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Billion dollar bill to clean up Great Barrier Reef coal port dredging

Coal protest outside supreme court, Sydney

In all the commotion around the carbon price repeal this week and important story has largely slipped through the radar: growing clarity around the financial impact of Australia’s coal expansion plans.

new estimate of the cost of offsetting the damage done by dumping dredge material from the expansion of the Abbot Point coal export port into the Great Barrier Reef marine park is out, and it clocks in at up to $1 billion.

This figure on its own is bad enough, but it follows the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority bafflingly giving its stamp of approval for the controversial development, ignoring loud protests from tourism operators, environmentalists, and scores of scientists; not to mention allegations of conflict of interests inside the marine park authority, and damage from similar dredging operations in nearby Gladstone.

Three million cubic tonnes of dredge spoils are slated to be dumped inside the GBR marine park, significantly increasing the threat to the World Heritage-listed icon. The dredge itself poses a direct threat to the health of the reef and the $6.4 billion tourism industry, but the dredging will also unlock far more coal export capacity, allowing vast amounts of Australian coal to be exported and burned overseas, driving dangerous climate change and further impacts on the reef from ocean acidification, warming water and more.

These growing direct and indirect threats coal puts on the reef have led to increasingly stern warnings from UNESCO that it could add the reef to its World Heritage In Danger list, and Australian banks are being put on notice by customers for their investments in the destructive fossil projects.

The Abbott Government and the big four banks continue to ignore the true cost of coal, but the market is rapidly wising up to its terminal decline. Investors are abandoning coal projects left, right and centre, while Indian coal giant Adani – facing considerable export losses as the window to dig up and export its coal economically closes – has threatened to scrap its investment in the port.

It makes one wonder who will be the last man stranding.

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