Coal Shipment Threatens the Great Barrier Reef

Coral reefs are one of the most fascinating underwater communities.They support about 25 percent of all marine life while covering only less than 1 percent of the ocean floors (Coral Reef Alliance, 2010). Coral reefs have survived for millions of years; however, recently human induced disturbances and global warming have put these fragile ecosystems under severe pressure which has brought their preservation to the forefront of ecologists and environmentalists’ agenda. The Great Barrier Reef is located in the north-east of Australia and is the world’s largest coral reef. In the past few weeks this reef has been a hot topic in the Australian news as Greenpeace and UNESCO have raised the issue of the probable severe impacts of a proposed coal development project in Cape York on the reef.

In 2010, Rio Tinto mining company proposed a significant expansion of its west Cape York bauxite plants. The project, called the South Embley project, is enormous and its first phase is estimated to cost more than US$1.5 billion, and was supposed to begin in 2012 (Dow Jones, 2012). The project requires a federal assessment under the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act (Dow Jones, 2012). Nevertheless, the scope of the assessment did not include the impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, and the Environment Department initially approved the proposed expansion project (Colvin, 2012).

Source: en/multimedia/photos/Underwater-Banner-Great-Barrier-Reef/

In March 1st, 2012, Greenpeace released a report documenting the impacts of the project on the Barrier Reef, which included a very significant increase of coal ships traveling through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, and 113 million cubic meters dredging of the area (Hepburn, 2012). The report warned that if the project is approved, by 2020 more than one ship per hour will slice through the Great Barrier Reef (Sky News, 2012) While the initial reaction of the Australian politicians was to attack the report and its findings, the resulting public pressure has caused the Australian and the Queensland governments to announce a strategic assessment of the impacts of coal shipping on the coral reef (Hepburn, 2012). The biggest turn of events came a few days ago on the 16thof March, when the Australian Environment Minister announced that based on new information derived from the Rio’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS), which was provided by the company itself during the assessment process, the original decision on the project is revoked, and an environmental assessment which includes shipping impacts on the coral reefs is now required before the project can begin (Swanepoel, 2012).

On the other hand, Rio Tinto claims that the decision of the government to halt the project for a more rigorous EIA is based on misunderstanding of the data and will put many jobs at risk (Colvin, 2012). The company claims that the project will not increase shipping through The Great Barrier Reef and is urging the government to reconsider its latest decision (Colvin, 2012).

Once again one of the factors that strike me the most about this case is the great capacity of NGOs to pressure governments and large companies, and the responsibility that comes with such power. I doubt that without the Greenpeace campaign to bring the news to the media and the public, the decision to revoke Rio’s permission would have been made so quickly, or at all. Which raises the question, if Rio Tinto is right and there has just been a misunderstanding of the data presented in the draft EIS report, how much is Greenpeace to blame for halting the project and the resulting financial losses to the company and the government? Another important factor is that here is a case where, essentially, the scope of an EIA process is widened after reviewing the findings of the draft EIS;an example that shows how the EA process can change and adapt relative to its initial findings. Whether the Environment Minister decision is right or wrong, we as EIA students and practitioners cannot help but feel thrilled to hear that this project has been halted due to the belief that severe impacts on coral reefs were disregarded in the assessment process; because in EIA when stakes are high it is always better to be safe than sorry.


Colvin, M. 2012. “Rio Tinto baffled as Government sidelines mining expansion” Retrieved from:

Coral Reef Alliance. 2010. “Why Care about Coral Reefs?” Retrieved from:

Dow Jones. 2012. ” Australia To Assess Rio Mine Proposal’s Barrier-Reef Impact” Retrieved from:

Hepburn, J. 2012. “Mega coal mines threaten Great Barrier Reef”.Greenpeace. retrieved from:

Sky News. 2012. “Reef will become Coal Ship Highway- Report”. Retrieved from:

Swanepoel, E. 2012. “Australia to Probe Impact of Rio Expansion on Great Barrier Reef”. Mining Weekly. Retrieved from:


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