.
That’s part of UNESCO’s concern.
The other part involves coal seam gas, gas that is or can be extracted during the coal mining process. Curtis Island, lying close to Gladstone, is actually part of the GBR World Heritage Area. However, it is now under extraordinary development to liquefy the coal seam gas to liquid natural gas (LNG), and send it off in refrigerated tankers to consuming nations where it will rendered back into natural gas. The liquid takes up 1/600th the volume of the gas, so the advantage of shipping it as liquid is obvious.
The World Heritage Committee report (p20-22) calls for these developments to cease and for a review of their impact. Since no actual sanctions by UNESCO are possible, beyond downgrading of the status of the Reef, what kind of response can we expect?
The Queensland Government has now submitted a defensive response, promising an independent review of the the Port of Gladstone, and commenting on existing water quality improvement programs, research initiatives, the GBR zoning plan, the Coral Sea reserve, and the recently implemented national carbon tax. The number of gas ports under development will be limited, but they will still be in the World Heritage Area.
However, as the Premier of Queensland said early on, ‘We are in the coal business’. That hasn’t changed.
So there will be no reconsideration, no precautionary plan, no delay in port or LNG development. The long-term threat to the reef is dismissed.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Extract and sell is the mantra of resource exploitation in Canada, the US, Africa, South America, Asia – and Australia. The exported coal and LNG from Gladstone and Curtis Island will no doubt support the Queensland economy, providing jobs and infrastructure. Unfortunately, given the other stresses that already exist, there isn’t any reason to think that a severely damaged GBR will be able to recover.
The tension between extracting resources and conserving natural ecosystems is familiar to us everywhere. You would think one place where conservation trumps extraction would be The Great Barrier Reef. Apparently not.
Will anyone listen to the outcry in defense of the Great Barrier Reef? If you would like to add your voice, visit: ‘Save the Reef’ It could only help.