Fossil Fuelled Freighter is a Ticking Environmental Time Bomb for Reef

Fossil Fuelled Freighter is a Ticking Environmental Time Bomb for Reef

Salvage crews boarded the grounded coal ship, the Chinese bulk coal carrier Shen Neng 1, which is wedged on a section of reef and has leaked four tonnes of oil in marine park waters. Interrupting his tour of hospital bedsides to survey the damage to the Great Barrier Reef, perhaps Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had pause for introspection. With or without oil spills, the Reef is destined for catastrophic destruction.

ABC News (6 April 2010):

Salvage crews have boarded the grounded coal ship on Tuesday in the Great Barrier Reef off the central Queensland coast. The Chinese bulk carrier Shen Neng 1 is wedged on a section of reef and has leaked four tonnes of oil in marine park waters.

Maritime safety experts say it will be another day before they can assess the full extent of damage and work out how to move the ship from the reef.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will inspect the site on Tuesday and the Federal Government has moved to establish a special panel which will assess the damage to the reef.

Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett says he has asked the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) to coordinate the panel and the group will advise the Government on how the ship should be moved.

Two tugboats are in place to stabilise the ship and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh says salvage experts will consider pumping oil from the damaged vessel.

“The damage is extensive to the engine, to the rudder and other parts of the ship,” she said.

Ms Bligh says more than 900 tonnes of oil is still on board the ship.

“There is thought being given at the moment to whether the best way forward is to pump out the oil,” she said.

“That’ll be a decision ultimately of the salvage team and that is something that could be part of the salvage effort.”

‘Time bomb’

The World Wide Fund for Nature’s Australia director Gilly Llewellyn says the ship is a “ticking environmental time bomb”.

“We would potentially be looking at an environmental disaster,” Ms Llewellyn said.

“It would be an extremely large spill.”

But Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ) is confident it will be able to stabilise the ship.

MSQ general manager Patrick Quirk says even though the ship is damaged, there is unlikely to be a “catastrophic break-up”.

Mr Quirk says the spill is less serious than first thought.

“We suspect at the moment that the oil has spilt not from the actual tanks but from some overflow pipes on the deck,” he said.

Planes were not sent out with dispersant chemicals this afternoon because the amount of spilt oil was too small.

Booms are expected to be used to limit the spread of oil, but maritime authorities say it may take weeks to refloat the coal carrier.

AMSA investigating

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) says it is concentrating on securing the ship and cleaning up the pollution from the spill.

AMSA spokesman Graham Peachey says one of its ships will be travelling to the site of the leak to help with the clean-up on Wednesday.

“We will be investigating very thoroughly what happened,” he said.

“This is an extraordinarily valuable area in the Great Barrier Reef. It’s pristine and needs to be protected and there are rules there in place that need to serve a purpose and we’ll be investigating very thoroughly.”

Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter says some oil spilled from the ship may reach the Shoalwater Bay Military Training Area by Wednesday and miss popular tourist islands.

“At this stage the advice we have seems to indicate that the islands Great Keppel and south are not likely to be impacted on,” he said.


Meanwhile, Ms Bligh says no changes have been made to the amount of compensation shipowners are liable for if their boats create pollution damage.

Last year, the owners of the Pacific Adventurer offered $25 million in compensation after an oil spill off the south Queensland coast.

Ms Bligh says the Queensland Government will look into compensation issues after the oil spill in the reef is contained.

“This is an international cap and the Federal Government, through the minister Anthony Albanese, has formally made representations to the international body to lift that cap,” she said.

“My understanding is they have yet to do that, so we’ll look at that those issues as they arise but right now our first priority is to stabilise this vessel.”

Monitoring ships

The spill has also sparked criticism of a lack of monitoring of coal ships in the Great Barrier Reef.

Queensland Seafood Industry Association (QSIA) spokesman Michael Gardiner says there is more monitoring of fishing trawlers than large coal ships.

“All trawl vessels in Queensland are required to have a vessel monitoring device in place seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” he said.

“Here we’ve got these massive ships fully laden with coal and fuel oil traversing part of the marine park, and there’s certain parts there where there’s no vessel tracking at all.”

MSQ spokesman Patrick Quirk says the authority has been looking at expanding the tracking coverage area as part of its risk assessments on future port development.

“Under our risk analysis, though this has proved us wrong, I will admit, this was seen as a low-risk area because the navigation is fairly straight forward,” he said.

“I want to emphasise that this is not an idea where we require complex navigation exercises.”


Jessica Irvine, Economics Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (7 April 2010): 

Interrupting his tour of hospital bedsides to survey the damage to the Great Barrier Reef from the grounded Chinese bulk carrier, perhaps Kevin Rudd had pause for introspection.

Even before the Shen Neng 1 ran into it, the best-case scenario for the reef over the coming century, according to Rudd’s climate change adviser, Ross Garnaut, was for twice as many mass bleachings of coral. They are caused by rising sea temperatures and acidity as higher levels of carbon dioxide are absorbed into the ocean.

In the worst case, Garnaut predicts, there will be ”catastrophic destruction” of the coral by 2100.

It must weigh heavily on Rudd to know history will judge him a failed prime minister if he does not deliver his promised emissions trading scheme. It will make the home insulation scheme look like a relative triumph – at least it got off the ground. It is safe to assume his ETS will not pass this Senate, so he must commit to passing it in his second term.

If Rudd wimps out, climate-conscious voters may well be left with the conclusion that the environment would have been better off had they voted for John Howard in 2007. He would have been in a better position to wrangle his party’s climate sceptics into delivering the Liberals’ promised scheme. He would have been helped by a treasurer who floated the idea in cabinet in 2003 and an environment minister who, to the end of his political career, remains a passionate supporter.

I know, I know, we’re all tired of debating the appropriate response to climate change. Public support for a trading scheme – while still in the majority – has waned since the failure at Copenhagen. Rudd has made it clear he would much rather talk about health and hospitals, where polling shows Labor is in a clear election winning position.

But while there has been a cooling in the atmospherics surrounding climate action, nothing in the science has changed. In fact, evidence of climate change, and the contribution of humans to it, keeps getting stronger.

Evidence released recently by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO shows atmospheric and sea temperatures continue to rise, along with sea levels and carbon dioxide concentrations in the air. In Australia the average number of days posting record hot temperatures has jumped to about 23 days a year over the past decade, up from an average of about 13 days a year in the 1990s. Conversely, the incidence of record cold days has fallen.

”Our observations clearly demonstrate that climate change is real,” conclude the authorities, which between them have more than 160 years experience observing atmospheric changes. They predict a hotter and drier Australia, with average temperature rises of between 0.6 and 1.5 degrees by 2030 and between 2.2 and 5.0 degrees by 2070.

The Secretary of the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Dr Martin Parkinson, recently argued it was time to get ”back to basics” on climate change. Copenhagen may have disappointed, but if man-made climate change is real, and most scientists say it is, it is only a matter of time before pressure for action mounts again.

Parkinson says: ”In contrast to some reports in the media, new scientific findings are tending to suggest more, not less, serious consequences. Such a trend will provide increasing pressure on the global community to act. This issue is not going to go away, even if there is a weariness in certain quarters of the Australian community.”

Perhaps our waning interest in the climate action debate comes down to its look of ”spinning wheels”, identified by Parkinson. ”In some areas debate is traversing back and forth over old ground as if the issues have not been examined before, and without signs of an emerging consensus.”

As for the Liberal Party’s new embrace of direct government regulation to bring about emission cuts, Parkinson points out this relies to a large degree on ”bureaucratic clairvoyance”.

There is a deep irony in Tony Abbott’s position as he lambasts the bureaucrats responsible for implementing the home insulation scheme – the same people he wants to identify projects for reducing emissions.

But consistency is not a priority for a man who dismissed the ETS as a ”great big new tax” then proposed a great big new tax on business to pay for his proposed scheme for expanding paid parental leave.

Meanwhile, as the politicians fiddle, the scale of the task to curb Australia’s growing carbon footprint grows. Australia is expected to belch about 570 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere this year, an increase of about 3 per cent since 2000.

Both the Coalition and Labor share a commitment to cut carbon emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 from 2000 levels. The Greens dismiss this as inadequate. But it is beginning to look like no small feat. On current trends, and without the government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme, annual emissions are projected to rise to almost 670 million tonnes in 2020.

Already, meeting the target means we need to find abatements worth 144 million tonnes by 2020. Parkinson points out if every Australian household were to install a 1.5 kilowatt solar panel on their rooftop overnight it would only save 13 million tonnes a year in 2020, less than a tenth of what is needed. Moreover, doing so would cost about $200 billion, more than two-thirds of annual federal revenue.

Fortunately, we have a better solution. It’s called an emissions trading scheme. It sets a cap on pollution and allocates permits up to that amount. Polluters are required to surrender enough permits to cover their annual emissions. If they fall short, they can buy them from other polluters. It is a continuation of the narrative of market-based reform that turned Australia’s economy into the envy of the advanced world.

It may still not be enough to save the Great Barrier Reef, but it will do more good than simply watching the problems from the air.


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