'Death By a Thousand Cuts': Coal Boom Could Destroy Great Barrier Reef

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Mining companies have dug enormous open-pit mines in the country's interior, creating moonscapes covering a total of hundreds of square kilometers. Analysts also expect that in a few years Australia will produce more natural gas than Qatar, currently the world's largest exporter. Much of Australia's coal and natural gas reserves are in Queensland.

Coal from Australia, most of which is burned in Asia, is fueling climate change, which in turn is detrimental to the reefs. International energy companies are investing many billions of dollars in new mega-mines and infrastructure projects.

To double its coal exports, Australia is deepening and expanding ports, or building new ones, even in previously untouched protected areas. The silt from excavation is dumped into the ocean, polluting the reef.

'We Are in the Coal Business'

If all goes according to plan, twice as many freighters could soon be passing through the World Heritage site than do so today. And with increased traffic comes an increased risk of accidents such as the one three years ago which saw a Chinese freighter crash into the reef.

UNESCO is particularly alarmed about the plans of mine operators, which have also sparked growing resistance among scientists and environmentalists. The environment organization Greenpeace is collecting signatures to support a campaign of "civil disobedience to stop coal exports from Australia." In April, activists occupied a ship loaded with coal bound for South Korea.

"We are in the coal business," Queensland Prime Minister Campbell Newman said in response to UNESCO criticism. "If you want decent hospitals, schools and police on the beat, we all need to understand that."

But if current trends continue, the unthinkable could happen: the Great Barrier Reef could die.

The reef looks endless when seen from the vantage point of a helicopter. The ocean shimmers in every shade of blue, turning clear and turquoise-colored where the coral grows. Clouds cast dramatic shadows onto the water.

Of course the reef is near and dear to him, says Environment Minister Powell. "We wouldn't be Queensland without the Great Barrier Reef at our doorstep." The reef generates close to €5 billion ($6.5 billion) a year for the local tourism industry.

Powell has five children, he says. The youngest is three and the eldest 10, "and I want to leave them the Great Barrier Reef in better condition than it's in today." But the real question is what will remain of the Great Barrier Reef when Powell's children are adults.

"Our government was voted into office with the mandate to stimulate the economy," says the environment minister. "That's why we support the mining industry, construction and agriculture, as well as tourism."

And the reef?

Role Model Australia?

In keeping with UNESCO's wishes, Queensland is currently working on a strategy to develop its coastline in an environmentally sustainable way, says Powell. The national government in Canberra, he adds, is also developing plans for a marine park off the coast. The government expects to complete the overall concept to save the reef and present it to UNESCO by 2015, Powell explains.

Canberra will invest $200 million in the next five years to reduce pollution from agriculture and fight the coral-eating starfish. Queensland is contributing $35 million a year to the effort.

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