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The Stuart shale oil project: will it be Beattie's Ningaloo or his Waterloo?

By Gareth Walton - posted Friday, 15 August 2003

A month ago, the Premier of Western Australia, Geoff Gallop, took a significant step on the road towards sustainability. He rejected the development of an ecologically insensitive marina at the spectacular and largely pristine Ningaloo Reef and started work on a plan for low-impact development at the site.

Premier Gallop's decision was not just about environmental protection. It was also about long-term economics. It was also about long-term jobs. And it was about simple common sense. Why spend millions of dollars developing a tourist site in a way that damages the very thing people are coming to see?

With an election due in less than a year and with the Greens polling well in recent federal and state elections, Premier Beattie is watching the green vote.


The land-clearing deal he reached with the Prime Minister is a step in the right direction and one worthy of praise. Not only will it slow the progress of salinity across the country and protect remaining wildlife, but it will also reduce Australia's greenhouse emissions.

Now the Queensland government has a decision to make that will show whether it is serious about sustainability, or just after a green sheen. It has to decide whether to approve or reject the proposed expansion of the Stuart Shale Oil Project near Gladstone.

The Stuart Project, operated by Southern Pacific Petroleum (SPP), is an experimental attempt to produce oil from shale rock. The plant has significant environmental problems, such as releasing highly toxic dioxins and making local people sick with noxious fumes.

Greenhouse pollution from the production of shale oil is nearly four times higher than from normal oil and SPP refuses to publicly release any evidence to prove its claim that it can reduce shale oil's greenhouse pollution to 5 per cent below normal oil.

Even if SPP could reduce shale oil's greenhouse pollution to the level it claims, if SPP developed all of its shale oil deposits in Australia, as it wants to do, it would at least double Australia's greenhouse emissions! Yet scientists, such as the CSIRO, say that we must reduce our emissions by 50-85 per cent by 2050 if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Scientists also tell us that we are already seeing the impacts of climate change in extreme weather events around the world such as our recent devastating drought, deadly heat waves in Europe and India and record numbers of tornadoes in North America. These disasters cost us economically and socially, as well as damaging the environment. And scientists say they will get worse unless we significantly reduce greenhouse emissions.


For Queensland, one of the most worrying impacts of climate change is coral bleaching caused by rising ocean temperatures. The Great Barrier Reef has seen more frequent and intense bleaching events in recent years, with 1998 and then 2002 seeing the worst bleaching every recorded on the Reef. Further bleaching of the magnitude we would see without significant reductions in greenhouse emissions would lose Queensland billions of dollars in tourist revenue every year, as well as being an environmental tragedy.

This terrible prospect was highlighted yesterday in a report released by the Queensland Department of Natural Resources. The report, Global Climate Change and Coral Bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef concluded that "the appearance of coral reefs and thus their amenity for tourism may be seriously compromised, and their productivity and biodiversity decimated".

This conclusion led Premier Beattie to state "increasing global greenhouse gas production could lead to more extensive coral deaths, diminish the reef's biodiversity, and put at risk industries such as tourism and fishing".

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About the Author

Gareth Walton is a climate campaigner with Greenpeace Australia.

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