Last Friday, the Environment Minister Tony Burke effectively told UNESCO, ‘don’t worry, be happy’, in response to grave concerns about the future of the Great Barrier Reef.

Picture: AP

Burke’s response follows a UNESCO investigation of the Reef conducted in June last year.  At that time UNESCO requested that Australia “not permit development that would impact on the outstanding universal value of the Reef”.  UNESCO also warned that the Reef was at risk of being added to the list of World Heritage sites that are “in danger”.

In addition to longstanding problems associated with agricultural run-off and plagues of crown of thorns starfish, the Great Barrier Reef is now under imminent threat from expansion by Queensland’s out of control coal industry.  Staggeringly, there are currently proposals for nine new coal export terminals and associated infrastructure for the Great Barrier Reef coast.

Disappointingly, Burke’s response on Friday failed to provide any clear guarantee of the Reef’s future.  Adopting weasel words, the Australian Government told UNESCO that it will only approve projects “if the residual impacts on protected matters, including Outstanding Universal Value, are determined to be not unacceptable”. It remains to be seen how UNESCO will respond.

As recently as October 2012, Minister Burke approved the T3 coal terminal at Abbot Point in Central Queensland. The construction of T3 requires the dredging and dumping of millions of cubic metres of the sea floor of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and the loss of turtle and dugong habitat.  If T3 is built, as many as 500 more coal ships will transit through the Reef each year, each bringing risk of catastrophic damage should anything go wrong. 

And direct damage from construction of coal infrastructure is only a fraction of the problem. If current plans for the expansion of Queensland’s coal industry go ahead, then the world will be on the path to levels of global warming that would be fatal to the Great Barrier Reef.  The opening up of coal reserves in Queensland’s Galilee Basin alone could result in annual emissions that are almost double what Australia domestically emits annually. 

Burke is politically fortunate in benefitting from comparison with Queensland’s State Premier Campbell Newman.  Last year, Newman responded to UNESCO’s concerns by saying bluntly that Queensland is “in the coal business” and his government has been ruthless in slashing the state’s environment department, and rushing new bills through parliament to reduce environmental safeguards.

Most of UNESCO’s world heritage in danger sites falls within developing nations, failing states or war zones.  The Taliban’s destruction of the great Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 remains the most infamous example of world heritage being destroyed.  If our Reef is placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger it will be acutely internationally embarrassing. 

In appeasing the coal industry, our politicians are letting down other sectors of the economy.  The degradation of the Reef at the behest of the coal industry would be disastrous for the tourism and fishing industries, leading to real existing sustainable jobs being lost for good.  Then there are the opportunities in renewable energy.  As the Climate Commission has said, ‘Queensland is truly the Sunshine State with some of the world’s highest levels of solar exposure’.  Instead of digging up dirty coal, Queensland could be at the forefront of renewable energy.  Newman, true to form, has wound back government support for Queensland’s solar projects.

It is shocking that our political leaders are even contemplating the industrialisation of the Reef.  Australians should be entitled to assume that if something is world heritage listed, then our politicians will do their honest best to protect it.  Instead, we face the grim prospect that government will connive with the coal industry to degrade and destroy our Reef.

However, history gives reason for hope.  A generation ago, plans were afoot to drill for oil in the Great Barrier Reef area. Back then we were worried, we were not happy, common sense prevailed and the oil drillers were sent packing. Today, we can again say no against the new threat posed by the coal industry.  The out of control coal industry can be stopped.  It is time that as a nation we again made it clear that some things are too precious to lose.

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEDT.

Most commented


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    • gof says:

      07:31am | 05/02/13

      Yet another tony Abbott stuff up and he’s not even in power yet! When will all this madness end!

    • Tropical says:

      09:14am | 05/02/13

      I can only assume that your idiotic anti Abbott comments get published is to remind us all just how foolish and uneducated you really are.

    • Anubis says:

      09:30am | 05/02/13

      How can you say this is a Tony Abbott stuff up? I was not aware that Tony Burke was an Abbott man.

      Yet again gof stuffs up, just like yesterday when he was blissfully unaware of the existence of the FutureFund. Ah, to be a Labor supporter - blissful ignorance.

    • gof says:

      10:19am | 05/02/13

      #Tropical ,
      Next you will be calling me names! Oh wait!
      That’s all you rusted conservative deconstructionlists have, name calling, your mafioso boss does it and you do it. Cowards! Debate policy! All goes silent.

    • DanFlan says:

      10:45am | 05/02/13

      Tropical, Anubis.

      Remember that most important of rules when using the internet….Never, EVER feed the gofs…I mean, Trolls.

    • Jamie says:

      10:56am | 05/02/13

      Reading your post ,gof, I had this mental image of someone thrashing about in a foamy mass.
      Probably not the image you were trying to purvey.

    • bananabender56 says:

      07:38am | 05/02/13

      Alarmist crap. ‘Should anything go wrong’. It’s up to us to ensure systems are put in place, like having Australian pilots on every ship transiting the Barrier reef, to prevent any mishaps. Try going to the Panama canal or Suez if you want to see what ‘lots’ of ships look like. The amount you’re talking about is a drop in the ocean.
      Instead of shooting the whole exercise down, why not lobby to have the ships sail around the reef from the North, significantly reducing the time within the reef system.
      You have also made the mistake of lumping all coals together when in fact coal isn’t all the same. Australia exports coking coal as well as thermal coal and if you are suggersting that we shouldn’t then that’s fine - except that from today, to back your commitment you should stop using everything that’s either made from steel or been touched by steel equipment. How long would you last?

    • Scotty says:

      07:47am | 05/02/13

      I am sure glad that our politicians are representing the MAJORITY of the public is their policies.  If the MAJORITY of the public actually believed the Green propaganda machine, then the GREENS would actually be in Government.  The activitists can continue their gross lies and exaggerations of “destructution of life itself”, “everything is toxic”, “all politicians and people who don’t agree with them are greedy and corrupt”, etc. etc.  Wake up, the public is seeing through this.  I sure glad our policians see through this and are providing government for the LARGE MAJORITY, rather than the vocal minority.

    • Roxanne says:

      08:02am | 05/02/13

      I think this should not be a matter for simply the Queensland government.  The Barrier Reef is unique and belongs to all of us.  In areas such as these, I think this shold be something decided on a Federal level.  Unfortunately, if those grubs in parliament think they can make a buck then they would rip the place apart.  Time for some radical greenies to get up there I think.  Much as I don’t like them, they do get people talking, and that is the whole point.  It tends to stop the slimy pollies from lining their pockets too obviously.  PS, this is not an anti-labor rant.  I despise pollies on both sides and trust none.

    • I hate pies says:

      08:54am | 05/02/13

      Maybe the federal government should have an opinion in this, but UNESCO certainly should not. They do no represent the interests of Australia, and their decision making and opinions are skewed by their ideology.
      By the way, thousands of ships pass through the reef each year without incident; and there’s only been one accident that I’m aware of. The greenies have no basis for their assertions. The lefties would call it a scare campaign if it was coming from the other side.

    • Roxanne says:

      10:30am | 05/02/13

      @I hate pies, thanks for the reply.  I am not an expert in shipping, nor do I purport to be one.  It is for that very reason that I made my comments.  There are many decisions made in this country that may not be for the benefit of Australia, but simply to line someone’s pockets.  The problem is the associated spin clouds the facts.  Nobody can be an expert in everything.  The point I was making was that there needs to be a transparent level of accountability, one step removed from local profiteering.  I also agree UNESCO should have no say, they are not Australians. By the way, when I mentioned radical greenies, I was not referring to the Greens party. I was referring to a very vocal minority who could hopefully create open discussion.

    • I hate pies says:

      11:11am | 05/02/13

      Roxanne, looks like we’re pretty much in agreement. Although, I would listen to a vocal minority from any group, particularly greenies (not members of the party). This is simply because they exaggerate to try to manipulate people to conform to their views. They don’t have the transparent accountability that you’re referring to. Decision making should always be objective, without bias and based on the knoweldge of full facts.

    • Roxanne says:

      11:56am | 05/02/13

      I really need to explain my self better smile  Yes, we seem to be in agreement.  What I mean by the vocal radical minority is this:  If they did not exist - pushing their extremist views - then a lot of things would go un-noticed. I am not saying I want them to form policy, just that the noise they make can draw attention and from there would come open discussion etc.  Well, something like that!

    • expat says:

      08:35am | 05/02/13

      Dredging a channel wide enough to accomodate a few ships is hardly going to have an effect on the reef. I’d say this is more of a campaign against the mining companies, the greenies are well known for disturbing any project for any reason.

    • AdamC says:

      08:54am | 05/02/13

      Our politicians are not contemplating the ‘industrialisation’ of the reef. What is it with environmentalists and ridiculous exaggeration? Not to mention unwarranted, and unsupported, predictions of imminent disaster.

      Clearly, large port and shipping projects present a risk to the reef. However, the Great Barrier Reef is very large and risks can be managed. I would also note the Reef has survived many decades of green scaremongering already. Much like the Amazon rainforest, which was never supposed to survive the 1990s.

      We cannot simply revert to prehistory and retreat to caves for fear of damaging natural assets like the Reef. Clearly economic and infrastructure development will always have some environmental impact. However, this needs to be seen in light of the benefits of economic progress.

      But I guess, by definition, extremists just do not get the idea of balancing priorities.

    • Modern Primitive says:

      09:05am | 05/02/13

      Perhaps Mr Ritter would care to investigate the environmental controls that are put on these projects during their construction phase. If he was aware of how seriously companies take their environmental responsibilities he wouldn’t publish such alarmist non-sense.

      And they wonder why no one takes the greens seriously.

    • Tropical says:

      09:10am | 05/02/13

      We could spend billions trying to protect the reef only to find we did more harm than good. Or how about we put in place that brilliant brainwave of the Nature-Climate-Change mob, that we cover part of the Great Barrier Reef with shade cloth. I mean after all It’s only 348,000 square kilometers, which part do we cover? But it will stop the dust or will it? Or we could spend 0.00001% of that on real scientists who use real observations instead of computer simulations in continued support of a hypothesis that is yet to be proved.
      But of course having spent all those billions ‘protecting’ the reef along comes a cyclone that does more damage in a week than a little bit of coal dust will ever do over a hundred years.

    • Gordon says:

      10:09am | 05/02/13

      No-one is dumping coal on the reef. What a ridiculous headline. Those blessed by posession of Google Earth and a sense of proportion will discover that Gladstone harbour is 50 km of open sea from the nearest coral island and 150 km from the reef proper. That moving mud from A to B in Gladstone harbour is about as harmful to the reef as moving mud around Pt Botany would be to the Pittwater,  (ie., not). You will note that the article carefully avoids claiming any actual damage, because there isn’t any. 500 ships, oooh scary, one or two per day. Find a shiptracking website and see what a busy sealane actually looks like. This assumption that the very sight of a ship is enough to put a whale off its dinner or send coral into a decline is just crazy.
      The only thing in danger of destruction through Taliban style ideology is Australian prosperity through the endlessly shifting goalposts of Green sensitivity.

    • Harquebus says:

      10:21am | 05/02/13

      We either got to stop using electricity or have less people.

      1: Forget economics. It is “fatally” flawed. It does not factor physics or the environment and is what has got us into this mess in the first place.
      2: Implement national and international populating reduction strategies. Hopefully, although unlikely, these will not include warfare or famine.
      3: Properly manage our finite resources which, are currently being pillaged.
      4: Reduce consumption using quotas not with unfair taxation.
      5: Plant lots and lots of trees. Massive scale reforestation will help the climate, rainfall and be a valuable renewable resource for future generations.

      Oh, I nearly forgot. Peak oil mates, peak oil.

    • Tropical says:

      12:00pm | 05/02/13

      Mate we have been having peak oil since the damn seventies.
      Tiem to find a another crutch to lean on, peak oil is old news.

    • PW says:

      05:29pm | 05/02/13

      Peak Oil in the US was reached in the early 1970’s.

      It is supposed that world Peak Oil occurred around 2006 but no-one really knows (except the Saidis) because they won’t let anyone (from the US) come in and look at their deposits.

      Two things you can be absolutely certain of- the oil crunch will come one day, and the world is in denial, just like Tropical above.

      My feeling as to Harquebus’ future scenario is that there will be a Great Culling sometime around the middle of this century.

    • Terry says:

      10:51am | 05/02/13

      Interesting bunch of comments so far - hypothetically, at what point would you become concerned; 600 ships, 1000, 10,000?  Or is there no upper limit, just so long as it’s managed in accordance with the [current] rules?  How about with the population growth that will accompany these projects; one more suburb, two, twenty, at what point do you start to think that maybe we need to be concerned, even draw a line in the sand and say ‘no more’? How many more species are you willing to sacrifice for human growth? How about the turtles and dugongs, happy for them to be driven to extinction? It may seem extremist to you, but it’s only taken 200 years of expansion to get to where we are now, don’t you wonder what the place will look like in another 200 years time?

    • Expat says:

      11:54am | 05/02/13

      Highly organised, our environments will be synthetic and far more efficient than the natural environment could ever be.

      We are far “greener” than we ever were 100 years ago as well so its safe to say that progress has been balanced towards industry and the environment.

    • Andrew says:

      12:13pm | 05/02/13

      The biggest threat to coral is #1 nutrient run off (fertilisers + sewerage) and Crown of Thorn starfish which accounts for 90% of coral bleaching.

      Climate change which is 3% human contribution, Australia just 1.5% (UN) of the human or anthropogenic contribution is 0.045% of global CO2.

      While the Northern hemisphere pumps out CO2 of monumental proportions scientists have shown a kind of fence at the equator which inhibits heat blooms traveling south the equator.

      Another cause of coral bleaching is swimmers “sunscreen” which kills large amounts of coral in small amounts.

    • Alan says:

      11:53am | 06/02/13

      Andrew, since you’re one of the few to quote data in support of your views I’ll try to correct it.  Recently the Australian Insititute of Marine Science published the results of the most extensive study ever of the Great Barrier Reef. It found that the Reef’s hard coral had declined 50% since 1986 when it was 28% (no one knows what it was at white settlement). It is now 14% and declining more rapidly in recent years.  It concludes the likely causes are 42% Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS), 48% storm damage and 10% bleaching by warmer seas.

      The paper suggests that the COTS outbreaks although they occur naturally, are increased by elevated levels of nutrients feeding phytoplankton, the food of COTS larvae. 

      Since we can’t reduce atmospheric carbon in our lifetime anyway, it would be wise to reduce nutrient runoff quickly (nutrients have other major adverse impacts oncoral and segrass ecosystems) .  The above natural nutrient comes mainly from fertiliser from cane farms according to monitoring data showing a rapid increase in dissolved nitrogen downstream of cane areas.(About 60% of applied fertiliser is lost of the farm) 

      This issue is complex but can be substantially addressed by quickly eliminating applicatioin of fertiliser at rates that are unjustifiably high. Current programs to subsidise precision agriculture are excellent (if they continue) but can do little if fertiliser rates are too high. Given that we anticipate 9 or 10 billion people on the planet by 2050 and cheap fossil fuel used to mine and manufacture fertiliser has long ago disappeared, there are many good reason to get a lot more efficient in using fertiliser. 

      Farm pesticides and soil erosion from grazing land adds further to the pollution of seagrass beds and coral reefs.  And there are also good reasons not to waste these resources as pollution.

    • Dan says:

      01:29pm | 05/02/13

      “Oh nooo the sky is falling in, give us more money”.

      I believe nothing that Greenpeace says. They lost me when they whipper snippered the CSIRO GM crop to create controversy….was Mr Ritter going to note in the article his position in GP? or are we just meant to know?

    • Steve A says:

      02:39pm | 05/02/13

      Its a shame someone hasn’t dumped a bucket of coal on this shrill clowns head.

    • Aussiewazza says:

      04:03pm | 05/02/13

      I have had AUSTRALIANS from the deep south tell me they intend to DRIVE UP ALONG (NOT up to) the barrier reef on their holidays.

      I have been asked if it will take all day to DRIVE AROUND the reef.

      I have been asked the names of good motels on the reef.

      After a ship grounded several years ago someone commented that it was sad they hadn’t had the chance to visit the reef before ‘that ship’ destroyed it.

      Even most Australians have little concept of the reefs size.

      I have seen more of the reef than most Australians AND I HAVE SEEN LESS THAN 0.000??%.

      So who is feeding UNESCO the information on which to form an opinion and give advice?

      If UNESCO want to have a say and do something beneficial, let them give each illegal boat person a mask, snorkle, flippers and a spear and send them out to harvest the crown of thorns starfish.

    • Daniel says:

      06:08pm | 05/02/13

      The Federal government and the Liberal party dont give a damn about the reef until its been dug up, drilled and wreecked as long as they can get a dollar out of it.

    • Pete says:

      09:39pm | 05/02/13

      The Reef will always be “under threat” because it give the Greenies a way of levering outrage, political influence and funds from the public. The “OMG no-one cares were ruining the planet for money” line only ropes in the naive dummies these days.


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