Representatives from the United Nation's UNESCO World Heritage Centre's marine program have declared Australia's Great Barrier Reef "at a crossroads," following the group's initial assessment of the condition of the reef. The delegation's statement was in rebuttal to an Australian government position that the reef would be exposed to minimal impact from proposed coal seam gas developments.
Australia has rich deposits of coal seam gas, also known as coal bed methane, but its extraction method, wherein water is either forced into the coal bed or is extracted as a byproduct of the process, can produce pollution along with the environmental impact of the infrastructure (new roads, trucks, ships, etc.) required to support the coal seam gas operations.
According to UNESCO coordinator Dr. Fanny Douvere, the reef needs government protection ''not just for Australians but for humanity as a whole. We are not just talking about any barrier reef, we're talking about the Great Barrier Reef.''
With UNESCO declaring that the Australian government's position - that coal seam gas operations would have minimal impact on the reef - as one that might not be true, the government has now committed itself to an 18-month strategic assessment of future developments on the reef.
One area of concern will be the potential impact of dredging. As part of proposed developments, large areas of shoreline - up to 46 million cubic meters - would be dredged over the next 20 years. Dredging stirs up the bottom, potentially coating the coral with silt and affecting the photosynthesis process that feeds the microscopic zooxanthellae algae that lives within the coral's tissues and provides nutrients.
''We are aware dredging does have a correlation with water quality, and water quality is a crucial component for the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef as a whole,'' Dr Douvere said.
Another issue that will be studied is the increase in shipping anticipated either as part of coal and gas exploration or as a result of when operations are in earnest. The expansion of shipping and the toll it may take on the reef has not been lost on some within the Australian government.
Environment Minister Tony Burke said, "I have been making the argument for some time that shipping activity is potentially the most environmentally sensitive activity in the entire mix here. Any application that is going to have a continued marked increase, if it was successful on shipping movements, needs to be scrutinised incredibly closely and I view that as a critical part of any environmental approval."
Like many other developed nations, Australia is having to wrestle with the demands being made for more energy versus the preservation of its environment - with the Great Barrier Reef considered one of the world's grandest ocean treasures but one that is just as easily threatened as the smallest coral reef. In today's world, it's only as great as we wisely and thoughtfully allow it to be.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald