Australian environmental minister Greg Hunt on Monday approved the expansion of a coal terminal in Abbot Point in northern Queensland, a decision which prompted backlash from green groups who said the port poses a grave risk to the Great Barrier Reef.
Despite the country's pledge to reduce carbon emissions, the approval means Abbot Point is on track to become one of the world's biggest coal ports, servicing projects planned for the Galilee Basin—including the controversial $16 billion Carmichael mine proposed by Indian energy giant Adani, which in recent months was abandoned by nearly all of its financiers over climate concerns.
"It's disappointing that the Minister has approved this project within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, despite the damage it will do," said World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Australia Reef campaigner Louise Matthiesson.
Hunt granted the approval on 29 conditions, including that the 1.1 million cubic meters of waste material expected to be dredged from the site be disposed of on existing industrial land and not contaminate the surrounding marine area—but environmentalists warned that the land marked for that purpose lies just outside of wetlands that are home to thousands of migratory birds.
Moreover, said Greenpeace Australia, the Queensland government is breaking a key campaign promise in approving the expansion.
"This approval to dredge is not only irresponsible for the reef, it's illogical and it's unnecessary," said Greenpeace reef campaigner Shani Tager.
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Even if the project's backers can guarantee that the dredge material will be disposed of under Hunt's conditions, opponents said, the environmental impact still threatens to be devastating.
"Thousands of tonnes of seafloor will be torn up and dumped next to the internationally significant Caley Valley wetlands. Sea grasses which feed dugongs and turtles will be torn up for the coal industry," Imogen Zethoven of the Australian Marine Conservation Society told the Guardian. "Hundreds more coal ships will [plow] through the reef every year."
Moira Williams, community campaigner with the advocacy group 350.org, said Monday, "It's ludicrous that Hunt has [approved] a project which has no money, no social license, is universally hated, will wreck one of the greatest wonders of the natural world and which has been rejected by most of the world's largest banks."
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull earlier this month pledged his support for the climate deal finalized at the COP21 summit in Paris. At the time, Hunt said it was "the most important international environment agreement the world has ever had" and would put "very significant pressure on countries that are on track to fail with their targets."
"The Turnbull government can’t seriously sign on to deals which limit climate damage to 2 degrees and then give a green light to massive coal export projects which guarantee that the 2 degree target can never be met," Williams said. "With coal prices at an all time low, support for climate action and protecting the Great Barrier Reef at an all time high, the Turnbull government is treading a dangerous line in approving this climate and reef-wrecking mega coal project. Their actions will come back to bite them at the ballot box next year."