Burke gets tough to stop new reef plans

One-of-a-kind ... the Great Barrier Reef is considered the world's largest coral reef system.
One-of-a-kind ... the Great Barrier Reef is considered the world's largest coral reef system.
Tony Burke "would not give an inch" to further port developments.

Tony Burke "would not give an inch" to further port developments.

THE federal government has promised to stop any coal port or shipping developments that would cause ''unacceptable'' damage to the Great Barrier Reef in an effort to convince the United Nations to preserve the reef's world heritage status.

All criticisms of the reef's management made last year by UNESCO have been met, according to a government report to be released on Friday.

The Environment Minister, Tony Burke, said he ''would not give an inch'' to Queensland's government over further port developments in sensitive areas such as Gladstone unless they met the criteria of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

He was confident the strict application of the act, together with changes in future coal production and shipping estimates, would keep the reef's status as a world heritage site intact.

''UNESCO wanted the government to establish a benchmark that they wanted us to meet, and it has been met. The development approvals that have happened [since the report] have been consistent with that.''

UNESCO rebuked the federal government last year, saying the rapid increase in coastal and port developments near the reef was of ''significant concern'', and that it might have no choice but to revise its conservation status to a world heritage area ''in danger''. It asked the government not to permit any new port developments beyond existing industrial sites.

''The World Heritage Committee can be assured that no new port developments or associated port infrastructure have been approved outside existing long-established major port areas since the committee made this recommendation,'' the government's report said.

''A project will only be approved by the Australian government environment minister if the residual impacts on protected matters, including 'outstanding universal value', are determined to be not unacceptable.''

It pointed out that estimates of the rise in shipping near or across the reef, driven by Queensland's coal and gas boom, had been revised downwards by the Australian Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics since UNESCO made its critical assessment.

''Many of those early projections have since been scaled down or withdrawn,'' the report said. ''Current estimates indicate the increase [in shipping] is likely to be between 52 and 74 per cent, although this is also considered to be at the upper end of the likely range.''

After UNESCO's report, the Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, responded: ''We are in the coal business.''

But Mr Burke said federal environment regulations would be applied wherever possible to meet the requirements of the world heritage committee.

''From time to time, the Queensland Premier gets a rush of blood to the head, and starts demanding that we start giving approvals without the proper processes,'' he said.

''I can assure people we won't be giving an inch in terms of protecting the reef.''

Environment groups, including the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said they still believed Australia would fail to protect the reef.

''The sheer size and speed of port and associated development along the reef coast is unprecedented,'' the conservation society's campaign director, Felicity Wishart, said.

This story Burke gets tough to stop new reef plans first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.