Protesters Call for Ending Coal’s Threats to Great Barrier Reef

More than 100 people trespass on a private industrial site slated to become the world’s biggest coal port.

The Great Barrier Reef is roughly 20 miles off Abbot Point, which may become the world's biggest coal port. (Photo: Courtesy 350.org)

Jun 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

More than 100 Australians trespassed onto a coal shipping terminal on Monday to protest expansion plans they say will harm the Great Barrier Reef and worsen the effects of global warming.

“We are standing together, united as one, to protect Mother Earth. Mother Earth—our environment—is my culture, my heritage, and my Aboriginality,” said protest leader Aunty Carol Prior in a statement from nonprofit activist group 350.org. Prior is an elder in a community of “traditional owners,” which in Australia refers to indigenous coastal peoples with strong precolonial ties to the Great Barrier Reef.

The protest was peaceful, and there were no arrests, according to the group.

Abbot Point Terminal’s expansion is key to Australia's plans for dramatically increasing coal mining and exports. The port’s capacity would grow from 50 million to 120 million tons of coal per year per a government fact sheet. Completion is targeted for 2016, although the proposal's environmental impacts are still being assessed.

So, Why Should You Care? The delicate corals of the Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, provide habitat for thousands of marine animals and plants. The reef is already under stress from warming ocean temperatures and ocean acidification, both related to climate change and the burning of fossil fuels. Increased coal shipping near the reef could lead to more pollution and collisions with the reef, while burning that coal will likely contribute to runaway climate change.

Plans for expanding Abbot Point Terminal originally included dumping 3 million cubic meters of dredging waste into waters surrounding the Great Barrier Reef. In March, the provincial government announced that dredge spoils would be dumped in an area next to the existing port rather than in Great Barrier Reef waters.

“I’ve always said I support the responsible and sustainable development of the Galilee Basin [coal mines] and Abbot Point,” said provincial chief Annastacia Palaszczuk when the deal was announced, Australian Mining reported.

Protesters speaking with a site worker. (Photo: Courtesy 350.org)

But increased shipping traffic also threatens the reef, activists say. The enlarged port would ship coal from six proposed new mines in Australia’s Galilee Basin, transforming Australia into the world’s leading exporter of the fossil fuel. (It’s currently No. 2, behind Indonesia and ahead of Russia.)

Burning this coal would create 128 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually, according to a report released by Greenpeace in 2014.

Scientists believe that to have any hope of keeping temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in coming decades, 88 percent of the world’s remaining coal reserves, including most of Australia’s unmined coal, must remain in the ground.

RELATED: Climate Change Is Killing Coral Reefs, and That Could Cost the Economy $1 Trillion a Year

According to the Australian nonprofit organization the Climate Council, “exploitation of Australia’s Galilee Basin coal deposits is incompatible with effective action on climate change.”

Between the climate risks and the potential for harm to the Great Barrier Reef, several large U.S. and European banks, including Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, have opted not to invest in the expansion of Abbot Point.

Some of Monday’s protesters said damage to the reef would hurt the local tourism industry and that the millions being invested in expanding coal exports would create more jobs and revenue if it were spent on safer renewable energy.

“I’ve worked in the Whitsunday tourism industry for 20 years,” said Sandra Williams, a resident, according to 350.org. “A vibrant tourism industry depends on a vibrant reef.”