Commonwealth and Queensland face off over coal and Great Barrier Reef

Minister Tony Burke is slowing down coal development in Queensland, but there’s more to it than saving turtles. Landfeldt/Flickr

The halt in the Alpha Coal Project approval process shows the Commonwealth is taking very seriously UNESCO’s recent report threatening downgrading the status of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA). UNESCO says unless the Commonwealth improves its process of assessment and approvals for coastal developments, the reef’s status will be in danger.

The Commonwealth is likely to do everything in its power to prevent UNESCO applying an “in danger” tag to the iconic Reef, a change UNESCO could make at its meeting at the end of the month. Such a downgrade would have enormous economic and political ramifications in Australia. Moreover it would be catastrophic for Australia’s reputation as a reliable guardian - for the benefit and enjoyment of humanity and generations to come – of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. It would cast in doubt our guardianship of all of the World Heritage sites we manage.

The Queensland Co-ordinator General’s environmental impact assessment processes and approval of the development of Gladstone Harbour and coal seam gas fields were subject to valid criticism, despite the process reportedly costing some $45 million dollars, and amounting to some 10,500 pages. The Commonwealth made a bad move in subsequently approving three LNG plants on Curtis Island, within the World Heritage Area, without informing UNESCO. Another bad move was its approval of dumping 12 million cubic metres of dredge spoil from the inner harbour into the World Heritage area in the outer harbour, next to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and close to substantial seagrass beds.

Dredge disposal and seagrass. GHD/Gladstone Ports Corporation

Queensland has jurisdiction over its lands and inshore waters. Nevertheless, in this case the Commonwealth has the final word on development because under the Australian Constitution it has jurisdiction over areas subject to international agreements such as World Heritage sites. Much of the GBRWHA boundary on the Queensland coast is at low water mark, where this is the case all development on the seaward side related to ports is under Commonwealth jurisdiction

Another way in which the Commonwealth can override the state on development proposals is where its EPBC (Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation) Act of 1999, applying to threatened species, is invoked. On the ABC’s World Today of June 5, Federal Minster Burke said that - contrary to the Queensland Coordinator General’s assessment - there were threatened species in the waters near the site of the coal loading facility to be developed at Abbot Point for the Alpha coal project. Moreover, there are turtle nesting sites at the Abbot Point site itself. Five species of turtle on the endangered list (under the EPBC Act) could potentially be found in this area. There could also be a further two turtles on the vulnerable list.

It is not surprising that the Coordinator General’s approvals are subject to error and bias. The proponents of the developments themselves are responsible for undertaking the environmental impact assessments. Moreover, the Queensland Co-ordinator General is not an independent arbiter of these assessments. The position is an arm of the Queensland Government which is bent on maximising royalties from the extraction of CSG and coal.

The Commonwealth has no choice but to tread extremely carefully with port developments. The Queensland Government in contrast can afford to be gung ho: it was recently elected with a large majority. It has nothing to lose by unashamedly playing the development card.

It will be instructive to see whether the Commonwealth ditches completely the state’s involvement in project environmental assessment and takes over the role as a one-stop shop for the companies involved. This would ensure that port approvals meet with UNESCO committee approval. It would also avoid the continual stoushes that seem likely between Queensland and the Commonwealth over the many coastal developments proposed in the near future.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.