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Byron Shire
March 1, 2024

Gladstone gas or the Barrier Reef?

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Is a gas terminal feeding coal-seam gas to China going to be the last gasp for Australia’s priceless offshore asset? Crikey naturalist Lionel Elmore investigates.

The liquid-natural-gas facility being constructed at Gladstone is to supply liquefied coal-seam gas to China to reduce that country’s CO2 emissions. Even this fundamental proposition is in doubt, according to Colin Hunt writing in Climate Spectator:

… The EISs suggest there will be some 39 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent emitted from the five Gladstone projects per year, once fully operating after 2014. This will amount to:

• more than 10% of Australia’s 2020 emission target of a 25% cut on 2000 levels of greenhouse emissions;

• 8% of its 2020 emissions target of a 5% cut; and

• 19% of the 2050 target, which is 60% below 2000 levels.

The LNG project was approved for construction before the approval of most of the many coal-seam gas extraction proposals upon which it is reliant. The proposed port development for this and many other projects in and around the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park will require massive amounts of dredging and annual maintenance dredging. The sediment to be dredged will often, like Gladstone Harbour, be contaminated by toxins from mining, agriculture and industrial development, etc.

The environment impact statement process not only failed to predict this but state and federal bureaucracies have sought to understate the health and environmental impact of dredging contaminated sediment since it became apparent. From industry’s point of view the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association states:

‘… CSG also promises to underpin a valuable new export sector in Queensland – four liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects based on CSG are planned for development in Queensland. These projects will pipe the gas from the CSG fields of inland Queensland to the port city of Gladstone. Plants at Gladstone will chill CSG to -161°C, liquefying the gas so that it contracts to fill just one six-hundredth of the space occupied by its gaseous form. The LNG can then be exported to Asian markets by purpose-built tankers.

‘The Queensland government expects these projects will create about 18,000 jobs, increase state domestic product by 1%, and generate around $1 billion per annum in state revenue…’

But will Queensland, indeed Australia, make a profit or a loss?

This project will have a life of 30 years. If the fisheries and tourism of the Great Barrier Reef are worth $5 billion per annum, the impact of the Gladstone project alone could be very significant. Regardless of the causes of fish and wildlife deaths and disease, the growing bad publicity – national and international – is impacting [on] tourism and fish sales regionally.

The value of fishing and fish, recreational and commercial, has been growing as fast or faster than the rate of inflation and is likely to continue that growth – well beyond 30 years.

Australia has been at least circumspect in valuing these industries, especially commercial fishing, which is simply said to be worth just the landed fish value – the first price. In the real world, commercial fishermen buy and maintain boats, nets, radars, radios, safety gear, sounders, etc. This generates considerable local employment in addition to that of deckhands and skippers.

The fish are sold first from the boat, but then again to the processor, wholesaler, distributor and finally to the public on the plate. Compare the price per kilo at the fish market to the price you pay for fish per kilo at the restaurant or fish and chip shop and you get some idea.

Similarly recreational fishing, which has been variously valued at generating between $150 and $250 per day’s fishing to the local economies in which the recreational fishfolk take their catches. These folk stay in accommodation, hire or buy boats, buy food and drinks, bait, equipment, etc.

Tourism, of which recreational fishing is a subset, is even more valuable and complex – overseas visitation often based on ‘perception’, which is why we spend on advertising. Accommodation in Queensland ranges from tents for backpackers, who spend freely with gold credit cards, to five-star resorts. In total, the tourist industry involves massive capital investment and directly employs thousands of people.

All this is at risk from badly managing the Great Barrier Reef.

The current system of environmental valuation has evolved from the ecological sustainability workshops and studies of the early 1980s.

A massive amount of research as to the status of individual species, habitat mapping and management of species has been invested in by taxpayers, which has produced environmental management based on maintaining biodiversity – a Noah’s Ark-like approach. This has informed the environment impact statement process, also described by Colin Hunt on Climate Spectator:

‘… Quite simply, the Gladstone case highlights the flaws in the environmental impact assessment and approvals processes overseen by state and federal governments.

‘In order to start a project such as the one on Curtis Island, LNG companies are required to carry out environmental impacts assessments (EISs). These assessments must be approved by the state government, and by the Commonwealth, if the type of environmental damage is covered under Commonwealth legislation – in the case of biodiversity impacts, for example.

‘Notably, these EISs are done by private companies hired by the businesses backing the project.’

Looking after biodiversity and protecting rare and endangered species does not maintain good fishing. It doesn’t protect and manage all mangroves, sea grass or even estuaries as critical fish nursery areas or maintain all the reefs where tourist go snorkelling.

It does, however, maintain a lot of ‘wiggle room’ for government authorities and industry proponents who seek to downplay the Gladstone LNG development impacts. It even tempts the federal opposition to propose closing commercial fisheries and pay compensation and the Queensland fisheries minister to advertise ‘all is well with the fish’.

Russell Reichelt, chairman and chief executive of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, said on ABC News this morning, in a clip from tonight’s Four Corners:

‘… there are more ships moving about the reef risking physical damage to the habitat, [and he says] that there are better ways to manage the coal-seam gas boom than to build more ports…’

GBRMPA has done nothing to date to address this ecological disaster and he is offering little more. The problems on the Great Barrier Reef have been growing over years as state and federal governments and GBRMPA have allowed more and more development on the reef and in its catchments. Now this accumulated inability to manage the environment may be putting the Queensland and national economy at risk.

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