China's Demand for Coal Threatens Koalas

Australian environmentalists say a Chinese company’s plan to build a vast mine in the marsupials' Australian habitat will push them closer to extinction.

(Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

May 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Australia’s koalas have had a rough go lately.

The cuddly marsupials have lost thousands of acres of their eucalyptus tree habitat to development and forest fires. On the ground, they frequently get attacked by dogs or run over by cars. Heck, they’re even dealing with outbreaks of sexually transmitted diseases.

As if all of that weren’t enough, now they have a new threat on their paws: a massive open-pit coal mine proposed by the Chinese company Shenhua.

Planned for construction in the state of New South Wales, the coal mine would take over more than 2,000 acres of prime koala habitat and thousands of additional acres of agricultural land. The area is reported to be home to about a thousand koalas, which are already suffering from heat waves and drought. The region held more than 12,000 koalas less than a decade ago.

Shenhua said any koalas impacted by the mine will be able to migrate to new habitat. Any animals that don’t move on their own, the company said, will be picked up and transplanted.

The Australian Koala Foundation disagrees. Conservationists argue that the mine would do more than just take over those 2,000 acres of habitat. It would also degrade the remaining koala habitat and put the animals at risk of being run over by trucks and trains. They also said that koalas that have been forcibly moved to other parts of Australia face mortality rates of 80 percent to 100 percent.

The foundation has questioned Shenhua’s environmental assessment studies, saying they cite koala populations more than 10 times higher than they are today and that the company failed to account for the availability of the eucalyptus trees the koalas need outside their current habitat.

The foundation's CEO, Deborah Tabart, also pointed out that the Australian government listed koalas as a threatened species in May 2012, whereas the mine received some of its initial approvals in December 2011. She called the legal situation “very weird” and “complex.”

Also weird is why Shenhua is even moving ahead with the mine. Coal prices are falling, as is coal use in China, according to Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies for the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. He said that by the time the company could start pulling coal out of the ground it would be worth less than it would cost to dig it up.

Buckley said the project is also risky for global food security. He called the region “one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world, and building huge new coal mines will put the water table at risk and will massively jeopardize farming in the area.”

Although Australian federal and state agencies have green-lit the mine, conservationists are not standing still. This week a New South Wales community group called Upper Mooki Landcare filed a lawsuit saying the government and Shenhua failed to take into account the mine’s impact on koalas. A hearing is scheduled for later in May.

Meanwhile, the Australian government has also recently granted approvals to nine new coal projects in Queensland. The coal produced by the mines, which would be shipped to India and China, would produce more than 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year and rank as the world’s seventh-largest carbon emitter.

The international community has taken notice. On Tuesday, United Nations climate negotiator Christiana Figueres said Australia must reduce its economic dependence on coal.

Whether or not it will do so in time to save the koalas remains to be seen.