UK United Kingdom

Australia coy in report on heritage status of Great Barrier Reef

Australia has delivered an updated report on the state of conservation in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) that tip-toes around the politically charged issue of constraining major port expansions on the Queensland…

UNESCO’s warning has done little to turn Australia’s coal development around. Peter Asquith

Australia has delivered an updated report on the state of conservation in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) that tip-toes around the politically charged issue of constraining major port expansions on the Queensland coast.

The report was required as a step in an ongoing international review of Australia’s management of the GBR.

The review is not considering removing the GBR from the World Heritage List.

The question the review is asking is whether the GBR should be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Entry on that list is an alarm bell warning of immediate threats to a World Heritage property.

Massive development for coal and LNG exports

The reason why alarm bells are ringing for the GBR is principally the scale and rapid pace of coastal development and shipping for coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports.

There are massive expansions of already major ports adjacent to the GBR currently planned or underway at Gladstone, Dalrymple Bay/Hay Point, and Abbot Point.

Major new coal export terminals are also proposed north of Gladstone at the mouth of the Fitzroy River, the Fitzroy Terminal Project and the Balaclava Island Coal Export Terminal.

In addition a new coal terminal known as the Wongai Project is proposed 320km north of Cairns in a near-pristine area.

Map of GBR World Heritage Area showing the three bulk coal ports (white) and major proposed new coal terminals (red). Adapted from GBRMPA

UNESCO & IUCN mission report sounds alarm

In early 2012 an international mission from the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and IUCN visited Australia to assess the state of conservation of the GBR.

While the mission recommended that the GBR should not be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger at this stage, they expressed deep concern that:

In the immediate future … it is clear that the scale of coastal development currently being proposed and consented presents a significant risk to the [GBR], and that the scale and pace of development proposals appear beyond the capacity for independent, quality and transparent decision making.

Review by the World Heritage Committee

The World Heritage Committee accepted the mission’s recommendations in mid-2012.

It decided not to enter the GBR on the List of World Heritage in Danger at this stage.

It requested Australia report further developments and the results of a strategic assessment for its 2013 and 2015 meetings, when it will review the matter again.

Significantly, as part of its resolution, the Committee requested that Australia:

… not permit any new port development or associated infrastructure outside of the existing and long-established major port areas within or adjoining the property …”

This is clearly aimed at the Balaclava Island Coal Export Terminal, the Fitzroy Terminal Project, and the Wongai Project.

Location of new coal terminals in largely undeveloped coastal areas north of Gladstone. Adapted from GoogleEarth

It is difficult to see how any approval can be given by Australia of these new major coal ports consistently with the recommendation from the World Heritage Committee.

This is very significant because these developments are arguably the most damaging of the proposed expansions due to their location in largely undeveloped or near-pristine areas.

Australia chooses to hear “no” as “maybe”

The updated status report just delivered by Australia coyly attempts to turn a “no” into a “maybe” in relation to port expansions outside of the existing and long-established major port areas.

Australia states in addressing this recommendation that it “understands and appreciates the concern of the Committee” but applicants have legal rights to have their proposals assessed and the government must continue to respect these rights.

Australia emphasises in the report the high standards of its national environmental laws and the fact that it is currently undertaking a strategic assessment of all development directly affecting the GBR.

There is some merit in these points as some projects are well assessed under Australian law. For instance, in 2008 a proposed new coal terminal in an undeveloped area adjacent to the GBR was rejected as “clearly unacceptable”. That decision survived a heated court challenge.

Yet at the heart of Australia’s response on this issue is a refusal, at least at this stage, to accept the World Heritage Committee’s categorical view that no new ports should be allowed adjacent to the GBR.

Talking about the elephant in the room

Australia acknowledges in its report the threat posed by climate change to the GBR and puts on a brave face emphasising its climate policies.

There is no acceptance that Australia’s climate policies are profoundly inadequate but it has become naive to expect governments will truly face the politically unpalatable reality of clearly unsustainable climate and energy policies.

Australia has, in effect, a de facto plan to destroy the GBR by mining and exporting all our coal and gas without requiring safe disposal of their emissions as a condition of sale.

When repeated by fossil fuel rich countries around the globe this puts the world on track for a mean global temperature rise of over 4°C. The GBR will be devastated well before we reach those levels.

It is ironic, in a very sad way, that the immediate threats of rapid port expansions to export more coal and LNG compound the long-term threat from climate change and ocean acidification that the emissions from these exports will contribute to.

Join the conversation

12 Comments sorted by

  1. Riddley Walker


    The only Party committed to protecting the Reef is the greens. Tony Burke is a reluctant player, who has to be pushed by the Parliamentary Greens and community petitions before he will act on any issue.

    The ALP is under too much influence from the mining sector, as has been demonstrated time and again.

    1. Wade Macdonald


      In reply to Riddley Walker

      Still didn't stop them pandering to the greens for votes over the Coral Sea Marine Park. A token attempt at environmental grandstanding by Labor, which bans recreational fishing in the same areas/routes this increase in international shipping will occur.

      Wait for all the introduced pests these boats will bring into both the GBR and Coral Sea through ballast release. Then the Greens will understand what a real threat to the marine environment is.

    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Recreational shipping is banned from coal carrier shipping lanes? Given the steering ability of the Shen Neng, separating rec vessels and coal carriers is a safety issue, not conservation per se.

      That said, I agree that enlarging GBRMP is tokenism, pretty meaningless so long as river discharge water quality remains as bad as it is - urban wastewater, mine discharge water, agricultural runoff all need to be addressed.

      As I've pointed out several times, GBR conservation begins at the top of the Great Dividing Range and, for the southernmost river that drains to the Reef lagoon, the Mary, at the top of the Conondale Range.

      Anything less than that is inadequate.

      Regarding ballast water, I've heard proposals that would require replacement of ballast water while the vessel is in deep ocean. I wonder if I heard it from a Green?

    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Riddley Walker

      I actually read Burke as someone who'd like to do more for conversation, but is constrained by the rest of the ALP.

      That said, he'd have more regard from me if he revisited the potential impact of New Hope's proposed coal mine at Colton near Maryborough on the Ramsar-listed wetlands of the Great Sandy Strait. As a Matter of National Environmental Significance, the proposal would then be in the spotlight of the Federal EPBC, instead of just another potential royalty-spinner for the cash-strapped Qld State Govt.

    4. Wade Macdonald


      In reply to David Arthur

      David, the pests released do not stay within shipping lanes but spread and take over when conditions are suitable.

      My point was not surrounding the safety of recreational boats but the minor environmental impact they have on the coral sea environment in comparison to the disasterous effect such increases in foreign pests have had in Australian waters from international shipping.

      Yet, look at what is allowed to transverse a sanctuary zone in ever increasing numbers and who gets banned under such policies?

      I am sure at the next election these hypocracies will go down like a lead balloon for Labor state and federal when 5 million mum and dad fishers in OZ post at the ballot box.

      Burke will not be able to hide behind the thousands of overseas submissions to the Coral Sea Marine Park by the international ENGO's as they won't be voting.

    5. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Thanks Wade, I agree with you that international shipping presents a major risk to the GBR.

      The proposal to replace ballast water mid-ocean assumes that near-shore pest species are unlikely to survive mid-ocean - I don't know how plausible that assumption may be, but the thought is that they'll starve for lack of food. An alternative may be to heat ballast water, compartment by compartment, with waste heat from the ship's engines.

      Rest assured, the LNP will open up the entire GBR to fishing.

      Also rest assured that the LNP will ensure that the rivers that discharge from coastal Qld will be so polluted, so contaminated as to kill off everything except the most pollution-hardened slime that arrives in ballast water from China.

    6. Wade Macdonald


      In reply to David Arthur

      A welcome measure if it works? As for policing such ballast measures against shipping staff from overseas countries that is another whole new ball game all together.

    7. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to David Arthur

      maybe the plan is to so trash the reef that there will be no arguments against the expansion of coal and LNG exports. Or maybe they already know that by the approvals given so far, this result is assured?

    8. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Automated data logging and satellite uploading of the valves through which ballast water is exchanged with fresh sea water and of temperature history of each compartment of ballast water?

    9. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      Thanks Robert, I've oft pondered that myself.

      We see similar arguments in climate change Denialism; they Deny climate change is happening, then when that becomes untenable they Deny that humanity had anything to do with that, then when that becomes untenable they argue that it's too late, we're buggered anyway, so let's just Party On.

      It also occurs to me that perhaps governments and degradation-based businesses encourage for high levels of immigration because immigrants have no historic memory of how good a region used to be.

  2. Tom James


    Thanks for another highly informative article Chris.

  3. Chris McGrath

    Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

    WWF and the Australian Marine Conservation Society released a detailed third party report on the status of the GBR on 31 January 2013:

    It is a useful report with a lot of detailed criticisms of the actions taken by the Australian and Queensland governments in responding to the World Heritage Committee's recommendations.