Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
World Heritage Committee delegation
Interview with Fran Kelly, Radio National
6 March 2012
FRAN KELLY: Well, as we've been following here on RN Breakfast, a UN team is in Australia to inspect the Great Barrier Reef. But its monitoring mission isn't starting on the Reef. It begins today with a meeting with the Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke.
And over the next ten days the mission will visit the Great Barrier Reef as well as the adjacent urban, industrial and port areas that are earmarked for expansion and development to cater for Queensland's resources boom.
The World Heritage Committee requested the visit after expressing extreme concern about the State and Federal Governments' approval of multi-billion dollar gas projects on the edge of the Reef, off Gladstone. It's also requested a comprehensive strategic review of the Reef be conducted.
Early this morning I spoke with the Environment Minister, Tony Burke.
TONY BURKE: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, environmentalists say the mere arrival of a monitoring mission and last year's rebuke by the World Heritage Committee is an embarrassment for Australia. Have State and Federal Governments failed to adequately protect the Reef from the pressures of the mining boom?
TONY BURKE: From the moment this mission was suggested I've supportive of it, and publicly supportive of it. What I want the World Heritage Committee to do is to see exactly what I saw.
When it was first floated with me about some development happening on Curtis Island, within the World Heritage area, I was very hostile to it. I want them to see what I saw, which is the part of Curtis Island we're talking about. It's not some island out in the Whitsundays.
It's, effectively, the northern side of Gladstone Harbour; a harbour that currently has a coal loader and an aluminium smelter that's a working industrial port. It's very different to the areas that you'd associate with the pristine nature of the Great Barrier Reef.
FRAN KELLY: It may be very different, but it is, nevertheless, within the Great Barrier Marine Park. It is within a World Heritage listed area.
TONY BURKE: Oh, that's right; as is the entirety of that part of the Queensland coastline, with all the working harbours and all the work that happens there.
What you need to make sure of is that you don't in any way compromise the World Heritage values which exist within that entire area. And when you look for those values there's many islands, many reefs, many places where those values are abundant. It's a much tougher argument to make inside the inner workings of Gladstone Harbour.
FRAN KELLY: Let's go to that. What assurances will you be giving to UNESCO that the Reef is being protected adequately though from the heavy developments along the coast from places like Gladstone Harbour?
TONY BURKE: This is one of the real challenges in getting sustainable development right. I've already had some preliminary talks with the World Heritage Committee about this; which is the question for sustainable development: are you better off having very small developments which would be up and down the coast in a large number of places? Or are you better off having a couple of - a handful of places where you actually have fewer environmental values but you have larger developments at a smaller number of spots?
Now, it's a live environmental question that I want them to be able to help work this through. We've had talks about it and I know that it's a front of mind issue for them as well.
FRAN KELLY: But activity is going ahead for these larger projects. I mean there's consideration for a proposal to expand Abbot Point near Bowen, which would create the world's biggest coal port - three times larger than anything that currently exists. Is that decision going to be made before the strategic assessment of the Reef is completed?
TONY BURKE: Well, all decisions get made according to the law and when they come to me. And I'm not pre-judging any of the proposals. It's not just that one. There are a very large number of proposals that people have started to lock into the pipeline, and no-one should make a presumption that because somebody's applied therefore it ends up passing the environmental tests.
FRAN KELLY: Yes, but what direction are you giving them? I mean these are major project developments on the drawing board, and you say you still haven't decided whether these major kind of expansions and developments are the way to go or a number of smaller ones.
TONY BURKE: That's right, and the World Heritage Committee is going to be having a look at that. They'll be investigating that. Certainly, at the moment, I have been far more comfortable allowing further expansion in an area such as Gladstone Harbour, then to go to areas that are relatively pristine.
Let's not forget, with Abbot Point, there is already a significant level of industry that occurs there. I don't want to underestimate though the possible impact of the size of the expansion.
But the expansion issue doesn't just go to what happens within the port. One of the largest levels of concern here is shipping, as the vessels move through the Reef area. So those shipping movement issues are issues that really have to be front of mind throughout all of this.
FRAN KELLY: And the shipping movements are - it's slated that they would expand by five times by the year 2020, to more than ten thousand ships a year moving through the area.
TONY BURKE: Yes, well those figures presume that absolutely everything that's been applied for would get over the line. And without pre-judging individual applications that would be an unusual outcome, given the history of these decisions.
FRAN KELLY: The Gladstone Ports Corporation is seeking to have the Gladstone Port removed from the World Heritage area. Do you support that? And is that a solution for all ports?
TONY BURKE: That's not our policy. Our policy is to properly manage the World Heritage boundary that we have.
FRAN KELLY: Another issue that people are concerned about is the sludge, the spoils from the dredging to facilitate all these ship movements, estimated at more than one-hundred million cubic metres of this dredging spoils. You're threatening a levy be charged to dump that dredged soil into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
But given the amount of dredging that's going on now and in the future, why would you allow any dredging of the soil to be dumped into the park? Why isn't that dangerous to the health of the Reef?
TONY BURKE: Very little is ever allowed to be dumped into the Marine Park area, very little.
FRAN KELLY: Well, I've just read in one article today that suggests five million tonnes of spoils will be dumped in the sea about forty kilometres from the start of the Reef.
TONY BURKE: I suspect some of what you may well be dealing with there is anticipated projects, if they were approved and if all the dredged spoil was allowed to be dumped into the Marine Park area.
FRAN KELLY: No, no, no. They're talking about twenty-five million tonnes of spoils. Twenty million will be used for land reclamation and five million dumped into the sea.
TONY BURKE: Under which proposal?
FRAN KELLY: This is the Gladstone expansion.
TONY BURKE: The Gladstone proposals which I have approved - the dumping of that dredged spoil is not dumped within the Marine Park.
FRAN KELLY: So what is your position? What is the Government's position on any dredging soil being dumped into the Park, or any increase in dredging soil being dumped within the Park's limits?
TONY BURKE: The first preference is for dredged soil to be dumped on land. If it's ever to be dumped within the water the first option is for it to be outside of the Marine Park. It only ever gets dumped within the Marine Park if it can be found that there is a section within it where there is absolute minimal environmental impact. Now, that's been the situation for some decades now.
The issue of the levy is a really simple principle. That is, that given that for decades some - not massive amounts, but some - dredge spoil has been allowed to be dumped within the Marine Park, I think it's ridiculous that we have a situation where tourists are charged. Tourism operators are charged a levy for their use of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and dredging operators are not charged a levy for their operations. I can't for the life of me see why it should be allowed to be free.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, just finally, on another issue - the Financial Review today reports Greenpeace leading a new campaign against coal mining and coal exports to disrupt and delay some key coal projects. He says it's aim is to make some of them unviable and it's all about trying to slow them down in terms of avoiding what they call a climate change tipping point. What's your reaction to a public campaign that wants to undermine the coal industry?
TONY BURKE: We have a way of dealing with greenhouse gases, and it's called a price on carbon. That's the way to make sure that, as a nation and as a planet, we do the right thing by the atmosphere. I'm not supportive for a minute of further actions on top of that that are simply designed to undermine people who are doing their jobs and doing them legally.
FRAN KELLY: Tony Burke, thank you very much for joining us.
TONY BURKE: A pleasure to talk to you.
FRAN KELLY: Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke. I spoke with him earlier because he's about to head into a meeting with that UN monitoring mission here to monitor the impact on the Great Barrier Reef and Marine Park - the World Heritage area - from the increased mining activities.