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August 05, 2013

Shark Attack! Coal threatens sharks in the Great Barrier Reef

UPDATE (8/9/13): For a second time, the Australian government has delayed a final decision on dredging within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Site to build one of the world's largest coal terminals, claiming it needs more information before moving forward. Once again, coal projects are showing themselves to be much riskier investments than the industry claims. Additionally, the World Heritage Committee has expressed suprise that they were not informed of the plan to dredge within the World Heritage Site, and has told the government the plan should be put on hold.

UPDATE (8/8/13): 
Austrialia's Environment Minister Mark Butler has decided to postpone by almost three months a decision on Kevin's Corner, one of the two mega coal mines with connections to the U.S. Export Import Bank. This is a victory because it's yet another delay for dangerous export projects that have struggled greatly as global financiers have begun to end support, but it might be too soon to celebrate. On Friday, Minister Butler will decide whether or not to allow millions of tons of coal dredging to move forward within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Site to build the world's largest coal export terminal, Abbot Point. This week's decision on Kevin's Corner sends a strong message that the risks of dangerous coal projects must be taken into account, and we hope Minister Butler reaffirms this message on Friday.

Photo Credit: Jon Connell

If you own a television set, computer, smartphone, or any other form of technology, you probably know it’s Shark Week, Discovery’s celebration of the fanged fish and America’s favorite time to indulge in shark-related television.

But in between viewings of “Sharknado” and “Sharkpocalypse,” let’s take a minute to think about what life would be like without these fascinating creatures. Not only would there be no summer Shark Week binge-fests, but whole ecological systems would fall apart.

Take the Great Barrier Reef, for example.

For years, the Great Barrier Reef has inspired awe for its rich ecological diversity and the natural beauty of its coral reefs, which are home to over 134 species of sharks and rays. Such wonder motivated UNESCO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, to proclaim it as “the first ocean region” on the list of its World Heritage sites in 1981. But while sharks once ruled in the reef, today it’s people that pose the greatest threat to this natural wonder’s many species, great and small. Fossil fuel corporations and parts of the Australian government are pushing plans to start massive coal mining in the country’s interior, and then dredge within the Reef to build new terminals for export.

Expended coal ports and shipping will wreak havoc on the Reef, which is already threatened by climate disruption, and burning more coal will only make the climate crisis even worse. Should the Australian government approve such plans, the World Heritage Committee has warned it could put the Reef on its “in danger” list, something Members of Parliament acknowledge would be “a total embarrassment” for the country.

GBRgraphicBut a coal export facility in the middle of the reef isn’t just some crazy scheme cooked up by cartoonish villains. Media reports claim the U.S. government, specifically the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im), is preparing to step in and help finance the efforts of two Indian conglomerates, Adani and GVK, to open up Australia’s Galilee Basin to coal. If the Galilee Basin plans go through, it could lead to 10,000 ships loaded with toxic coal passing through the Great Barrier Reef every year, as well as releasing 200 million cars worth of pollution. If Ex-Im approves these projects, it would go against the spirit of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan -- in which he pledged to end public financing of overseas coal -- and would  be a step back for Ex-Im after they recently rejected financing a coal plant in Vietnam.

Not only does the Reef’s fate portend a tragic, embarrassing day for Australia, it does not even make financial sense. While voices within the coal industry contend that blocking coal port projects would put Australia at a disadvantage, economic researchers indicate the exact opposite. Consider the Alpha coal mine, port and rail project, for which Australian rail operator AURIZON has been working with GVK to secure billions in financing. The US-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) released a report in June and called the project "a quagmire, not an investment."

Simply too much is at stake for the Australian government to approve more destructive coal projects, let alone for the U.S. government to finance them with our tax dollars.

So this Shark Week (during commercial breaks, of course), stand up for cat sharks and wobbegongs, tiger sharks and hammerheads, and all the other sharks that call the Great Barrier Reef home.

Help restore sharks to their natural place as the Reef’s top predators by sharing this graphic on Facebook and tweeting at Export-Import Bank President Fred Hochberg (@fredhochberg) and telling him to #SaveTheReef this #SharkWeek.

--Chris Chaulk, Sierra Club International Campaign Intern


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