Australia’s Great Barrier Reef threatened by controversial mining project

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On 15 October 2015, for the second time, Australia’s environment minister, Greg Hunt, approved the Carmichael coal mine, a vast mining project intended to supply the Indian market.

Led by the Indian conglomerate Adani, this A$16 billion (US$11.5 billion) project to be developed in Queensland will become the largest coal mine in Australia.

But the project has been fuelling controversy for months. Environmental organisations have denounced the contribution it would make to future CO2 emissions as well as the increased shipping traffic it would create in the Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In August of this year, the Mackay Conservation Group managed to temporarily halt the project by taking the case to the Federal Court. The nature conservation group had succeeded in showing that a number of threatened species such as the yakka skink reptile, had not been taken into consideration in the first approval given for the mine.

But the Australian government has approved the project once again, based on new conditions, claiming that it now fulfils “36 of the strictest conditions in Australian history”.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), far from sharing this position, has decided to take Federal Court action against the government, for the first time in the country’s history, for failing to meet its international obligation to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

In an interview with Equal Times, Kelly O’Shanassy, chief executive officer of ACF, explained: “We think Greg Hunt has made an error in approving this mine. The government could have rejected this project in the name of defending the coral reef, because our minister is supposed to do everything he can to protect it. But he has not.”

The organisation is convinced it has the law on its side. “If we win the case, it will create a precedent. The government will then be forced to consider the climatic impact of its decisions.”

Sean Ryan, the principal solicitor defending the case, is categorical: “The decisions of the Federal Court set a precedent and, thus far, there has never been a ruling concerning the government’s duty to protect the Great Barrier Reef from coal-related pollution. It is, therefore, going to be an important decision.”

The Federal Court should proceed to examine the case in April 2016, at the earliest. The decision will be issued three to six months later.

 

“Coal. It’s an amazing thing”

The indigenous Wangan and Jagalingou peoples, for their part, are fighting a legal battle to defend their rights and their ancestral lands against the mining project.

The Quit Coal collective, in Melbourne, is also fighting to stop coal mining and the exploitation of unconventional gas, such as Australia’s potentially large reserves of shale gas.

Brigit Skilbeck, aged 26, does not understand her country’s decision, which she sees as a “short-termist”.

“The problem is that our country has very close ties with the mining industry. And Australians are made to believe that our standard of living is thanks to our mines, so it’s very difficult to campaign against coal here.”

The young activist explains: “In Australia, we have an easy life, we’re not used to fighting against our government for our rights like in Europe.”

In Australia, 61 per cent of electricity comes from coal and the mining industry has very close ties with the country’s political elite.

But Greg Evans, executive director of the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), assured Equal Times that there is “no evidence of a conflict of interest”. He added: “The coal industry is a major contributor to the Australian economy. It is Australia’s second-largest source of export income, contributing some A$40 billion (US$29 billion) in 2013-14. Our sector employs over 150,000 Australians.”

With regards to the carbon emissions attributed to the coal industry, Evans says: “The industry is taking important steps by using the latest technology to cut the emissions coming from coal-fired power plants. China and India are in the process of building the most advanced factories, and the use of high-quality Australian coal will be essential to optimising their performance.”

Since September, the MCA has been running an advertising campaign claiming that “coal is an amazing thing”. Yet, according to the World Health Organisation, seven million premature deaths around the world are linked to air pollution, caused by pollutants such as coal.

Over two million people visit the Great Barrier Reef every year, contributing some A$5.7 billion (US$4.1 billion) to the Australian economy.

The Mackay Conservation Group points outs that the Great Barrier Reef is a global treasure, with hundreds of species of sharks, rays, molluscs, dolphins, sea turtles, whales, porpoises, birds and fish.

Its spokesperson, Peter McCallum, warns: “We are going to find ourselves with high CO2 emissions and yet the corral reef is very sensitive to climate change. The international community is aiming for a maximum temperature rise of two degrees, but for the Reef a rise of over 1.5 degrees will cause serious damage. And in the long term, we may be left with no Reef at all.”

As the COP21 takes place in Paris, Australia will have to justify its “all for coal” policy to the world, amid a shift in attitude among its own citizens. A survey of 17,500 Australians was conducted over five years. It found that 78 per cent of them are conscious of climate change.

Kelly O’Shanassy adds: “Australians know that coal kills and that it isn’t good for humanity, despite the claim made by our former prime minister, Tony Abbott. Only 13 per cent of them want more coal.”

She continues, with confidence: “The coal industry has lost the support of the people in Australia.”

 

This story has been translated from French.