'Death By a Thousand Cuts' Coal Boom Could Destroy Great Barrier Reef
Part 2: The Coal Industry's Perfect World
On a May afternoon, several hundred members of the Mining & Energy Services Council of Australia, an interest group representing the mining industry, meet at a golf club in the upscale Brisbane suburb of St. Lucia. Except for a few employees handing out name cards, the room is almost entirely filled with men.
They have come to listen to a speech by Paul Mulder, managing director for coal and infrastructure with the Australian-Indian energy giant GVK Hancock Coal. Mulder is there to present his current project: three new coal mines in Queensland's undeveloped Galilee Basin, together with a 500-kilometer rail line to the coast and a dedicated coal terminal.
While Mulder rattles off the superlatives of his project at the podium, a storm is brewing outside. Birds screech, and the wind howls through the windows, shaking the screens next to the podium. But Mulder, who is not tall but broad-shouldered, remains undaunted as he gets to the real subject of his presentation: The environmental activists who, as he claims, are damaging Australia's economy.
"I see a bunch of these activists jumping up and down, saying that we are destroying the reef," says Mulder. "They have no idea what they're talking about." According to Mulder, storms, starfish and coral bleaching are the reasons the reef is suffering. His coal has nothing to do with it, he says.
Besides, Mulder notes, coal is indispensable, providing 80 percent of electricity in Australia and China, 57 percent in India and 42 percent worldwide. "What sort of a society would we have without electricity?" Mulder asks. He says it is unfair of the anti-coal activists to deprive the "poor people in the Third World" of the kind of comfortable life they themselves enjoy.
Those who would obstruct the coal industry, according to Mulder's logic, are merely granting other resource-rich countries a competitive advantage, thereby weakening the Australian economy. As such, he explains, it is necessary for the government to eliminate bureaucratic hurdles and simplify approval procedures. The men in the room nod in agreement.
No Regulation, No Taxes
Mulder's words offer an insight into the mindset of his boss, the richest person in Australia and, depending on what happens to commodity prices, perhaps in the entire world soon -- a woman who wants people to see things her way. Gina Rinehart, 59, heir to the Hancock Prospecting mining empire, is worth about 23 billion. Rinehart doesn't speak with journalists but does pay some of their salaries. In addition to coal mining, she is also a major shareholder in Australia's leading media company, Fairfax Media Limited. And she is on the board of a television network group.
Her vision is a radical one: She wants an Australia in which the interests of the extractive industry are paramount, a place with little regulation, no taxes on natural resources or CO2, but massive numbers of low-wage guest workers from Asia, so that planned mega-projects can be implemented as quickly as possible. Rinehart uses her money and influence to make the voices of climate change deniers heard, and she has developed a following of like-minded billionaires and politicians. One of her fans is opposition leader Tony Abbott, who polls suggest could win the September election to become the next prime minister.
Abbott, the leader of the center-right Liberal Party, has characterized scientific conclusions about climate change as "absolute crap" and he successfully fought a planned special tax for the mining industry. Abbott has said that if he wins the election he will immediately abolish the CO2 tax introduced last year.
Wayne Swan, finance minister in the current Labor government, has called Rinehart and those who are like-minded a threat to democracy.
Is the Great Barrier Reef the price Australia will have to pay if Rinehart's worldview prevails?
Do Not Feed the Animals
Visitors to the natural wonder must first travel to Cairns, 1,350 kilometers north of Brisbane. The city's downtown area is filled with restaurants, souvenir shops and travel agencies. There are various ways to reach the reef: by sea, on multi-deck ships or sailboats, or by air, with small planes or helicopters that take passengers to islands or floating platforms above the reef. Once there, visitors can dive, snorkel or walk along the sea floor wearing a device that looks like an astronaut's helmet. There are warnings everywhere, admonishing visitors not to step on coral, feed animals, litter, use soap or urinate into the water.
Pale staghorn coral towers above the sea floor like a forest of bones, interspersed with sponge-like stony corals, large chunks of centuries-old coral and fat sea cucumbers resting on sandy spots. Schools of blue-and-white, yellow and striped fish swim past, and occasionally a larger fish peeps out from the forest of coral.
Russell Reichelt, 59, is paid to ensure that everything remains as it is. Head of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, he has been tasked with investigating the impact of the natural resource boom. Reichelt is sitting in his office, with a view of the marina in Townsville, 300 kilometers south of Cairns. He looks at a map of the coast and says: "There's that old saying: death by a thousand cuts." He is referring to the deleterious effects of construction and pollution on the reef.
What Australia needs, says Reichelt, is a consensus that there is a breaking point for the reef that cannot be exceeded. "In my view, UNESCO's interest is welcome," says the reef administrator, "especially in this time of growing pressure."
For the time being, his staff is focused on fighting the invasion of coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish. The animals hide during the day, and at night they extrude their stomachs over the corals and digest them. To kill the starfish, divers inject multiple doses of sodium bisulfate into the middle of their bodies. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of the coral-eaters populate the reef, making the divers' work a Sisyphean task. But at least it represents something the conservationists can do to protect the reefs.
Drinking Binges and Brawls
The heart of the coal industry can be found between Townsville and Brisbane. The town of Gladstone consists of a port stretching for 30 kilometers along the coast, surrounded by power plants, coalfields, scrap heaps and flat-roofed buildings. The air is filled with the roar of machinery. Workers fly in and out of Gladstone, where the local paper reports on nightly drinking binges and brawls.
Jan Arens, 56, also works for the coal industry, as an engineer for a company that produces wastewater treatment chemicals. He can't stop thinking about the activities he has witnessed in his job. He claims that the industry dumps toxic substances into the ocean and ignores regulations. "We have laws to protect the environment, but we bend and break them wherever we can," says Arens, a big-boned man with the coarse hands of laborer. "I'm not against the industry, but I am against such dishonesty."
Two years ago, Arens founded the city's only environmental protection organization, the Gladstone Conservation Council. The group has about 50 members, he says. They distribute flyers and take out ads in the paper. But the response has been modest. "I want my children to be able to say one day that at least their old man tried to do something," says Arens.
Energy companies are currently investing $33 billion in new coal and gas projects around the port of Gladstone alone. The projects are scheduled for completion in 2015, which will coincide with the Australian's government's completion of its plan to save the reef.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Coal Boom Could Destroy Great Barrier Reef
- Part 2: The Coal Industry's Perfect World