The Queensland election on January 31 will significantly shape the future of the Great Barrier Reef and Australia’s greenhouse pollution levels in the coming decades. The Queensland government’s plans for nine new mega coal mines in the Galilee Basin, if advanced, would significantly increase Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions as well as risk serious environmental damage to the reef.

On the first point, current predictions suggest that within the Galilee Basin, the Carmichael mine alone could produce an extra 130 million tonnes of greenhouse gases over the mine’s lifetime – a quarter of Australia’s annual emissions. The pollution from the entire Galilee Basin, if all projects go ahead, will be more than Australia’s entire annual greenhouse gas pollution.

But even before we get to that stage, a plan that has just been referred to the federal environment minister would see two significant Queensland waterways – the Cape and Campaspe Rivers – diverted to supply water to coal mines in the Galilee Basin. Galilee Water Pty Ltd – a company chaired by Keith de Lacy, a former Queensland Treasurer and one of the men behind Cubbie Station – wants to extract up to 700 gigalitres from two rivers and channel it to dams to service mining operations as well as sell it to new irrigators. A proposal that would see a water storage almost one and a half times the size of Sydney harbour created in an area that gets approximately two metres of evaporation per year.

The mega coal mines are a throwback to the kind of frontier mentality that was fashionable in a bygone era when the likes of Lang Hancock and Joh Bjelke-Petersen called the shots

Here we see an example of the kind of frontier mentality that was fashionable in a bygone era when the likes of Lang Hancock and Joh Bjelke-Petersen called the shots. Does anyone remember Lang’s eagerness to nuke harbours in Western Australia to create deeper ports?  The river diversion plan taps into the same loopy, pig-headed man-over-nature logic.

Diverting rivers is no small operation. It is a dangerous high risk activity that has grave impacts on the ecology of the region, in particular for downstream ecosystems and species. In 2012 the Morwell River in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley literally collapsed into the Yallourn coal mine, despite so-called expert modelling predicting the diverted river would remain intact in all but a one-in-10,000 year flood.

The proposal, titled the Northern Water Infrastructure System, was referred to Environment Minister Greg Hunt under Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, just before Christmas. Along with the river diversions and 64km of open channels, it also includes a massive 5,500 hectare water storage and a 123 kilometre pipeline delivering water to the mines. Everything that is happening in the Galilee landscape is occurring on a huge scale. So large that the environmental values that occur in the area are often not adequately surveyed or well understood. The area of the proposed development, including water storage, pipeline and diversion channels, totals more than 7000 hectares and is potentially home to a range of nationally threatened species like the Yakka Skink, the Ornamental Snake and Black Throated Finch.

This whole ill-conceived plan is for rivers that once naturally flowed into the inshore areas of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, to be diverted to support coal mining and more intensive agricultural developments in the reef’s catchments. These types of facilitated developments are part of the reason that the Great Barrier Reef is being considered by UNESCO as Australia’s only world heritage site to be listed as ‘in danger’.

The most pressing and significant threat to the Great Barrier Reef is human driven climate change and its symptoms, mainly ocean acidification and warming ocean temperatures (which causes coral bleaching). This was confirmed in the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report published by the Government in 2014, which rated the risks to the reef from climate change as catastrophic. Despite our Foreign Minister’s ill-advised foray into this issue at last year’s G20, where she famously tried to contradict President Obama and the entire scientific community, she did get one thing kind of right – and that is after climate change a massive risk to the reef is nutrient run-off.

The heady days of cut it down, dig it up and dam it all are well and truly behind us

Research completed by WWF has shown that if the reef's catchments have an expansion in intensive agriculture as planned, nutrient loading in the reef's waters may increase by up to 500 per cent under current business practices. At the same time, the federal and Queensland governments are out spruiking their credentials and commitment to significantly reducing nutrient run-off and sediment loading in the reef, investing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars over the years to try and solve the problem. Enter the Northern Water Infrastructure System, which aims to either support climate damaging coal developments or more intensely irrigated agriculture in the reef's catchments.   

When making an initial decision on the proposed diversion of the Cape and Campaspe rivers in the coming weeks, the Federal Environment Minister must consider a range of impacts. This includes immediate impacts from land clearing and reductions in downstream flows, as well as impacts facilitated by the project, such as the development of new mines and intensification of agriculture. When taken together, it is possible to see that this proposal is going to have some very severe consequences for the environment in this region of Queensland and in particular, on the future of the Great Barrier Reef.

Impressively Minister Hunt stood up for the environment this week when he shot down a proposal put forward by the federal Department of Finance to sell off a large patch of endangered bushland at Malabar Headland in Sydney. To his credit, his actions were swift and decisive. He has a similar opportunity here. To demonstrate to Australians, UNESCO and the world that our government takes the health of our reef, our climate and our rapidly vanishing biodiversity seriously. And that the heady days of cut it down, dig it up and dam it all are well and truly behind us. Call me an optimist but one can always hope.


  • This article was originally published on SBS Online

James Trezise

Policy Analyst at the Australian Conservation Foundation.