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Amongst other things, Kate is a blogger and activist living in Sydney. Kate is passionate about environmental and social justice issues in Australia, particularly in tropical Queensland where she is lucky enough to visit regularly. She is excited about the grassroots campaigning movement in Australia and believes it’s the key to taking the power back from large corporations.

Risking it all – BP and the Great Australian Bight

This week a Senate inquiry was announced to investigate BP’s proposal to search for oil in the Great Australian Bight off South Australia.

The oil giant wants to drill four deep-water exploration wells in the ocean floor about 300 kilometres south west of Ceduna, believing the stocks to be of global significance.

Last November, BP’s first application was rejected by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environment Management Authority (NOPSEMA) for failing to meet environmental requirements. But NOPSEMA has given BP the opportunity to submit another application once it has worked on its environmental plan.

BP is currently preparing its second application so the Senate inquiry is good timing for the alliance of conservation and tourism groups campaigning to see the proposal rejected outright.

BP’s proposal to drill for oil under the ocean has major implications for the whole southern coast. Modelling by the Wilderness Society has shown that an oil spill in the Great Australian Bight would devastate the tourism and fishing industries in southern Australia, impacting most of the southern coastline.

The Great Australian Bight

The Great Australian Bight stretches along 1,160 kilometres of coastline, from pristine beaches to soaring cliffs across four States. It’s home to globally significant nurseries for the endangered southern right whale and Australian sea lion, and a foraging ground for blue whales. Eighty-five per cent of known marine species in the Bight are found nowhere else in the world making it a truly unique marine habitat.

“The Bight is one of the most significant whale nurseries in the world, it’s a marine wilderness that’s never been industrialised,” said Peter Owen, director of the Wilderness Society’s South Australia branch.

The Great Southern Bight also supports a huge commercial fishing and tourism industry, both of which rely on the pristine environment. The industries employ over 10,000 in South Australia and are worth about $1.6 billion to the economy.  

Seismic Testing

A key issue which has been raised is the seismic blasting which BP would perform in their initial search for oil.

Seismic testing is a controversial method of searching for oil and gas reserves using sound blasts. These surveys involve low-frequency, high-intensity sound pulses every few seconds, 24 hours a day, over a number of months which can travel for thousands of kilometres.

There is ongoing concern that this method of exploration could be harmful to marine mammals with whales, dolphins, sea turtles and commercial fish the key species set to be impacted by seismic blasts.

In 2014 the US Government released their findings in an Environmental Impact Statement. It found that the impact for marine mammals could be “moderate” with risks of physical injury and death, strandings, disruption to migration, feeding, reproduction, communication or other behaviours caused by the stress of seismic noise.

BP’s track record

Given BP’s appalling environmental track record it’s absurd that the proposal is being considered at all.

TWS_GAB_Email_Pelican_v22

We all remember the images from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster which crippled communities, destroyed ecosystems across the Gulf of Mexico, and killed 11 people. This, the worst marine oil spill in history, occurred only 6 years ago in 2010.

Millions of barrels of oil pumped out from the underwater well and could not be curbed for 87 days.

BP is facing a Mexican class action lawsuit over the Deepwater Horizon spill after failing to pay compensation to Mexico for the massive clean up bills following the disaster. Hundreds of coastal communities who rely on fishing and tourism saw their livelihoods destroyed, a legacy which continues.

BP affirms that any leak in the Great Australian Bight could be controlled within 35 days, despite internal documents revealing that equipment would need to be imported from Singapore and Houston to control the leak.

In 2006, BP pipelines spilled over 200,000 gallons of crude oil in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The disaster was caused by BP’s failure to properly maintain its pipelines as well as a failure to act on alarms indicating the pipes were leaking.

BP also has a shady history with the law. US investigators found that over a period of 5 years, BP admitted to breaking US environmental and safety laws, paying $373 million in fines to avoid prosecution.

BP’s abysmal track record far outweighs other oil companies operating in the US with its refineries in Texas and Ohio accounting for 97% of violations handed out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. These violations are handed out when a company shows “intentional disregard for the requirements of the [law], or showed plain indifference to employee safety and health.

Environmental track record aside, BP is in serious financial trouble as economies move away from fossil fuel. Earlier this month BP recorded record losses of $6.5 billion and shed 7,000 jobs globally. King Oil is dying and won’t return.

Risking it all

The fossil fuel industry believes it can safely operate in the region. But given that only 6 years ago BP was responsible for the worst marine oil spill in history, should we really be trusting them?

The ability of the regulatory body NOPSEMA has been called into question with Senator Nick Xenophon arguing that a proposal on such scale is a matter for the Department for the Environment. There is also a question of impartiality. NOPSEMA chairman Keith Spence spent over 30 years in the oil and gas industry and many of the board have ties to the fossil fuel industry. There are no representatives from conservation or environmental NGOs which is of great concern.

BP believes that the risk of a disaster, and any oil reaching the coast is “relatively low”. Is that a risk we really want to take?

 

Cape York in Crisis

Once again Cape York is in crisis.

Tens of thousands of hectares of native bushland are being cleared on Cape York on a scale not seen since the Bjelke-Petersen years. The aim is to open up the region to high-value agriculture in a bid to boost the struggling economy of the Cape.

The controversial approvals were quietly granted by the Queensland LNP government on January 20th just 11 days before they were voted out in a landslide defeat, and without any environmental impact assessment by the commonwealth.

It’s a horrible deja-vu.

Tim Seelig of the Wilderness Society said the timing of the decision raises serious concerns about the politics involved, “coming just a few days before the outcome of the election was known.”

Changes to land clearing legislation

The incoming Labor government inherited the weakened laws around tree-clearing from the LNP government, who made changes to the Vegetation Management Act in 2013. The amendments made it easier for farmers to clear native bush for high-value agriculture, no longer needing to apply to the Department of Natural Resources for permission.

The 2013 changes were strongly opposed by environmental groups, calling it “the biggest roll-back of environmental protection in Australia’s history”. It was also opposed by the opposition Labor government with Jo-Ann Miller saying, “The Newman Government will be back on its D9s, back on its big machinery, ripping the guts out of Queensland.”

In the lead up to the 2015 election the Labor government had campaigned to tighten restrictions on clearing, but since coming into office in February have done very little to act.

Olive Vale Station

90km west of Cooktown on the Laura River lies Olive Vale Station. Previously owned by Leichhardt MP Warren Entsch, the 136,000 hectare cattle station is now run by Ryan Global.

With almost 32,000 hectares approved for destruction, more than any other property on the Cape, Olive Vale is now the centre of an investigation into the questionable approvals process.

The bulldozers quickly moved in with clear-felling taking place an unprecedented scale to make way for commercial trials of high-value crops like rice, sorghum and chickpeas. Owners Ryan Global also hope to increase their head of cattle on the property from 15,000 to 25,000.

Image: Wilderness Society

Image: Wilderness Society

Conservation groups warned that the project would have unacceptable environmental outcomes on the heritage value woodland and wetland impacting 17 threatened species including the Gouldian Finch, increasing run-off pollution into the Great Barrier Reef catchments, and contributing to nearly 2% of Australia’s annual CO2 emissions.

Amid pressure from environmental groups the Palaszcuk government ordered an urgent investigation into the approvals. According to Palaszcuk, “The allegations into the clearing of land on Olive Vale Station while the caretaker conventions were in place, is a matter of great concern to me.”

Warren Entsch was less diplomatic, accusing environmental groups of “bullshit” and hyping the issue to raise funds for their own campaign issues.

On June 12th the clearing was halted while the commonwealth assesses the claims under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Federal environmental compliance officers visited the Olive Vale property on June 11th and 12th after which owners Ryan Global agreed to suspend the clearing while the investigation takes place.

Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles welcomed the decision to suspend clearing and expressed his deep concern about the approval.

Northern Australia white paper

The Abbott Government released their first ever Northern Australia white paper last Thursday which outlined a blueprint to create an “economic powerhouse” in Australia’s north, particularly through large scale, intensive agriculture and the development of the resources industry. This is hardly a new idea, with many governments trying and failing to bring this dream to fruition.

A common and worrying theme of the paper is the need to reduce red tape and to create a more welcoming investment environment through the establishment of a, “single point of entry for investors in major projects to help them through all regulatory hurdles.”

This includes plans to create a one-stop shop for environmental approvals, loosen fisheries restrictions, provide infrastructure loans to the resources industry, and to dam certain river systems for use in agricultural irrigation.

The document repeatedly states that the development plan will greatly benefit the Cape’s indigenous population and is something that communities both want and need. Cooktown Mayor Peter Scott is supportive of the plans which he says are important for economic growth and employment in the heavily disadvantaged region.

Others are more sceptical.

Labour Senator Nova Peris says the white paper will benefit big business and investors, but does little to help native title holders steer their own development outcomes. In fact, the document proposes “a whole lot of mucking around with native title”, encouraging title-holders to open up their land to development.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has questioned the suitability of intensive agriculture in the region.  In 2013 Traditional Owners said that a push to open up Cape York to more farming was, “grabbing at the sky”. Michael Ross, former chairman of Cape York Land Council, warned that most of the Cape is not suitable for farming with weeds, erosion and regrowth affecting cleared areas.

Image: ACF Online

Image: ACF Online

Cape York is one of our most precious wilderness areas, a biodiversity hotspot and a region of rich indigenous culture and heritage.

It’s difficult to reconcile the white paper with plans for a World Heritage listing for Cape York, which environmental groups have been pushing for years. Despite missing the deadline to submit a proposal to UNESCO in 2014, Environment Minister Greg Hunt still maintains that it’s committed to seeing a World Heritage listing happen but only after “broad community agreement” on the issue.

Working with the land instead of against it, Cape York has the potential to become a world leader in sustainability and attaining World Heritage listing is central to that. The short term and exploitative approach to economic development outlined by the Federal Government will ultimately fail the Cape’s marginalised communities.

 

Draining the Lifeblood – Fracking the Great Artesian Basin

The NSW Baird government is pushing ahead with plans to expand the state’s coal seam gas industry, after getting the green light from NSW chief scientist Mary O’Kane last week. O’Kane delivered her final report to the Baird government about the state of the CSG industry in NSW, following 19 months of research and investigations.

The report rubber stamped the expansion of CSG developments in the state, concluding that the environmental and health risks can be managed through rigorous monitoring and management. However, she did warn of the “unintended consequences” that inevitably come with the industry,

“It is inevitable that the CSG industry will have some unintended consequences, including as the result of accidents, human error and natural disasters… Industry, government and the community need to work together to plan adequately to mitigate such risks.” ~ NSW Chief Scientist Mary O’Kane

Despite former Premier Barry O’Farrell placing a temporary moratorium on new Petroleum Exploration Licence applications in early 2014, it is expected that CSG exploration licenses will start being approved again shortly.

“I don’t wait for anyone — I’m a smash or smash through person and we are going to drive ahead” , NSW Energy Minister Anthony Roberts said on Friday. Premier Baird reiterated this stance.

“Do we want coal seam gas? Absolutely we do. Do we want coal seam gas in balance with ensuring there’s not damage to our water aquifers? That’s absolutely where we stand.”   ~ NSW Premier Mike Baird

Risking our most scarce resource

But another scientific report released this week has warned of a very real real threat to Australia’s water supply as a result of CSG expansion.

The report, ‘Great Artesian Basin Recharge Systems and Extent of Petroleum and Gas Leases’, was commissioned by the Artesian Bore Water Users Association and questions the ability of the Great Artesian Basin (GAB) to withstand the large scale water extraction necessary to support the coal seam gas industry.

Shockingly, it shows that “80% of the Great Artesian Basin has a gas, petroleum or CSG exploration or production license over it.”

Why is the Great Artesian Basin so important?

The GAB is the lifeblood of the eastern half of Australia, running from Cape York to Cooper Pedy, and covering almost a quarter of the Australian continent. It contains 65,000 cubic kms of groundwater, released to the surface under pressure through natural springs and artesian bores.

Bores are the sole water source for 22% of the Australian landmass. As such, the GAB has allowed life to develop in inland Australia over thousands of years, sustaining Aboriginal Australians who relied on the springs for freshwater and wetlands in our most hostile centre. Many dreamtime stories feature a connection to the groundwater, which provided oases in the desert for ceremonies, trade and travel.

Today, people in these rural, drought impacted communities continue to depend on the bores for farming – the livelihood of many in these parts.

The groundwater held in GAB has accumulated over tens to hundreds of thousand of years, from so-called ‘recharge beds’ primarily around the margins of the basin. Today, these recharge areas don’t add significantly to the GAB’s volume but crucially provide the pressure which keeps groundwater flowing to the surface.

Importantly, the waters of the GAB are a finite resource. If drained beyond its natural ability to regenerate itself, large scale environmental and social problems are a certainty.

Rapid expansion of CSG licenses in NSW

Gas and petroleum exploration and production are the greatest threats to the Great Artesian Basin today, These extractive industries require massive volumes of Australia’s scarcest resource, water, to frack, drill and mine the earth, impacting the water table and bore pressure. The waste water is then released back into the environment, containing a toxic mix of chemical pollutants and carcinogens.

With a high percentage of the GAB’s recharge areas covered by gas/petroleum licenses, the pressure of the Basin is under threat.

A key area for groundwater recharge has been identified in the Pilliga region in state’s northwest, where CSG company Santos has been conducting exploration drilling and rapidly expanding their operations since 2011. According to the report,

“The area of highest recharge within NSW is in the Pilliga Sandstones and associated colluvial fans of the East Pilliga. This area is almost completely covered with exploration licenses at this time.”

According to soil scientist Robert Banks, the loss of water pressure due to CSG drilling may be enough to stop bore flow completely throughout the basin. In this scenario, pumps would be required to move water to the surface, which would cost billions of dollars. Who’s going to foot the bill?

Unintended consequences

The Great Artesian Basin is essential to life for almost a quarter of the country, but it impacts all Australians from coast to coast. If it dried up, Australia would be a markedly different place.

This week, as the NSW government indicated its intention to green light the expansion of CSG development, a town called Denton in North Texas became the first in the state to ban fracking. Texas is the birthplace of fracking, a state where the controversial method is still widely used today.

In recent years, entire nations have banned fracking outright – France, Germany, Ireland and Bulgaria – with many other countries and regions placing moratoriums on CSG operations until further impact studies are completed.

Are we willing to accept “unintended consequences” when communities are living within 200m of leaking CSG wells?

A major issue that needs to be addressed is the need for a Basin wide approach to gas and petroleum approvals and licenses. Currently the GAB is administered across four states – NSW, QLD, SA and NT – with no standards or coordination across the entire Basin.

But opposition to CSG in Australia is stronger than ever and growing daily. 5,000 recently turned out in Lismore to protest against gas licenses in the region. A blockade has long been in place in the Pilliga, supporting the local community against the expansion of Santos’ CSG drilling. Residents of Gloucester are also protesting against AGL’s proposed 330-well project. And with more and more small towns declaring themselves Gasfield Free every month, it’s not going to be an easy win for Big Gas.

Banjo Paterson’s 1896 ‘Song of the Artesian Water’’, best sums up the importance of the life-giving Great Artesian Basin to the Australian landscape. Risking this vital lifeblood is something we can’t afford to do.

“It is flowing, ever flowing, in a free, unstinted measure

From the silent hidden places where the old earth hides her treasure…

By the silent belts of timber, by the miles of blazing plain

It is bringing hope and comfort to the thirsty land again.

…To the tortured, thirsty cattle, bringing gladness in its going; 

It is flowing, ever flowing, further down” ~ Banjo Paterson

Sickness Country: Selling Nuclear to the Neighbours

Earlier this month, Tony Abbott travelled to India to seal the deal on a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement which will allow the sale of uranium to the subcontinent. Australia had previously banned the sale of uranium to India, due to its status as a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Australia has the largest known uranium deposits in the world and is the third largest exporter, behind Kazakhstan and Canada. There are currently only three operational mines in Australia – Ranger (NT), Olympic Dam (SA) and Beverley (SA).

Newman brings back uranium mining in QLD

In October 2012, newly elected Queensland Premier Campbell Newman announced that the long-standing ban on uranium mining in the state would be lifted. The backflip on his pre-election promise not to pursue uranium mining came shortly after PM Julia Gillard pushed to reopen uranium negotiations with India in 2011.

Although not officially banned until 1989, uranium hasn’t been mined in Queensland since 1982 when the Mary Kathleen mine in the state’s north west was closed for rehabilitation. This is the first mine to be reopened, with the government opening up submissions for its development last July.

The reopening of other closed mine sites in the state is expected to follow. According to the State Government, there are more than 80 known sites containing valuable amounts of uranium, the majority in the state’s north west.

Townsville declares itself nuclear free

One of the largest deposits is just 50km south of Townsville at Ben Lomond. Last mined over 30 years ago, it’s being eyed up by mining companies and the Queensland government is ready and waiting for submissions to redevelop the site.

In response, residents of Townsville declared the city nuclear free earlier this year and have been actively campaigning against the reopening of the mine since the ban was lifted.

“It’s hazardous, it’s very high risk, it’s at the top of a water catchment that’s our backup drinking supply. The risks associated with opening Ben Lomond are simply not acceptable.”  – Deputy Mayor and LNP member Vern Veitch.

Despite being located in a cyclone and flood prone area, State Resources and Mines Minister Andrew Cripps sees no grounds for objection against the Ben Lomond mine arguing that “The EIS process will take into account the prevailing environment and weather patterns of the area and they will have to have contingency plans in place to accommodate that environment.”

Global collapse in uranium price

The global uranium price has plunged since its peak in 2007, now sitting at one quarter of the 2007 price. The Fukushima disaster in 2011 and a huge oversupply in the market are cited as the factors behind the slump. Many find Minister Cripps’ claims of the potential for uranium exports to earn billions of dollars for Queensland extraordinary.

“Australian uranium exports make less than two billion a year. The uranium price has been in free fall since 2007, and with governments around the world shutting down nuclear power stations; 150 nuclear power stations in Europe alone are scheduled for closure with no plans to replace them.”  – Greens nuclear policy spokesman Senator Scott Ludlam.

Uranium mining just doesn’t make economic sense for Queensland. As with the rest of the mining sector, we continue to hear the same rhetoric about job creation and economic opportunities. But the reality is that mining employs far less people than the industry and the government would have us believe.

Environmental impacts

Given the Newman government’s poor track record, there is also scepticism about the so-called “robust framework” in place to protect the environment.

Local graziers of the land surrounding Mary Kathleen mine are deeply concerned about the reopening of the mine, fearing contaminated dust will be blown onto their land and groundwater will be impacted. Third generation grazier Ian Campbell said that the mine’s recovery was mismanaged, leaving behind dead, contaminated land.

“They talk about strict standards but that’s a joke – there are none.” – Grazier Ian Campbell

Though the tailings dam was mostly drained and capped with rock, thirty years on the rate of seepage is much faster than predicted. Metal-rich, radioactive waters have made their way into the local drainage system, contaminating the land and killing vegetation next to the mine.

Since the ban was lifted in 2012, many have questioned whether Queensland ports will be used to export the material, potentially through the Great Barrier Reef.

As it stands, there are no licensed ports in Queensland for the export of uranium. Uranium mined in SA and NT is currently exported through the existing licensed ports in Darwin and South Australia, although if Queensland is to resume mining then it’s a safe bet that it will be exported through Queensland ports.

In 2012, the Port of Townsville applied for uranium to be exported through its ports, due to its proximity to Mary Kathleen and Ben Lomond. It described Townsville as a readily equipped gateway to facilitate the transport of yellowcake.

This has been downplayed, although not ruled out by Cripps, saying the option exists but is unlikely as “the process for establishing a licensed port is quite complex and quite costly.”

QLD passes bill to block mining objections

In light of recent environmental victories against mining companies, the Newman government recently passed a bill to remove public objection rights on mining lease applications.

The Mineral and Energy Resources Bill was opposed by an unlikely team – Labor and Katter’s Australia Party – who feel the bill supports large mining companies at the expense of landholders.

“For example, if Ben Lomond Uranium Mine has a development application, landowners downstream, or the Charters Towers community, have no right to object even if uranium leaks into their water supply.” – Katter MP Shane Knuth

Indigenous Australians disproportionately impacted

It is estimated that 70% of the world’s uranium lies on indigenous lands, a situation that is reflected in Australia. Indigenous communities in Australia are disproportionately affected by the social and environmental impacts of uranium mining.

This occurs in a number of ways – bullying tactics used by mining companies, failure to consult Traditional Owners in a meaningful way, destruction of cultural sites and rock art.

The adverse health impacts from exposure to uranium continue to be downplayed by the Australian mining industry who have a history of non-compliance with environmental regulations. In December of last year, 1 million litres of uranium slurry burst its containment tank at Ranger mine in World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park. The same mine has experienced more than 200 spills, leaks and breaches since opening 35 years ago but still continues to operate.

Uranium Pusher of the Pacific

As the so-called ‘Pusher in the Pacific’, does Australia have any ethical obligations when it comes to the export of uranium?

The Japanese PM at the time of the Fukushima disaster recently toured Australia warning politicians and Traditional Owners about the risks of uranium mining. As he reminded us, Australian uranium was powering Fukushima at the time of the meltdown.

Despite not having conducted a nuclear weapons test since 1998, India remains a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is actively expanding its nuclear weapons program. There is no way we can ensure that Australian uranium is only used for peaceful means.

Abbott would have you believe that Australia is saving India by exporting our coal and uranium to their power hungry masses. But is it really ok to export uranium to developing nations, while we don’t pursue nuclear energy ourselves?

You can follow Kate on Twitter @kateokate

Uncertain future for Adani at Abbot Point as fight for the reef continues

It’s been an eventful month for Australia’s greatest natural wonder.

It was widely reported this week that Abbot Point proponents Adani Group, GVK Hancock and North Queensland Bulk Ports would seek to reverse their plan to dump 5 million tonnes of dredge spoil into the marine park near Bowen, instead opting for land disposal. This has since been confirmed by deputy Queensland Premier Jeff Seeney, who will meet with environment minister Greg Hunt to approve the land-based alternative.

While the news was somewhat unexpected, there has been growing public discontent with the dredging approval following months of campaigning by environmental groups, tourism operators and local communities. The Australian Government has come under increasing scrutiny and pressure from the international community over their plans for the reef, and questions about the social and environmental track record of Indian coal company Adani have been brought to the fore.

Photo: Greenpeace Australia

The news has breathed life into reef campaigners who view it not as a solution, but as a step in the right direction towards a total ban on capital dredging projects within the marine park area. A Senate inquiry has supported this, calling for sediment dumping to be banned in the marine park until further studies can be conducted about its impact on the reef ecosystem.

Growing doubts over Carmichael mine

Indian coal company Adani is no stranger to controversy, insisting they will proceed at Abbot Point and the Carmichael mega-mine which will feed it. But there is growing doubt about the viability of the development.

Adani purchased Carmichael coal mine from Australian Linc Energy in 2010 during the peak of the coal boom, a deal which gave Linc royalty rights on future profits. In August, Adani agreed to buy out Linc’s future royalty stream for $155 million which they say,

“reflects Adani’s confidence in the progress of Carmichael mine, which received final federal environmental approvals from the Australian government last month.”  

However, analysts have said the amount Adani is paying out, compared with the value of the future royalties, implies they have put a 25-30% probability on the development actually proceeding.

A reef in danger

In early August, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority released their much anticipated Reef Outlook Report 2014. The five year report painted a stark picture of the reef’s health not just today, but also over the coming years which will see its resilience decline further.

“Even with the recent management initiatives to reduce threats and improve resilience, the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate.”

Even Greg Hunt was forced to admit the grim outlook, particularly in the southern part of the reef where he said there were “some real negatives”.

The report outlined climate change as the main threat over the coming decades, which is why building a resilient reef system is vital in combating the associated rising sea temperature, ocean acidification and increased storm activity,

Crucially, coastal development was named as a key factor affecting the reef locally. These impacts are set to increase as shipping through the marine park increases by 250% over the next 20 years.

The report stressed the large knowledge gaps which still exist about the impacts of dredging and dumping on the reef ecosystem.

“Increasing port activities directly affects local areas and uncertainty remains around ecosystem effects of dredging and the disposal and re-suspension of dredge material.”

Photo: WWF

Considering the rate at which port developments and expansions are being approved, this is particularly alarming.

The politics of environmental approvals

Four Corners followed up the release of the report with ‘Battle for the Reef‘. The investigation revealed the internal clashes within the GBRMPA in the months leading up to the approval of the Abbot Point dredging and dumping permit. It shone a light on the huge political pressure within the GBRMPA to green light the approval, despite widespread concerns among its own scientists that sea disposal was socially and environmentally unacceptable.

The revelations in the report have led to calls for a complete overhaul of the GBRMPA, leading to the creation of a new and truly independent authority who will protect the Great Barrier Reef from politically motivated approvals.

The question of political dollars buying environmental approvals gained further traction in recent weeks amid allegations that a large donation to the LNP from a Queensland property developer preceded the approval of a dredging permit for the expansion of his Airlie Beach marina.

It was revealed that long time LNP supporter and donor Paul Darrouzet gave a $150,000 donation to the party a mere week before gaining approval to dredge. Naturally, Mr Darrouzet denied any link between the two with QLD environment minister Andrew Powell quickly following suit.

Following these reports LNP MP George Christensen, whose electorate covers the Whitsundays, made a dramatic admission that he was wrong to support the sea disposal of dredge waste from Abbot Point. According to Christensen, he

“didn’t foresee the angst the dumping of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef marine park would cause tourism operators and the residents of the Whitsundays.”

A line in the sand

While Christensen is most likely trying to save his political skin after widespread criticism and discontent within his electorate, the move represents the growing pressure on the government over Abbot Point, and more largely over their actions against the environment during their first year in power.

In light of this, Greg Hunt has sought to paint himself as the good guy, saving the reef from negligence “on someone else’s watch”.

Interviewed during the Four Corners investigation, Hunt promised that Abbot Point would be the last time sea disposal of dredge waste would be permitted in the marine park, that it was a ‘line in the sand’.

Greens Senator Larissa Waters sought clarification of these vague promises in the Senate but the government backed away from Hunt’s comments. According to Waters, the words were worthless and ‘full of holes’, failing to specify if projects already applied for will be approved.

In addition, Hunt’s promise is limited to capital dredging, meaning maintenance dredging such as at Hay Point will still be allowed. Approval for the 378,000 cubic metre maintenance dredging project at Hay Point was granted this year, despite real concerns over the damage caused to corals during the initial 2006 dredging.

Australia falling behind

While Australia regresses into a coal mining, climate-change denying stupor, the rest of the world is moving forward in its transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.

Even the main recipient of our coal is moving in the right direction. In an unprecedented move, the Indian Supreme Court this month ruled all coal licenses from 1993 to 2010 illegal, deemed to have been granted unfairly and without transparency. Coal mining had become a source of massive corruption and controversy in India in recent years, with over 200 leases granted to private steel, cement and power companies without proper regulation.

While the move is sure to put pressure on India’s power supply, Australian coal is not in line to fill the void. New PM Narendra Modi aims to roll out solar power across the nation over the next 5 years with renewable energy one of the new government’s top priorities.

Meanwhile our government has decided to scale back the successful RET, crippling our renewable energy sector for supposedly driving up electricity prices – which has since been shown through independent modelling and reviews to be false.

The fact that the review was headed by self-professed climate sceptic and Caltex Australia chairman Dick Warburton (in the words of Scott Ludlam, SRSLY?) would lead anyone to question the independence of this review. But fear not, Warburton has assured the Australian public that his personal beliefs had no bearing on his findings.

Hunt continues to paint environmental groups, concerned locals, tourism operators and concerned Australians who add their name to a GetUp! petition as “as the extreme left of the Australian political scheme”. By doing so, he is alienating the majority of Australians who are rising up to demand stronger action on climate and greater protection for our reef.

Wild Rivers No More: Newman Decision Threatens the Cape

This week, the Queensland Government finalised their repeal of the Wild Rivers Act.

Introduced in 2005 by the Labor government, the Act aimed to protect Queensland’s 13 pristine rivers from the threat of bauxite mining, CSG drilling, major irrigation plans and damming.

The Queensland Government had its repeal in their sights for some time. A draft Cape York Regional Plan was released by the new LNP government in November 2013 which outlined a plan of economic growth through industrialisation, resource sector development and the removal of existing ‘green tape’.

Described it as “flawed, a fraud and a fail”, the government was accused of ignoring areas recognised for their ecological significance, and weakening existing protections.

The draft plan evolved into the Regional Planning Interests Act, which will replace the Wild Rivers legislation.  According to QLD Environment Minister Andrew Powell, the strict environmental protections of Wild Rivers will be maintained, but he does not go so far as to say mining and industry will be ruled out.

“The Government must now, as per the Wild Rivers Act before it, look at any development in that area at a higher environmental bar than what we would anywhere else in the state.” – Andrew Powell

Concerns over Repeal

Under the new legislation, formerly protected zones are termed ‘Strategic Environmental Areas’. Planning approvals for these areas will now be made by either local or State-level government, depending on the nature of the development. While these areas will be protected from some forms of exploitative industry (such as open-cut mining), there are provisions for environmentally damaging activities like strip mining, gas exploration/production and broadacre cropping.

“The repeal of the Wild Rivers Act will once again expose sensitive, pristine rivers to destructive development threats… In its place… weaker policies, regulation and ever-changing maps which will operate without any parliamentary oversight and will lead to arbitrary decision-making.” – Tim Seelig, Wilderness Society

The Channel Country is an area in south west Queensland, also covering parts of South Australia and the Northern Territory. Three protected Wild Rivers run through this region – Georgina, Diamantina and Cooper Creek.  Many Channel Country landholders have reacted strongly against the repeal, saying that the weaker legislation is merely opening up the doors for mining companies to exploit the land.

“My opinion of it is that it’s much weaker legislation that will make it easy for the mining and resources companies to trash our rivers and floodplains in western Queensland, if and when when they want to.” – Grazier Angus Emmott

South Australia’s Minister for Water and the Environment Ian Hunter has also expressed concern, worried about the impact of the weakened legislation on his State’s water supply.

“The changes made to the management of these river networks in Queensland could have serious impacts…. We’ve repeatedly expressed concerns about what these changes will mean for local communities – and are deeply concerned about what this may mean for flows downstream, groundwater recharge and the base level of flows in the Lake Eyre Basin.” – Minister Ian Hunter

Cape York heritage should be protected

The wilderness of the Cape York Peninsula is one of Australia’s most precious.  One of the last wild places on earth it is a biodiversity hotspot, home to undisturbed tropical forests, wetlands and over 300 species of endemic flora and fauna.  The Cape is also a region of rich indigenous culture and heritage, spanning 40,000 years.

Cape York is also one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of Australia, particularly for the indigenous population whose living standards are far below national averages. Roughly two thirds of the Cape identify as indigenous.  A history of dispossession, forced removal from their lands, struggle for land rights, and the lack of economic and educational opportunities have contributed to the serious indigenous disadvantage which exists in the Cape today.

Conservationists have long argued the case for a World Heritage listing for the Cape.  In 2007, the Queensland Government created the Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act which set the terms for the conservation and appropriate development of the region.  This was backed up by the Federal Government’s promise to,

“work with the Queensland Government and traditional owners to pursue World Heritage listing for appropriate areas of Cape York”

But despite promising to protect Cape York during the last election, the QLD Government is now eager to exploit the Cape’s rich mineral wealth and open up the region for resource exploitation.

Despite missing the February 1st deadline to submit a nomination to UNESCO, Environment Minister Greg Hunt assured Australians that the government still supports a heritage listing for the “best of the best” natural areas.  Greens Senator Larissa Waters is sceptical, arguing that this really means protection for areas of no value to the mining industry.

Photo: Wilderness Society

Mixed reactions from Indigenous communities

Indigenous communities were divided over the Wild Rivers legislation, many celebrating the repeal.

Prominent indigenous figures Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson opposed the introduction of the Wild Rivers Act on the grounds that it removed the ability for traditional owners to make decisions about their land, depriving them of economic opportunities.

While there were provisions within the Wild Rivers Act for traditional owners to engage in activities like hunting, fishing, eco-tourism and fire management, large scale development was forbidden.

Many indigenous communities also felt they were not properly consulted during the process.  Others have argued that the majority of traditional owners would not agree with large scale development occurring on their land, so supported measures to keep big mining companies out.

The Queensland government will argue that the new Act better suits the needs of the Cape’s indigenous population, allowing economic activity in the region to diversity and grow.  But while the government speaks of the need to diversify economic activity in the region, development plans seem to be focused on opening up areas to further mining and intensive agriculture.

An alternative model for development

There is an alternative to the LNP Government’s quick-fix, exploitative model.  Conservationists favour working with the land instead of against it, arguing that Cape York can be a world leader in sustainability.

Attaining a World Heritage Listing is central to this plan. World Heritage protection is a flexible regime and will not lock away the entire Cape, protecting some areas while other lands are used for culturally and environmentally appropriate economic purposes.  It recognises the Cape’s long history of sustainable indigenous land management, and that strong indigenous partnerships are central to any successful strategy.

conservation economy would be central to this strategy.

Sadly, anything resembling a conservation economy is far away as the government continue on their “dig it up, cut it down” path of short term economic gain.  By removing existing environmental safeguards and opening up sensitive lands to damaging resource exploitation, the Regional Planning Interests Act will fail the marginalised Australians of the Cape.

The Madness of Greg Hunt and the Carmichael Mine

Just in case anyone was left doubting the Abbott government’s disdain for environmental protection, our Environment Minister Greg Hunt has laid that to rest, approving the development of one of the largest coal mines in the world.

The Carmichael mine will be developed by Indian power company Adani. Owned by an Indian billionaire, Adani are sourcing Australian coal to fuel the surging demand for electricity in India.  They hope to begin exporting coal from the mega-mine in 2017.

The coal mine is simply gigantic – the largest Australia has ever seen, and one of the biggest in the world. Consisting of six open cut pits and five underground mines, it will cover an area seven times the size of Sydney Harbour.  The initial stages require the clearing of 20,000 hectares of bushland, home to 60 threatened species of flora and fauna.

Around 60 million tonnes of coal will be sent to the Queensland coast every year by an accompanying $2.1 billion rail corridor, where it will be exported to India from Abbot Point via the Great Barrier Reef.

CO2 emissions from the combusted Carmichael mine coal are estimated at a whopping 128 million tonnes per annum, cancelling out any of the gains made under the government’s pathetic Direct Action policy.  To put that figure in perspective, that’s equal to four times the amount that New Zealand emits in a year.

There were so many reasons not to approve this unprecedented development, both economic and environmental. Greg Hunt, however, was unmoved.

Of foremost concern – Adani’s alarming environmental track record. In India, they have been fined for illegally building on villagers’ land and destroying protected mangrove areas. They have been involved in the large-scale illegal export of iron ore, bribing officials, building an aerodrome without environmental approval, manipulating the approval process, ignoring environmental conditions and non-compliance with environmental monitoring.

Remember the Abbot Point controversy?  Well, Adani were one of the companies behind that too. Adani owns the coal export terminal at Abbot Point.  For the massive volumes of coal to be shipped overseas from their Carmichael mine, they need to expand the terminal to meet the surge in exports, which will see upwards of 450 extra coal ships travelling through the Great Barrier Reef every year.

Safe to say, this is bad news for the reef environment.

The proposed expansion of the coal export terminal requires three million cubic tonnes of seabed to be dredged, and dumped in adjacent waters within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  Despite concerns within the GBR Marine Park Authority itself and UNESCO, as well as public outcry over the threat to the reef, Greg Hunt approved the dredging.

So toxic and unpopular is the Abbot Point dredging project, even international banks don’t want to be associated with it, with HSBC, Deutsche Bank and The Royal Bank of Scotland withdrawing funding.  But despite this, the Australian government thinks it fine to go ahead.

Despite Adani’s woeful record, Greg Hunt is comfortable allowing them to operate in one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the world.  I am not.

The impact on groundwater has been a major cause for concern.  When operational, the mine will extract 12 billion litres annually from local rivers and aquifers, in an agricultural region already prone to drought and dependent largely on water from bores. Hunt assures us that,

“The absolute strictest of conditions have been imposed to ensure the protection of the environment, with a specific focus on the protection of groundwater.”

In what we’ve learned to be the usual Greg Hunt response, he has slapped on a bunch of ‘Conditions’ and ‘Offsets’ to mitigate any environmental damage, 36 in this case, although a Senate enquiry has shown what rubbish these are.

“These 36 conditions complement the conditions imposed by the Queensland Government, and will ensure the proponent meets the highest environmental standards and that all impacts, including cumulative impacts, are avoided, mitigated or offset.” – Greg Hunt

So what are the net benefits for Australians? Economic reports continue to show us that coal is just not profitable anymore.  There are real questions surrounding the viability of Galilee Basin coal projects in the face of a long term, downward trend in global coal prices.  A huge investment in infrastructure by Adani is needed to service the Carmichael mine, which has driven down their potential for profit substantially.

“Good quality steaming coal exported from Australia is fetching about $US67 ($71.30) a tonne in the spot market, which means that after taking borrowing costs into account there would be little profit margin.” – SMH

Any profits made will be channelled overseas to India first, then to other Asian nations who will take on development contracts like Korea, whose company POSCO who will build the rail link. In the absence of a Carbon or Mining Tax, benefits to Australians are small – apart from the promise of employment and regional development.

But at what cost?  A country is more than just an economy.  All Australians will be left with is a massive hole in the ground, linked to a dying reef by a ghost train.  In the mean time, Greg Hunt will twiddle his thumbs, waiting for the years-away clean coal technology to be rolled out.

But there’s still a glimmer of hope.  While the coal mine has been approved, Adani still need to secure billions of dollars of funding before they can begin construction (or destruction in this case).  Greenpeace, together with GetUp, AYCC and Market Forces are campaigning to stop the Big Four Banks from funding Adani.

If Australians continue to show their collective power through grassroots campaigning and action, hopefully our banks will have the sense to ditch this sinking ship.

Why Jonathan Moylan’s Whitehaven Hoax Was Great

Anti-coal activist Jonathan Moylan left court today still in the dark about his fate, after his sentencing for breaching Section 1041E of the Corporations Act was adjourned.

The 26 year old trilingual translator from Newcastle first hit headlines in January 2013, after distributing a fake press release from ANZ bank confirming they would pull out of their $1.2 billion loan to the Maules Creek coal mine, owned by Whitehaven Coal.  The prank aimed to highlight the environmental and economic problems of the project, and how our major banks are financing these destructive projects – and it was a great success.

The hoax caused panic among investors, temporarily wiping $314m off the value of Whitehaven Coal, although this recovered soon after.  Needless to say, Whitehaven were not impressed.

Although unlikely that Moylan will serve jail time, the charges come with a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison or fines of up to $765,000.

At the time of the stunt, Moylan had spent almost six months at the Leard State Forest blockade with Front Line Action on Coal (FLAC), during which time he became acutely aware of the devastating impacts of the mine both on the environment and the local farming community.

Image by 350.org

Image by 350.org

I’ve written previously about the environmental destruction of the Maules Creek coal mine – the unique woodland to be bulldozed, the threatened species, the indigenous heritage, the threat of groundwater contamination, the health impacts, and the outright misleading environmental offsets proposed by Whitehaven.

Despite this, Whitehaven chairman Mark Vaile had the gall to label Moylan ‘Un-Australian’.

‘It’s quite un-Australian that an individual can conduct a fraudulent act like this.  There were many investors… that lost significant amounts of money during that period.”

Deeply sorry for those investors who lost retirement savings, Moylan submitted a written apology to them, despite the losses being hugely overstated by Whitehaven (it was reported by Fairfax that shareholders lost no more than $450,360 between them).  He maintains that his intention was merely to support the Maules Creek community by raising awareness of this damaging open-cut mine.

But Mark Vaile doesn’t seem too concerned with the livelihoods Whitehaven will destroy in Maules Creek.  He even reckons that the project has, “a very broad level of support in the community.”

Local farmer Rick Laird would not agree.  One of many who turned up to support Moylan, his family has farmed in the district for more than 150 years – the Leard Forest was named after them.  He said,

“We’ve been fighting this mine for years and the stand that Jono took means that people now know what’s happening at Maules Creek.”

Jonathan Moylan’s press release put the Maules Creek mine in the headlines, and shone light on the hidden relationships between the fossil fuel industry and banks.

Since the hoax, we’ve seen environmental campaigns use this increased public awareness and interest with great success.  Most visible has been the Great Barrier Reef campaign, with pressure from environmental groups leading to bank after bank withdrawing their funding for the expansion at Abbot Point.  We’ve also seen the huge growth of the Australian divestment movement, with mounting pressure on the big four banks and superfunds to ditch fossil fuel investments.

The Whitehaven hoax has exposed the inherent flaws in Australia’s regulatory system, which allow huge corporations to get away with environmentally destructive and unethical practices, while attempting to punish those who expose them.

#StandWithJono Campaign coordinator Nicola Paris said the legislation under which Moylan is charged “was never intended to pursue people acting in good conscience.”

“The move to take this matter to the Supreme Court is yet another overreach in this relentless pursuit of a young man acting on principle. This lies in stark contrast with the failure of ASIC to prosecute serious corporate crime whilst people found guilty of insider trading such as John Gay, get a slap on the wrist.”

Communities have been powerless in the face of the resources industry for too long.  As Moylan himself shockingly points out, “You don’t have the right to be notified if a mining company is applying for a coalmining lease over your property”.   Is that ‘Australian’?

I #StandWithJono

You can follow Kate on Twitter @kateokate

 

Bans, Gags, Funding Cuts: Desperate Measures from a Desperate Government

A week can hardly go by lately without a new attack on environmental justice in Australia. The latest threat comes from Andrew Nikolic, Federal Member for the Tasmanian seat of Bass.

The Liberal MP has moved to strip charity status from environmental groups, who he perceives as a threat to Tasmanian prosperity i.e. the Tasmanian logging industry.  The motion was unanimously endorsed by his party at their Federal Council meeting.

Some 13 groups would be impacted by the motion, no longer eligible to receive tax deductible donations.  This includes prominent organisations like the Wilderness Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation and all state EDOs.

Nikolic has described these environmental groups as engaging in political activism and illegal activities, and doesn’t believe that taxpayers should be subsidising their green agenda, which he believes is damaging the Tasmanian economy.

“I moved the motion because I think the activities of these groups has been enormously damaging on our state of Tasmania, I think we’ve seen for far too long these groups undertaking activities like boot camps and engaging in political activism, illegal activism.

This is the latest in a string of desperate attempts by Tasmanian Liberal politicians to rein in the power of conservation groups in the state.

Last week, anti-protest laws were passed in Tasmania’s Lower House, aimed at stopping forestry activists through large fines and jail time.  And you might remember Senator Richard Colbeck’s tried-and-failed-and-tried-again attempts to introduce legislation banning secondary boycotts, a powerful protest measure which so successfully brought the mighty Gunns pulp mill to its knees.

The battle for the Tassie wilderness has been long fought, most recently with Abbott’s unprecedented attempts to delist 74,000 hectares of Tasmania’s heritage listed forests.  The self-proclaimed ‘conservationist’ (don’t you mean conservative, Tony?) stated,

“We have quite enough national parks. We have quite enough locked up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked up forest.”  

It took UNESCO a mere 10 minutes to reject this ludicrous proposal, calling the bid ‘feeble’.

In light of UNESCO’s recent decision, the conservative lobby is growing increasingly concerned.  And it’s not just the Tasmanian Liberal Party who are worried.

The growth of the grassroots environmental movement in Australia has ushered in a new era of environmental protest.  Online campaigning has made large, crowd-funded legal actions possible, while social media has engaged and mobilised people to take part in blockades and protests.

Recent victories against the destructive resources sector have resonated among Australians with the defeat of CSG at Bentley, a coal export facility at Keppel Bay and an open-cut mine in Leard State Forest.  Two crowd funded legal actions against the government over their plans to industrialise the Great Barrier Reef has drawn international attention, and criticism.

In moves some have called fascist, the government is trying to silence its critics by cutting their funding and attempting to discredit our scientific institutions.  But gagging environmental groups serves only to galvanise the communities who live on the front line, who see first hand the destruction caused to their land, their water, their future.

Communities across Australia are responding to the call to action, putting their time, money and bodies on the line – and winning.

You can follow Kate on Twitter @kateokate

Also by Kate O’Callaghan:

Pokie-Tourism: Campbell Newman’s Dream for our Tropical North

Abbott’s International Tour de Farce

Pokie-Tourism: Campbell Newman’s Dream for our Tropical North

The name Aquis probably doesn’t mean much to you if you live outside Far North Queensland.  If you do, it’s a name that’s been on everyone’s lips for the last year and has dominated local media.

Aquis Great Barrier Reef Resort is a mega casino proposed for the sleepy Cairns beach suburb of Yorkeys Knob – a beautiful, but environmentally sensitive and flood prone area on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. At an estimated $8.15 billion to build, it’s a development of unprecedented scale in a city of 150,000 people, and its bold promises to reinvigorate the region have won many followers.  None more so than than the Queensland Government, who have granted it one of two new regional casino licences up for grabs, provided conditions are met.

The Newman Government has been salivating over Queensland’s potential for gambling revenue for some time, obsessed with turning the state into Australia’s own Nevada.  Queensland’s economy has been suffering over the last few years, largely due to the downturn in the mining sector.  Though still hell bent on selling off Queensland’s environment to the highest bidder, Campbell Newman now sees casino revenue as a much needed quick buck, to line the state coffers during these economically challenging times.

But at what cost?

Since Newman opened up bidding for three new casino licences last year, one in Brisbane and two in regional Queensland, developers have been chomping at the bit to get a piece of the action. One of these developers, and the man behind the Cairns mega casino, is Hong Kong billionaire Tony Fung.  His dream?  To turn Cairns into a flashy gambling Mecca to rival Macau.  According to Fung,

“North Queensland is missing the man-made wonder of the world, which is presented in Aquis.”   

Image courtesy of katesenviroblog.com.au

Not content with Cairns’ unique, natural wonders – the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, the endemic wildlife – his vision is one of bright lights, glitz and 24 hour gambling.  And for Fung,  the bigger, the better – everything in his ‘resort’ is super-sized. His target market?  Chinese high rollers, who can gamble their days away while their families enjoy the other facilities – theatres, horse riding, a mega Aquarium, artificial lagoons, shopping, sports stadiums, restaurants, golf courses – visitors won’t ever need to leave the resort.  They won’t even need to use local taxis – on arrival into Cairns airport, they will be chauffeured or transferred by courtesy bus directly to the resort.

At the heart of Fung’s ‘resort’ is a gigantic gambling hub, consisting of two casinos.  Aquis is requesting the same number of pokies as Sydney’s Star City Casino, and more gaming tables than Australia’s two largest casinos (The Crown & Star City) combined.  Fung is also in the midst of taking over Cairns’ existing casino, the Reef Hotel.

Fung submitted his initial Aquis application to the Queensland government last July, who declared it a ‘Coordinated Project’ a mere six days later.  For a multi-billion dollar development next to the world heritage listed waters of the Great Barrier Reef, this is alarmingly fast.  The normal, stringent process of environmental and social assessments can take months, even years to complete. Aquis has bypassed the proper environmental approval process from the beginning.

In a submission to the Department of Environment in April, Fung maintained that Aquis does not require a commonwealth environmental assessment process, as any impacts on the surrounding environment are not significant enough to warrant it. Andrew Picone, FNQ Campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation thinks otherwise, stating,

“We have a developer here who thinks he should be given all the approvals, but there is due process and the community should have its say.”  

Despite a multitude of environmental concerns yet to be sufficiently addressed, the casino licence was recently granted, before the Environmental Impact Statement was even released.  According to Denis Walls, coordinator of local opposition group Aquis Aware,

“We assumed the EIS would come out before the licence was given – I mean, giving a licence to somebody before the EIS is scandalous.”

Without doubt, Far North Queensland is going through some economically challenging times.  With high levels of unemployment, particularly amongst the youth, I understand the need to boost the Cairns economy and to stimulate much needed growth and development in the region.  But using a mega casino as a bandage to fix a flawed economic model will not accomplish this.

Gambling is not a stable source of state revenue.  The success of Aquis is completely dependent on the economies of the Asian tourists that Fung is trying to lure. Most people realise that the Cairns economy is too reliant on tourism and needs to diversify in order grow sustainably. Diversification ensures that the local economy survives through the tourist low season, as well as any global economic downturns which may reduce overseas visitors dramatically.

Even the Cairns Chamber of Commerce listed diversification as one of their top 5 federal election priorities in 2013. Hedging all our bets on Asian tourists to solve economic problems is doomed for failure and is not aligned with the Chamber’s own top priorities.

And what about the tourist sector, the backbone of the Cairns economy?  Sure, Fung will reap the benefits of the gambling high rollers.  But turning the city into a flashy gambling hub has the potential to discourage the huge numbers of existing tourists, who already flock to Cairns for its natural wonders and relaxed, unflashy lifestyle.  According to Tourism Australia’s own research,

“Research… on the drivers of demand for international visitors to Australia shows that our natural attractions are by far the greatest appeal… casinos, bars and nightclubs came at or very near the bottom of the list of 19 appeal factors.”

Perceived benefits to local businesses from the increase in tourist numbers is one of the main reasons that people support the new casino.  But the reality is that local business suffer when you centralise shopping, restaurants, hotels, entertainment into one facility.  With everything in one resort, guests will have significantly reduced need to leave the complex, meaning small business may have to downsize or close altogether.

Tourism and business aside, do we really want Cairns to become the new Macau of Fung’s dreams?  Macau has been plagued by a host of problems since opening up its economy to foreign casinos in 2002 including organised crime, prostitution and environmental degradation.  It’s certainly not something to aspire to, and I question anyone who thinks otherwise.

And the supposed employment of thousands of local workers? Aquis has promised thousands of jobs to Cairns locals during both the construction and operational phases. However, we know the original plans include 1,800 staff accommodation units.  If Aquis will employ locals, why is so much permanent staff accommodation required?   Any construction jobs will be temporary, and will likely consist large numbers of workers from outside the region to meet the skill demand.  Speaking about local labour Justin Fung says,

“Obviously we will have a management team and we need Mandarin and Cantonese speakers … but we remain dedicated to improving the employment rate in Cairns.”   

This means that the front of house staff will need to be Chinese.  In recent months, the Federal Government has been trying to negotiate a free trade deal with China.  In order to clinch the deal, it is willing to consider visa options for skilled workers to come to Australia to work on major Chinese projects.  The free trade deal will certainly benefit Tony Fung if he wishes to use Chinese workers.

But the biggest bone of contention for many is the casino itself.  Does Cairns really need two more casinos? The social impacts of these mega casino in a city which already has high levels of problem gambling have not been adequately explored.  Per capita, Cairns is Queensland’s highest spending pokie city, with the average resident spending $45.41 per month on pokies in 2012.  Those behind Aquis, including the Newman government, insist that the casino will be frequented mostly by wealthy Asian tourists and that negative community impacts will be minimal.

But the Productivity Commission found that high rollers only count for 11% of revenue in casinos, with the rest coming from locals playing cards and pokies.  In addition, studies have proven that big pokies venues are the most dangerous to local communities.

The debate is growing outside of the Far North, with recent national and even international coverage with amusing headlines like, “Hippie Town Seen as New Macau With World’s Biggest Hotel”.   It has also drawn many prominent anti-gambling advocates into the fray.  World Vision CEO Tim Costello, who is also the Chairman of the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce, has called the plans madness saying,

Their business model, because they’re never up front about it, is always heavily reliant on local custom.”  

South Australian Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, has also lent his vocal support to the growing campaign against Aquis.  On June 20th, he will speak at a community forum hosted by Aquis Aware, warning locals of the “fools gold” that is Aquis and the dangers of a gambling resort.

The dream of Aquis has an undeniable lure, especially for those who have been hit hard over the past few years.  It has the potential to change the face of Cairns forever, but I fear it won’t be for the better.

All that glitters is not gold.

If you want to voice your opposition to this mega casino, you can sign the petition: www.communityrun.org/p/StopReefCasino

This article was first published in Kate’s Enviro Blog.

Also by Kate O’Callaghan:

Abbott’s International Tour de Farce

Abbott’s International Tour de Farce

Last week, Tony Abbott embarked on his international tour of embarrassment. Not content to cause shame on the national stage, he is hell-bent on humiliating Australia in lands far and wide, following up his lampooning on popular US TV show Last Week Tonight.

Of all the catastrophic cringes inflicted upon us in the mere days since he left our shores – calling Canada “Canadia”; using his D-Day speech to promote the Coalition’s harsh economic policies (Open For Business blah blah blah); cancelling meetings with the world’s most powerful economic organisations; inspiring the trending Twitter hashtag #WhatAbbottWillSayToObama – it’s his climate-sceptic stance which is the greatest cause for shame.

obama

Photo: WhatCulture

It is feared by many that the strong ties with our US ally are at risk over Abbott’s inaction on climate, particularly following the warm friendship Obama shared with Julia Gillard. Those in the Obama administration have publicly voiced their concern over our climate sceptic PM. According to Obama’s former chief climate adviser, Heather Zichal, ”I think everyone except the climate deniers are deeply concerned with the direction [Australia] is going”.

How embarrassing that Abbott has compared his pathetic Direct Action plan to the Obama administration’s historic plans to tackle climate change, unveiled last week. The latest in a long line of significant progress, Obama has always supported tough action on climate change and big polluters, but has struggled to get his emissions trading legislation past Republicans. Abbott on the other hand actively campaigned against the Carbon Tax and any emissions trading scheme for years, mocking it as the “non-delivery of an invisible substance”.

Even The Australian thinks Abbott needs to act on climate in light of this strong action from the US.

In February, Abbott announced that climate change would not be on the agenda for the annual G20 summit in Brisbane. He described climate change as an issue which would “clutter up” the schedule, squandering the chance to discuss real economic issues like free trade and reduced regulation.

Clutter? The greatest political, environmental and economic crisis facing our generation is CLUTTER?

The summit has been described by Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek as, “the most important international meeting that has ever been held on Australian soil.” While BHP Billiton CEO Andrew Mackenzie wholeheartedly supports leaving climate off the agenda, surprisingly, world leaders do not agree. Climate change was on the agenda both in 2012 in Mexico and 2013 in Russia, and here’s a good reason why:

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria, and IMF Managing Director Christine Legarde have all identified action on climate change as a key international policy priority for the global economy.

Unlike Abbott, the remaining members of the G20 take the economic ramifications of a more unstable climate seriously.  They understand that climate change costs the national economy through failed agriculture, coastal erosion, sea level rise and extreme weather events.  Even more importantly, they understand the more serious international issues caused by climate change – food insecurity, mass migration, famine, political instability, disease – all of which have the potential to cause global economic instability.

Abbott’s continued refusal to acknowledge any link between climate change and the impacts of extreme weather unfolding in Australia is astounding.

fire

Photo: Mid North Coast Greens

The east coast of Australia just experienced its hottest May on record, registering a scary 8 degrees above normal on May 25th. Huge areas of agricultural land in NSW and QLD have been without significant rainfall for over a year, and the government must now fork out millions to support farmers in these drought-stricken lands. We’ve seen more extreme weather events, from drought to storms to floods. What embarrassment when Abbott derided UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres as “talking through her hat”, for suggesting a link between our ferocious spring bushfires and climate change.

But on his travels, Abbott seems to have found a soul mate in his ultra conservative Canadian twin Stephen Harper.  Harper’s government has embarked on a similar path to the Coalition – campaigning against a carbon tax, gutting environmental funding, jumping into bed with the fossil fuel industry, and being ‘Open For Business’.  Under Harper, Canada became the only country to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol due to the huge influence of their fossil fuel industry.  If Abbott has his way, Australia will be the only country to abolish an emissions trading scheme.  Soul mates indeed.  Go Canadia!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzkzJhA6s1g

Meanwhile, the gaffes keep rolling in, and Buzzfeed have even created an ode to the embarrassment that is Tony Abbott.  Hilarious as it is, every time Abbott opens his mouth Australia loses credibility on the world stage.

Far from building his international reputation, Abbott’s diplomatic tour is showing just how out of step he is with the rest of the world.