Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has a reputation for being loose with his words. But when asked last week about tightening restrictions for Cargo ships coming through the Great Barrier Reef his response was startling: "There will be further accidents in the future, there's no doubt about that - but that's life," he said.
In fact, Mr Joyce's response is a pretty compelling argument as to why coal and the Great Barrier Reef are a bad mix – because accidents are always likely – but the future longevity of the reef is not something with which we should be willing to take such a pernicious gamble.
In fact, the threat of potentially devastating shipping accidents is only set to increase. Shipping of coal from proposed new mines, such as Adani's Carmichael coal mine, risks turning the Reef into a 'miner's highway'.
What we do know is the Reef is already struggling. It was just recently devastated by the worst coral bleaching in recorded history, fuelled by global warming, which turned large areas ghostly white. Thousands of species of coral, fish, whales, turtles, dolphins and rays rely on a healthy reef – as do 70,000 jobs. The Reef is at the centre of a large and vibrant tourism industry that generates billions in tourist dollars for the Australian economy.
But right now the Reef is under extreme pressure and it's also being eyed by numerous coal mining interests. Adani is not the only miner seeking to export coal from QLD's Galilee Basin through the Great Barrier Reef. Gina Rinehart's company GVK Hancock Coal has substantial coal mining interests in Queensland's Galilee Basin with 3 proposed new coal mines in the company's sights.
Only this month, amid the increased scrutiny of political donations on the heels of the Dastyari affair, Mr Joyce has come under pressure about the substantial donation his party received from Gina Rinehart in 2013. He was adamant that Ms Rinehart or Hancock Coal hadn't received anything in return for their donation. The public can draw their own conclusions about that claim in due course.
Last week ACF and the Environmental Defenders Offices (EDOs) of Australia launched our Conditions Report on the Federal environmental approval of Carmichael coal mine demonstrating how our national environment laws are failing to protect Australia's most precious areas including the Great Barrier Reef. The report finds that at present our laws literally grant polluters a 'licence to kill' our reef and leave us and future generations with the mess and the clean-up bill.
This is not mere conjecture or scare-mongering. Just this week following the accident in 2010 in which the Shen Neng 1 cargo ship ran aground 100km east of Rockhampton on Douglas Shoal dumping polluting rubble into the reef – an out of court settlement was reached with the company Shenzhen Energy Transport Company for $39.3 million. That represents just one third of the $140 million the government had been seeking, and falls $100 million short of the estimated clean-up bill.
The Australian Conservation Foundation is currently in court appealing a case we initiated last year that placed a spotlight on the inadequacy of our environment laws. The court ruled that our national environment laws grant "the Minister, and the Minister alone" the right to ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence and come to the conclusion that 4.6 billion tonnes of climate pollution from the Adani Carmichael mine would have "no relevant impact" on the Great Barrier Reef.
Yes, accidents do happen Barnaby. But when it comes to protecting the Reef - strict rules and regulations are exactly what's missing. The difference between an innocent mistake and negligent catastrophe is what you do to prevent it. What is clear is that the Reef needs more careful attention and action from our Federal Government – and to have the Acting Prime Minister flippantly disregarding further potentially devastating impacts is way off key.
Resources and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg has stated that the Turnbull Government really has to make it "an absolute priority to protect the Reef." If that's true they need to take a serious look at fixing the laws in place to protect the Reef – and perhaps while they're at it have a word with our Acting Prime Minister who seems to be singing from a different song sheet.
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