Phil Dickie Stories


SEA change ... moves are afoot to allow mining of the Great Barrier Reef.


M0N 08 JUN 1998,

Mining interests and governments concerned by Australia’s dwindling oil reserves are quietly exploring ways of overturning laws prohibiting mining on the Great Barrier Reef, reports PHIL DICKIE

ON THE face of it, the Great Barrier Reef looks as secure as it has ever been. It is protected, some say over-protected, by marine parks and world heritage declarations, has its own watchdog and its own scientists. Ministers, both State and Federal, continually mutter the mantra that nothing would be allowed to threaten the reef. It is a far cry from 1967, when mining and petroleum exploration leases covered fourfifths of the reef. Cane grower Donald Forbes was poised to kick off an expected bonanza of drilling, dredging and extracting with a proposal to begin mining the "dead coral" of Ellison Reef for agricultural lime. In the Act obliged Mining Warden Mr J.W. Ashfield, sitting through the November heat in a stuffy room in Innisfail, to listen to the handful of conservationists and scientists who submitted that not only was Ellison Reef not dead, but that its mining would surely mean death to surrounding reefs. But Mr Ashfield, SM, did listen. And, to the surprise of all and the extreme annoyance of Queensland’s then coalition government, Mr Ashfield said no to Mr Forbes.

As poet Judith Wright, one of the gaggle of conservationists, later wrote in The Coral Battleground: "A precedent had been established, not for mining the Great Barrier Reef, but for not mining it."

It would be another 12 years before the prohibitions against mining had been set in law and the groundwork for protecting the reef as a marine park put in place.

And it would be another 23 years before the last of the leases Shell, 3323 square miles; Ampol, 8007 square miles; Australian Oil and Gas, 57,000 square miles, Tenneco 5340 square miles were relinquished.

However, there is ample evidence that the reef’s absolute protection from mining impacts may have had a sunset clause. Mining interests, and governments driven by a growing awareness that Australia’s oil reserves are fast running out, are actively but very secretively exploring possible ways of overturning the prohibitions on getting at the oil and gas that geologists reasonably expect to be present under the reef. The attempt late last year by the Queensland Mines and Energy Department to seek expressions of interest in "oil and gas appraisal" in two sections of the reef is most properly seen as a try-on, one that was both premature and politically naive given the proximity of the State election.

However, it is almost inconceivable that the department was engaged in some frolic all its own.

On the basis that "at current production rates, Australia has 14 years of reserves and the need to find major new oil and gas deposits is becoming increasingly urgent", the Australian Geological Survey Organisation was given an additional $36.3 million over four years in the recent Federal Budget.

With 10 to 15 years required to bring new deposits into production, much of the money is being directed to "frontier areas not being explored". Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef is by far the the largest offshore frontier area with promising geology yet to be adequately explored and there is no indication that it will be excluded from the search. Indeed, according to some scientific sources, the reef will be a major focus of the "offshore petroleum programme".

Meanwhile, ministerial correspondence obtained by The Courier-Mail clearly shows Federal Environment Minister Robert Hill ignoring at least 18 months of repeated and increasingly panicky requests from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to tighten up existing prohibitions on oil and gas extraction.

During the long wait for Senator Hill to act, some recent court decisions have made such action even more imperative. The High Court has determined that the Commonwealth could not validly reduce the size of a lease in the Timor Sea without commensurate compensation, throwing open the possibility that Shell could demand its 3323 square miles of Great Barrier Reef back, Ampol its 8007 square miles and so on. Perhaps more alarmingly on the immediate front, the Federal Court determined that for purposes of the tax act at least, oil shale was not a petroleum product.

And, as it happens, the Queensland Government recently issued mineral development licences to the company holding three oil shale leases straddling the coast into Great Barrier Reef waters; the so-called Rundle twins near the Gladstone area and the Condor lease close to the Whitsundays.

The business press runs out of superlatives when assessing these reserves. Less remarked, or more accurately never mentioned, are the environmental aspects of getting oil out of rock.

GBRMPA chairman Ian McPhail was quite possibly guilty of understatement in telling Senator Hill That "the environmental risk of mining for oil shale deposits is likely to be greater than that associated with oil exploration and drilling".

ln layperson’s terms, drilling for oil is like poking a straw into the stuff. The environmental risks come from the process of getting the straw in, taking the oil away and the worst case scenario of a broken straw.

Oil shale has to be exposed, scraped up, and cooked. The residue rock and there is an awful lot of that at the rate of 10 to 40 tonnes of rock to one of oil then takes up rather a lot more space than the hole it came out of. A lot of heating requires a lot of cooling; there are problems getting enough water without depriving someone else of it and then storing large quantities of extremely toxic waste water.

The water will "stabilise" in some hundreds of years but this can be shortened to a decade or two if sulphides by the tip truck load are dumped into the tailings. And there are still the usual problems with ships, biologically contaminated ballast water and the possibility of accidents.

The revelations of the past week and no doubt, those still to come have led numerous politicians, from prime ministers and premiers down, to remutter the mantras about never, ever mining the reef.

However, such pronouncements need to be looked at with great care. "No drilling" might not equate to "no mining" and vice versa. Further useful ambiguity creeps in through the three legal incarnations of the Great Barrier Reef, as a marine park, a world heritage property area, and a declared region.

What is undeniable is that GBRMPA, the appointed and quite conservative watchdog, has been barking on the risks, even if only to the minister. The leaked documents have now alerted others to the barking and also to the possible fate of the watchdog. It is no state secret that the Government believes there are "issues of governance" in relation to the authority, whatever that may mean.

Rumours are now rife that the Government has appointed a person to completely review the legislation and that the intended result of both the announced and unannounced reviews will be a GBRMPA which has been swallowed back into Environment Australia.

Not so, responded Senator Hill’s spokesperson, "GBRMPA will remain GBRMPA". Senator Hill later told the Sydney Morning Herald that this meant GBRMPA remaining an independent statutory authority.

This should possibly be interpreted in the light of a further inadvertent release of government plans, in which it is proposed that some way be found to justify the relevance of spending about $100,000 "controlling the information" and managing the "strategic aspects" of the transformation of GBRMPA with a key individual requiring management being a "Princess Helene" (believed to be a reference to noted reef scientist and occasional conservationist Professor Helene Marsh).

Sources again suggested close attention to the Minister’s fine sense of semantics one option is apparently for GBRMFA to exercise its independent statutory status with a skeleton stall on the reef and a centre of gravity closer to central authority in Canberra. A shared address maybe, even.

No one but no one will announce the commencement of mining or even exploration on the Great Barrier Reef in a press conference.

Much more likely will be a string of official denials, or of statements that certain developments along the way don’t actually mean what they might seem to mean. Naturally, none of the subterfuge would have been necessary if Mr Ashfield, SM, had stuck to the script and told Judith Wright and her colleagues to stop cluttering up his court. Thirty years of every second cane farmer fertilising the fields with the pulverised proceeds of the nearest reef and Shell, Ampol and others drilling the remainder wouldn’t have left much Great or even much Barrier in what remained.

Our Group thanks Mr. Dickie for his permission to reproduce his written environmental articles on our web site.

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