Mining and the environment: the future of Australia’s brand

Quarries and quandaries: Australia’s natural splendour is a major source of income, yet it sits uncomfortably with mining’s spread. AAP/Fantasea Adventure Cruising

Australia has built a strong global brand based on its iconic natural beauty. For example, the new Australia Tourism campaign, “There’s nothing like Australia”, features icons like the Kimberley, Uluru, and the Great Barrier Reef. But on the flip-side, mining is an important part of the Australian economy, representing the third largest sector-share of GDP in 2009-2010 at 8.4%. As the economic importance of mining accelerates, can these two core Australian brands continue to co-exist without impacting one another?

The environmental and social impacts of recent mining proposals have met heated debate. These include two proposals currently under assessment by Environment Minister Tony Burke: James Price Point, and Alpha Coal. These cases represent two of Australia’s largest mining exports, LNG and Coal, but also raise serious environmental concerns for key assets: the Kimberley and Great Barrier Reef. While Environment Minister Tony Burke is limited in his decision-making to the relevant legislation, namely the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), his decisions on these high-profile cases will likely set the tone for environmental policy as it relates to mining proposals in the near future.

Coal and the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a World Heritage site and is an important environmental and economic asset, estimated in 2005 to contribute $5.8 billion in gross domestic product to Australia. However, the natural values of the GBR are being affected by increased port and shipping activities primarily driven by mining-sector demands. In the wake of the UNESCO report on the Great Barrier Reef, Minister Burke halted movement on the Alpha Coal project to properly assess the likely impacts on the reef. This may have implications for similar projects in the Galilee basin including the China First and Kevin’s Corner Projects. The discussion surrounding the Alpha Coal mine will be closely watched by many for an indication on the future of the proposed Galilee basin coal mines. In addition to possible impacts on the GBR, the China First project will wipe out an existing private protected area, Bimblebox Nature Refuge. The open cut coal mine will severely impact the environmental values that have been protected by the Nature Refuge. In addition, mining within private protected areas, such as Queensland’s Nature Refuges, creates social consequences that could erode the public’s willingness to participate in such programs in the future. These potential social costs are not currently being valued in the decision making process.

James Price Point and potential impacts on the Kimberley

The Kimberley is known for its natural beauty and cultural and biological diversity. Purnululu National Park (Bungle Bungle range) is World Heritage listed and the west Kimberley was recently national heritage listed. The north Kimberley is one of two regions in Australia with no recorded mammal extinctions. However, the proposed James Price Point gas hub now represents a major threat to the pristine natural values of the region. The proposed gas hub will threaten natural values such as the heritage-listed dinosaur tracksites, plus whales and dolphins as well as endangered species such as sawfish, dugongs, and turtles. Notably, Kimberley coast is an important Humpback whale nursery and the proposed Kimberley marine protected area will provide protection for some of the nursery.

James Price Point in Western Australia: the site of a proposed gas hub. AAP/Cortlan Bennett

Can the impacts from the James Price Point gas hub be avoided?

The James Price Point gas hub differs from other mining proposals in one key way. While many mining proposals are site specific, the gas hub proposed for James Price Point has alternate proposed sites, including the Pilbara. Thus, the impacts from the James Price Point gas hub on the natural values of the Kimberley can be avoided. Following the mitigation hierarchy of avoid, minimise, reduce then offset, the consideration of alternate locations for the gas hub deserves serious attention.

If the James Price Point proposal does move ahead, Woodside environmental policy is to minimise impacts and undertake restoration activities where appropriate. Although Woodside has pledged to protect whales, turtles, fish, and water quality in the area, details surrounding the environmental management and financial commitment to these activities have not been released. Projects of this nature are often also accompanied by an environmental offset package. For example, the Inpex’s Ichthys project has committed to voluntary and required offsets. However, there are a number of species found only in the Kimberley. If any of these species were to be lost an offset simply could not achieve a “no net impact” outcome.

What about the locals?

Many of the proposed mines are in rural areas of Australia where the local landholders have been caretakers of the land for generations. In these rural communities, do the people stand to win or lose from the mines? This question doesn’t have a clear answer. What is clear is that there is a great deal of local discord over these proposals.

For example, James Price Point has attracted significant community protests and an additional 140 police were recently sent to Broome at a cost of ~$100,000 a day to ensure the road to James Price Point was open and safe to travel as Woodside work resumed. Similarly, the coal and coal seam gas (CSG) proposals in Queensland have been met with local concern including active Lock the Gate Alliance protests and media statements. In addition, there has been a great deal of local support to save Bimblebox, including more than 1800 public submissions in response to the Waratah Coal’s Environmental Impact Statement, and the production of a film highlighting the potential effects of planned coal and CSG expansions.

This escalating level of protests and local conflicts suggests that the public debate over the value of mining has not reached a consensus. An in-depth examination of the broader costs and benefits of proposed mines is needed to facilitate a public debate of the issues.

Mining and the Australian Brand

Mining is an important part of the Australian economy. However, tourism and other industries built on maintaining the natural values of Australia are also important economic sectors.

The Kimberly and Great Barrier Reef represent not only important wilderness areas but also brands for iconic nature that attract tourism. They are spectacularly beautiful and unique areas that have been maintained in their natural states to preserve environmental values. The tourism value of the Kimberley was estimated in 2008 to be $637 million, an important 35.8% of the region’s economy. Approximately 88% of the GBR’s contribution to gross domestic product is from tourism, or ~$5.1 billion in 2005.

However, the future security of tourism in these regions relies on the branding of environmental assets. Mining impacts on these assets could severely impact these brands and have lasting implications for the tourism industries in these regions. The decision to mine these areas has important consequences for Australia’s reputation as an environmental steward of world heritage areas. But the decision also affects industries, such as tourism, that have worked to build brands around the environmental values of these regions. Is the loss or devaluing of these brands something we can afford or is the price of mining too great? Impending decisions by State Governments and Environment Minister Tony Burke will be making that call, whether presented as such or not.

Comments welcome below.