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

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"I believe that we are doing everything we can to satisfy UNESCO's expectations," says Powell, leaning back in his chair. "Look, if Australia doesn't manage to have a healthy economy and simultaneously protect something as special as the Great Barrier Reef, who will?"

In this respect, Powell is right. Most tropical coral reefs are off the coasts of developing nations, whereas Australia is a prosperous country. In addition, climate change is not some abstract idea; the country has been suffering from the painful effects of global warming for some time. In other words, the Australians are in an ideal position to serve as role models.

"It would be a total embarrassment for us if the reef were placed on the list of World Heritage sites in danger," says Larissa Waters, 36. She isn't buying the environment minister's arguments. In her opinion, the government is being coopted by the extractive industry and isn't taking UNESCO's warnings seriously.

Waters is also a politician, though in a somewhat lonely position. She is the first and only member of the Green Party to be voted into the traditionally conservative Queensland Legislative Assembly. In office since 2010, she says that she hardly has any time left these days for issues other than the reef.

"UNESCO has concrete concerns that are simply being ignored," says Waters. "First, no ports in untouched regions; second, no port expansions that could impair the universal value of the reef; and third, a moratorium on port projects until 2015."

Her goal is to convince the state parliament to write UNESCO's recommendations into law. It's a futile struggle, and yet Waters remains optimistic. "I refuse to accept the idea that we will lose the reef," she says. "Australians have enough imagination and courage to prevent that from happening."

The Coal Industry's Perfect World On a May afternoon, several hundred members of the Mining & Energy Services Council of Australia, an interest group representing the mining industry, meet at a golf club in the upscale Brisbane suburb of St. Lucia. Except for a few employees handing out name cards, the room is almost entirely filled with men.

They have come to listen to a speech by Paul Mulder, managing director for coal and infrastructure with the Australian-Indian energy giant GVK Hancock Coal. Mulder is there to present his current project: three new coal mines in Queensland's undeveloped Galilee Basin, together with a 500-kilometer rail line to the coast and a dedicated coal terminal.

While Mulder rattles off the superlatives of his project at the podium, a storm is brewing outside. Birds screech, and the wind howls through the windows, shaking the screens next to the podium. But Mulder, who is not tall but broad-shouldered, remains undaunted as he gets to the real subject of his presentation: The environmental activists who, as he claims, are damaging Australia's economy.

"I see a bunch of these activists jumping up and down, saying that we are destroying the reef," says Mulder. "They have no idea what they're talking about." According to Mulder, storms, starfish and coral bleaching are the reasons the reef is suffering. His coal has nothing to do with it, he says.

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