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

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Besides, Mulder notes, coal is indispensable, providing 80 percent of electricity in Australia and China, 57 percent in India and 42 percent worldwide. "What sort of a society would we have without electricity?" Mulder asks. He says it is unfair of the anti-coal activists to deprive the "poor people in the Third World" of the kind of comfortable life they themselves enjoy.

Those who would obstruct the coal industry, according to Mulder's logic, are merely granting other resource-rich countries a competitive advantage, thereby weakening the Australian economy. As such, he explains, it is necessary for the government to eliminate bureaucratic hurdles and simplify approval procedures. The men in the room nod in agreement.

No Regulation, No Taxes

Mulder's words offer an insight into the mindset of his boss, the richest person in Australia and, depending on what happens to commodity prices, perhaps in the entire world soon -- a woman who wants people to see things her way. Gina Rinehart, 59, heir to the Hancock Prospecting mining empire, is worth about €23 billion. Rinehart doesn't speak with journalists but does pay some of their salaries. In addition to coal mining, she is also a major shareholder in Australia's leading media company, Fairfax Media Limited. And she is on the board of a television network group.

Her vision is a radical one: She wants an Australia in which the interests of the extractive industry are paramount, a place with little regulation, no taxes on natural resources or CO2, but massive numbers of low-wage guest workers from Asia, so that planned mega-projects can be implemented as quickly as possible. Rinehart uses her money and influence to make the voices of climate change deniers heard, and she has developed a following of like-minded billionaires and politicians. One of her fans is opposition leader Tony Abbott, who polls suggest could win the September election to become the next prime minister.

Abbott, the leader of the center-right Liberal Party, has characterized scientific conclusions about climate change as "absolute crap" and he successfully fought a planned special tax for the mining industry. Abbott has said that if he wins the election he will immediately abolish the CO2 tax introduced last year.

Wayne Swan, finance minister in the current Labor government, has called Rinehart and those who are like-minded a threat to democracy.

Is the Great Barrier Reef the price Australia will have to pay if Rinehart's worldview prevails?

Do Not Feed the Animals

Visitors to the natural wonder must first travel to Cairns, 1,350 kilometers north of Brisbane. The city's downtown area is filled with restaurants, souvenir shops and travel agencies. There are various ways to reach the reef: by sea, on multi-deck ships or sailboats, or by air, with small planes or helicopters that take passengers to islands or floating platforms above the reef. Once there, visitors can dive, snorkel or walk along the sea floor wearing a device that looks like an astronaut's helmet. There are warnings everywhere, admonishing visitors not to step on coral, feed animals, litter, use soap or urinate into the water.

Pale staghorn coral towers above the sea floor like a forest of bones, interspersed with sponge-like stony corals, large chunks of centuries-old coral and fat sea cucumbers resting on sandy spots. Schools of blue-and-white, yellow and striped fish swim past, and occasionally a larger fish peeps out from the forest of coral.

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