Abbott Point approval misses the point by Sara Phillips

What point is an environmental assessment processes if it misses out one of the most pressing environmental issues?

NORTH OF BOWEN, where mangoes come from, is a port at a place called Abbot Point. Jutting out into the deep waters of the Coral Sea, the jetty can berth a pair of coal ships loading up with the lucrative cargo.

Just a bit inland of this port is an area known as the Galilee Basin. Under the scrubland is coal. Lots and lots of coal.

Naturally, miners would like to get at the resource. Various conglomerates, including Australia's own Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer, are negotiating leases for the area. And once they dig it up, they would like to export it.

So the company that runs the coal port at Abbot Point, Adani, has put in a proposal to expand. Last night, Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved the plan (pdf).

So far the response from environmentalists has been to focus on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Dredging spoil from the expansion will be dumped in the sea, within the boundary of the park.

Minister Hunt in his approval conditions focused on endangered animals, such as whales, dugongs and turtles, putting in provisions so they might not be harmed.

But amongst the various environmental concerns canvassed in his approval documentation, one was conspicuously absent: climate change.

Its absence is conspicuous because, as the port developers Adani note in their environmental impact statement, submitted to the government, "The current developments (proposed and approved) for port expansion will facilitate the export of coal, the combustion of which is recognised as a significant contributor to greenhouse gases and the global effects of climate change." (pdf)

Greenpeace estimates (pdf) if all the Galilee Basin mines hit their maximum potential, 705 million tonnes of CO2 will be released each year. For comparison, Australia's current annual emissions are in the order of 400 million tonnes.

Meanwhile, almost as many tonnes of hot air have been released by Australian politicians debating the merits of a carbon tax, which to date may have reduced Australia's annual emissions by 300,000 tonnes. That's just 0.04 per cent of the volume of greenhouse gases potentially released if the Galilee Basin mines reach full production.

Assessing the climate change impact of the proposal was a requirement of the process for Adani. In its environmental impact statement (pdf) it considered the effects of higher sea levels and of storms associated with a climate changed future.

However, it didn't consider the downstream effects of the coal passing through its port because, it said, two Federal Court cases over previous, unrelated projects, found that it wouldn't be necessary.

"[T]he need to consider the potential impact of greenhouse gas emissions on [matters of national environmental significance] arising from the mining, transport and use of coal under the EPBC Act has been tested by the Federal Court...In accordance with the outcome of both cases, this report focuses on an assessment of how port operations may interact with climate change..." (pdf)

In order to mitigate the effects of port operation on climate change, Adani proposes that it powers up with renewable energy: "Adani recognises that measures to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions through energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy technologies or low emissions materials make good business sense. Consequently Adani will commit to reducing GHG emissions through its procurement and operations practices."

The irony of a coal port being powered by solar aside, should we interpret this statement as meaning that we shouldn't worry about the 700 million tonnes of CO2 facilitated by this project because Adani will be buying recycled paper?

To be fair to Adani and Minister Hunt, the indirect climate change effects of this port development were not required to be considered in the environmental impact statement. The draft guidelines issued by the previous government back in July 2012 didn't ask for them to be considered (pdf).

It may seem a stretch to ask a port developer to consider the greenhouse gas emissions of a product it has merely loaded onto a ship, not dug up or burnt.

However at some point these factors need to be considered by both the developer and the government. Sure the port is only the transit lounge for coal destined for far-away power stations, but it is a key link in that chain. Without the port expansion, the exploitation of that resource, and subsequent climate impacts, would be slowed.

The intertwining of the operations of this enlarged port and climate change are impossible to ignore.

If not at the approval of Australia's largest coal port, then at what point does the government start to consider the ultimate ramifications of the coal being unlocked? All the conditions and care in the world won't prevent harm to the Great Barrier Reef if climate change is allowed to carry on unchecked.

Coral bleaching may seem unrelated to the departure of shipload of coal heading to China, but the connection is undeniable. The environmental approvals process designed to protect our natural assets is missing a key point.

Nimbin Environment Centre

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