New battlefront opens up in gas debate
The battle to protect Australia's terrestrial environment from feared effects of coal seam gas (CSG) mining is at fever pitch.
Some farmers are locking mining companies off their land in gas-rich parts of the country, amid deep concern over the potential effects of CSG mining on underground water stores.
A Senate inquiry into the industry's impacts is due to report back on November 30, after heated hearings that resulted in green groups and farmers painting dire scenarios about the fallout for the agriculture, food security, and the environment.
Economically, and politically, much is at stake.
The fortunes of the national economy are inexorably tied to an industry that will help make Australia the second largest supplier of natural gas by 2015.
The same is true for gas-rich, debt-burdened Queensland, which is heavily reliant on the economic jolt the CSG industry promises to deliver to pull itself out of trouble and regain its AAA credit rating.
But as both levels of government wave the CSG flag - tens of billions in revenue, exports and investment, and some 20,000 jobs - the battle for community acceptance is far from won and a new battle front has opened up as attention turns to potential marine impacts.
The issue was brought into sharp focus earlier this year when the federal government was forced to defend itself against international criticism that it could be putting an icon of global significance at risk.
In an extraordinary rebuke, the United Nations' environmental arm, UNESCO, said the government had failed to tell it about approvals for three gas processing plants being built on Curtis Island off Gladstone, the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef.
UNESCO said the government's failure was a breach of World Heritage guidelines and expressed extreme concern about the federal and Queensland, governments' backing of the plants.
The projects, it said, could affect the "overall universal value" of the reef and in light of the potential threat, UNESCO will soon dispatch what it calls a reactive monitoring mission to scrutinise conservation efforts.
Green groups say too little attention has been focused on the marine impacts of the industry in a classic case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. But they hope the UNESCO visit will change that.
Of primary concern is a vast dredging program associated with the construction of the three Curtis Island plants, which are located inside the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area.
The three plants will convert CSG, piped from the Bowen and Surat basins in Queensland's southeast, into liquefied natural gas (LNG) for export.
Three different companies are each building their own terrestrial and marine pipelines from the gas fields, the processing plant, and the wharf facilities where LNG ships will load.
A fourth project, that will mirror the initial three, is well advanced.
The gas companies - and the Gladstone Ports Corporation granted approvals to do the dredging work - say they've been required to undertake exhaustive environmental impact studies to gain state and federal approvals, resulting in literally thousands of environmental conditions.
They say everything possible is being done to limit terrestrial and marine impacts, and to offset unavoidable damage by offering up other "like" sites for protection or cash payments for ongoing environmental research.
Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke has defended the environmental checks and balances applied to the projects, and says the UNESCO mission is welcome.
He says UNESCO delegates will see for themselves the rigorous protections that are in place for the reef.
He also points to a federal and Queensland government agreement to carry out a broad, strategic assessment for the reef, to ensure future development is sustainable.
But environment group WWF is unconvinced and says it's deeply concerned about the effects the dredging work will have on marine life around Curtis Island.
The Gladstone Ports Corporation (GPC) has approvals to dredge 46 million cubic metres from within the harbour boundaries, inside the World Heritage area, over the next 20 years.
That's a volume equivalent to 27 Melbourne Cricket Grounds.
It includes 25 million cubic metres directly related to the LNG projects on Curtis Island, with the vast majority of dredge spoils to be dumped within the World Heritage area.
WWF spokesman Sean Hoobin says briefings from Queensland's Department of Environment and Resource Management have shown there will be significant impacts on seagrass beds that support threatened dugong, turtles and the rare Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin.
"From the figures we've been provided for the Western Basin (Dredging and Disposal) project, 445 hectares of seagrass will be directly impacted on - that is being dredged or through soil being dumped," he told reporters.
"But there could also be indirect impacts for 1400 hectares due to increased turbidity, and light reduction."
He says that's a dire outcome given the pounding seagrass beds took along the Queensland coast after January's floods and Cyclone Yasi, and previous cyclone events.
"This assessment happened prior to the floods, which have put seagrass beds under significant stress and there's been mortality," Hoobin says.
"We have serious questions about the validity of the environmental impact statement (for the dredging works) given what's happened with the floods."
He says it speaks volumes that the dredging was allowed to begin well before a biodiversity offset strategy - that is, measures to offset dredging effects - had to be submitted.
Hoobin said the federal government had frequently spoken of the comprehensive approach being taken to ensure no long-term damage was done to the marine environment.
"I'd say that's highly questionable," he said.
"They've allowed this dredging work to start without having the very measures in place that are supposed to offset the impacts. I'm not sure how that meets with a comprehensive commitment to the environment."
The Australian Greens have been the loudest political voice on the issue, demanding a moratorium on new CSG projects - and a suspension of the Gladstone Harbour dredging - until more is known about the industry's terrestrial and marine impacts.
Greens Senator for Queensland Larissa Waters, who is an environmental lawyer, says she's staggered the Gladstone Ports Corporation has been allowed to dredge such enormous amounts of material, potentially contaminated by decades of heavy industry around Gladstone, and that it's being dumped inside the World Heritage area.
"That's approved, but how on earth did that get approved?," she told reporters, adding the government would have some tough questions to answer when the UNESCO mission arrived later this year.
"The state and federal governments are turning this part of the World Heritage area into a dredge dump and a coal and gas highway."
For his part, Gladstone Ports Corporation chief executive Leo Zussino resents the inference that because something is happening inside the World Heritage area, it's a threat to the Great Barrier Reef.
He said it was important to note that every major port in Queensland, bar Bundaberg and Brisbane, was within the World Heritage area.
"We shouldn't confuse the World Heritage area with World Heritage values that were to be protected, which is the Great Barrier Reef," he told reporters earlier this month.
"The Great Barrier Reef doesn't come into Gladstone Harbour, nor does the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
"The fact is we've been building facilities over the `90s and in the last decade in Gladstone Harbour, and no one's ever made an issue of it. Suddenly there's shock, horror - people are building things in the World Heritage area."
He said the issue was whether the processing plants being built on Curtis Island, and associated dredging, were going to have a detrimental impact on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
"Obviously it's been a condition so it doesn't," he says, and points to an intensive water quality monitoring program in the harbour.
But community fears about the environmental legacy of the industry are palpable.
When sick fish, with skin lesions and cloudy eyes, began turning up in Gladstone Harbour in September, some fishermen whose livelihoods were hit by a temporary fishing ban immediately blamed gas-related dredging for stirring up contaminants.
A review of data later confirmed dredging in Gladstone Harbour had not significantly affected water quality and was not making fish sick. Authorities suspect red-spot disease, found along Australia's east coast, and a parasite are to blame.
But that hasn't put a lid on community angst, with some fishermen continuing to blame the dredging, and the Queensland Seafood Industry Association describing what's happening in Gladstone as an environmental disaster, with water quality so poor there's little for fishermen to catch.
Gladstone Mayor Gail Sellers says the vast majority of locals support the CSG/LNG industry, and the economic opportunities it offers.
"We're an industrial community and we welcome industry. Gladstone people can see a future here for their kids because we've got training and jobs," she says.
But she warns of a tipping point if the harbour's health is ever compromised.
"We all fish, we all go out on the harbour ... we're very much sea people. If the harbour were to close permanently, that might be something else."
"But at the moment I think the people are still comfortable with the level of development and that the majority of people are still pro-industry."
Mark Macfarlane, who is responsible for delivering the GLNG project in Queensland, admits the industry is facing a battle for hearts and minds, and the suspicion over the ports corporation's dredging work has presented another challenge.
He says all he can do is point to the fact that Santos, a shareholder in the project, has been safely exploring and developing oil and gas resources in Australia for more than half a century, to the raft of benefits the GLNG project offers, and to the measures being taken to address social and environmental effects.
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