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Australia Is Letting the Great Barrier Reef Die Over a Lot of Coal

The Great Barrier Reef is dying, and only politicians can save it.

If there was one thing Australia could've done to save the Great Barrier Reef, it would've been to block the development of the country's largest coal mine, which its state government approved with resounding confidence this week.

The Great Barrier Reef, true to its name, is the most expansive reef ecosystem in the world. It's the largest living organism on the entire planet, and is so big we can actually see it from outer space. Remember the Seven Natural Wonders of the World? It's one of those, too.

But its vast size will not keep it from dying—which it is—at an astounding rate, thanks to humans.

Aerial view of part of the Great Barrier Reef. Image: World Wildlife Fund

Recent aerial and underwater surveys of the Great Barrier Reef showed that 95 percent of its northernmost quarter now shows signs of the "worst bleaching ever." This is extremely bad. Coral bleaching is akin to some environmental force stripping away your skin, weakening your skeleton, and preventing you from ever being able to grow back either. Large barrier reefs can take anywhere from 100,000 to 30,000,000 years to fully form, but potentially-deadly bleaching can occur over a matter of a single, record-hot summer.

The good thing? The cause of the Great Barrier Reef's illness is clear, and we know what we'd need to do to keep it from getting any sicker. The bad thing? Australia's government just delivered the reef a poison pill.

Earth's oceans have reached their boiling point

Anthropogenic climate change, a result of unprecedented fossil fuel consumption, is heating up the surface of Earth's oceans with such intensity that current charts can't even accommodate the breadth of this new data. Fossil fuels are releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than ever before and oceans are absorbing that excess CO2 like a giant sponge, lowering the pH of the water and causing chemical reactions that result in harmful acidification.

Scientists have been watching reef ecosystems around the globe whither and die since the 1970s. But it wasn't until history's largest known coral bleaching event was observed in 1998—a phenomenon that led to the death of 16 percent of the world's reefs and coincided with record high sea surface temperatures—that biologists and climatologists were finally able to connect the dots.

So when Indian mining behemoth Adani submitted its request for a $22 billion coal mining venture, what began was a battle between lawmakers, energy tycoons, and environmentalists over the future of one of the world's largest untapped coal reserves and Australia's most beloved natural treasure.

Map of the proposed Carmichael coal line. Image: Adani

Located just shy of 250 miles from the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland's Galilee Basin, the Carmichael thermal coal mine will be one of the largest in the world. It will produce 60 million tons of coal per year, and is projected to deliver 2.3 billion tons over the course of 60 years.

In terms of atmospheric pollution, the Carmichael coal mine will release more fossil fuel emissions per year than all of New York City and four times as much as Australia's neighbor New Zealand. Compared to some of the most industrialized cities in the world, the mine's annual emissions will be twice as much as those coming out of Berlin, Tokyo, and Seoul, and will produce significantly more CO2 than Paris and Toronto, according to a report by the Australia Institute.

What biologists have long-feared, however, is not only the tons of fossil fuel emissions the mine will release into the atmosphere every year. It's the giant, unavoidable footprint the entire project will leave on face of Australia's environment.

A breakdown of environmental blows

From the mining quarry to the Great Barrier Reef's frontdoor, the Adani coal project will deliver harmful environmental impacts at every step along the way.

A statement from Australian Government's Department of the Environment highlights concerns over the mining project's impacts on local groundwater and other water resources; threatened native wildlife like the black throated finch and their key habitat areas; public safety, and indigenous heritage.

When questioned about the potential threats to the Great Barrier Reef, officials assured the ecosystem will suffer no direct harm, and that 36 strict environmental regulations will be put in place before the project can commence. The Queensland Government has said it will enforce measures to protect water quality and prevent sediment and sewage runoff. In regards to greenhouse gas emissions, it has ensured that Carmichael mine operators have "committed to implement a range of measures relating to energy efficiency and consumption" that will minimize the release of fossil fuels.

However, conservation groups like the Australian Institute of Marine Science disagree with the assurances that current regulations will safeguard the Great Barrier Reef from further harm. According to their researchers, "water quality targets—set out in the Reef 2050 Plan and aimed at warding off a UNESCO decision to list the reef as in danger—would likely not be met under existing policies dealing with land-based pollution."

Environmentalists are right to be concerned. The Carmichael mine would launch an attack on the Great Barrier Reef from all fronts.

Coral formations on the Great Barrier Reef. Image: Flickr/Kyle Taylor

After coal is extracted from the Galilee Basin mine, it will travel by rail more than 400 miles to the Queensland coastline. According to Australia's own Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, dust emissions from coal trains present scores of health and environmental risks that require the enforcement of strict operational procedures to minimize. Coal trains are significant sources of air pollution, and for this reason have been heavily opposed by Australian environmental watchdog groups.

The mine would also require a massive expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal in northern Queensland, making it the largest in the world. The terminal would allow coal from the Carmichael mine to be exported overseas to India, but only after more than 38 million cubic feet of soil are dredged from the ocean floor. With an astonishing lack of foresight, the Queensland government had originally proposed to dump the dredge spoil onto the Great Barrier Reef, but the decision was overturned after pushback from conservation groups.

Still, Abbot Point is too close to the Great Barrier Reef for comfort. The site is located just 11 miles from the nearest coral shelf, and dredge spoil contamination, which filters sunlight out of the water and suffocates healthy reefs, has already been linked to coral disease and die-offs in the wild.

"We know there are turtle nesting beaches, there are dugongs, there are snub fin dolphins, there are thousands of endangered birds," said a World Wildlife Fund spokesperson of the Abbot Point terminal. "This is a very high conservation area and it's not an appropriate site for dredging or a coal port development."

It doesn't end there, either. One of the most immediately damaging components of the Carmichael project will be the transportation of coal directly through the Great Barrier Reef itself. A proposed "Terminal 0" shipping route would be created by dredging more than 35 million cubic feet of sea-bed within the reef area to create deep enough channels for cargo ships to pass through on their way to India.

In Australia's Department of Environment's approval of the Terminal 0 proposal, it acknowledged the shipping channel could disrupt breeding habitats for threatened turtle species and whales; contribute to artificial light pollution; create underwater drilling and seismic noise pollution; interfere with humpback whale migration; and kill marine species when ships inevitably collide with them.

Humpback whale. Image: Flickr/Sylke Rohrlach

One might think environmental protection officials would have proceeded with more caution after the carrier ship Shen Neng 1, carrying 65,000 tons of coal from Australia to China, accidentally grounded itself on the Great Barrier Reef in 2010, spilling its cargo overboard and resulting in a $34 million clean up effort. But history may be bound to repeat itself. Almost five years after the collision, very little coral has regrown throughout the 4 million square foot "scar" inflicted by the ship, and chemical runoff still persists in the area.

The Great Barrier Reef's future is murky

Since 2010, environmentalists have been fighting tirelessly to lobby against and block the massive mining project. Conservation groups like the Australian Conservation Foundation are still challenging the decision in court, but the Queensland Government's recent vote in favor of the mine successfully removed one of the final hurdles Adani needed to clear to move forward with production.

"We're arguing that federal ministers failed to properly consider the impact of climate pollution from burning coal on the Great Barrier Reef. Our court case challenging this federal approval is a critical part of how we're seeking to stop the mine," Basha Stasak, the Australian Conservation Foundation's Carmichael coal mine case leader, told me.

Adani has counter-argued that the mine will create up to 10,000 jobs and generate millions in state revenue, which are benefits that overshadow the project's potential environmental impacts. The coal company has also appealed to government officials in Australia on a humanitarian level by citing claims that Carmichael coal power will be a necessarily evil if Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to bring electricity to the hundreds of millions of Indians who are currently living off the grid.

The future of Carmichael coal now passes to private investors who must decide whether or not they'll fund the multi-billion dollar venture. Some green advocacy groups like Greenpeace argue that this is where the project will meet its end.

"International investors have shunned Carmichael because funding it would be a major financial risk. It would be senseless for the Queensland or federal governments to throw any money into a project that makes no economic sense and would further threaten our fragile reef," said Shani Tager, Greenpeace's Pacific reef campaign manager, in a statement.

But as of this week, it appears the project is still looking financially feasible. Adani is now "seeking to secure finance through Australia's Future Fund, and [Australian bank] Westpac has not ruled out providing finance for the project," said Stasak.

For now, the survival of the Great Barrier Reef, an ancient and resilient organism born half a million years ago at the end of the last ice age, hangs in the balance. Whether or not it will be snuffed out in just a fraction of that time by our unsustainable need for power is currently unknown. But allowing Earth's mightiest life form to decay and die would certainly be a mighty shame on our species.