The Monthly : 2018-12-01

FRONT PAGE : 18 : 18


16 and its CEOs are buried with full honours, the dangerous emissions they’ve produced will still be in our atmosphere. Heating the oceans, turning them acid, killing coral. So when you take the long view, if you consider Ningaloo’s fate in those terms, you’re faced with more than a passing moment of disquiet, you’re left deeply worried, and that’s an entirely rational concern. But now to the good news. Although the fossil-fuel industry has managed to physically colonise the coastal landscapes to the north in the Pilbara, it has never actually establishe­d a beachhead in the Ningaloo region. For a time the prospect was inconceiva­ble. But regulatory oversight has been slipping. And, as the gas rush intensifie­s, big fossil-fuel operators are seeking opportunit­ies to increase capacity. Some local decision-makers are doing all they can to help create some of those opportunit­ies onshore. more than 800 species of fish alone. The Internatio­nal Union for Conservati­on of Nature acknowledg­es its World Heritage values. But, sadly, the gulf doesn’t have protection to match those values. In fact, its protection­s are modest indeed. Even though it’s the refuge and feeder system that replenishe­s Ningaloo. Even though its mangrove forests, sandflats and islands are where billions of small fry – crabs, prawns, fish and rays – begin life before moving out to the open waters of the reef. This unrepeatab­le ecosystem warrants increased conservati­on, not industrial-scale pressure. Because the degradatio­n of the gulf will eventually threaten the integrity of Ningaloo Reef. Subsea 7’s proposal will probably be built somewhere along Western Australia’s north coast, there’s no getting around that. But with an operationa­l radius of 2000 kilometres, it should be sited north of Exmouth Gulf where industrial infrastruc­ture is already present and gas fields are establishe­d. The company admits it has plausible but more expensive alternativ­e locations to choose from in the Pilbara region. This developmen­t doesn’t need to be imposed on a greenfield site, in an ecotourism hub, in the shadow of a World Heritage area. And, of course, it mustn’t be. All the same, the Exmouth chamber of commerce is hotly in favour of building it in the gulf. And the Shire of Exmouth is so eager to oblige, it’s trying to wind back zoning protection­s to smooth the way. Plans for this project were well advanced when Exmouth’s tiny environmen­t group got wind of them in October 2017. At the time, the shire was without an elected council and under administra­tion following adverse findings at the state Corruption and Crime Commission. Without the alertness of a few volunteers, this project might have sailed through without assessment by the Environmen­tal Protection Authority. Which shows how close the unthinkabl­e can come to being quietly inevitable. If by some perverse circumstan­ce Subsea 7 gets approval, much of the protection Ningaloo has garnered over the past 20 years will exist only on paper. The security that so many Australian­s battled to win for this world treasure will evaporate. Because this is only the beginning. There are already plans for a deepwater port at Mowbowra Creek, 10 kilometres south of Exmouth, and a vast saltworks on the eastern shore of the gulf. Subsea 7’s will be the gateway project, a signal to the fossil-fuel industry that the gulf and the town of Exmouth are open for industrial developmen­t of the sort already experience­d by communitie­s like Karratha and Port Hedland. If that happens, the distinctiv­e low-impact ecotourism industry at Ningaloo will wither. The health of a major natural icon will be compromise­d. And the state’s excellent reputation as a custodian of World Heritage areas will be in jeopardy. Because if we allow Exmouth Gulf to be degraded, if we lose Ningaloo’s nursery, the biodiversi­ty of the reef will decline and, with the entire tourism economy depending on a vibrant coral reef, recreation­al fishing catches will fall, dive charters will go to the wall, and associated businesses in accommodat­ion and hospitalit­y will collapse. The era of cavalier exploitati­on is behind us. Ordinary Australian­s simply won’t put up with it anymore. A multinatio­nal called Subsea 7 intends to begin building a 500-hectare pipe-assembly and launch facility at Heron Point, deep in Exmouth Gulf, by 2020. Its operation requires 10 kilometres of rail line to haul gas pipes from factories to the coast so they can be towed to offshore platforms. That means a 380-metre stone-andconcret­e launchway must be cut through the dunes and laid across the untouched beach and onto the corals and sponges of the intertidal zone. Tugs will drag these enormous steel pipes 1.5 kilometres across the seabed until they reach a depth of 6 metres and begin to float. Then, in 10-kilometre lengths, and stabilised by massive pendant chains that will scour the sea floor, they’ll be towed north through the gulf and out through the Ningaloo Marine Park to gas fields across the horizon. That means a lot of land-clearing, scouring, dredging and dragging. And the impacts will be cumulative and ongoing. So this is a terrible idea. Reckless, even. I know Heron Point well. It’s a lovely, quiet beach. A great place for catching a feed of whiting or taking snaps of migratory birds. And it’s a favourite weekend camping spot for Exmouth locals. I can see why it suits Subsea 7. Access to the land is relatively cheap and the terrain is conducive. But this site isn’t just another scarred bit of Pilbara real estate; it’s deep inside Ningaloo’s refuge and nursery. The gulf is a major rest and birthing area for humpback whales, and a foraging ground for endangered dugongs and turtles and rare species of dolphin. It’s an entirely inappropri­ate site for a heavy-engineerin­g operation like this. It was unthinkabl­e last year. It’s unconscion­able this year. And it’ll still be dead wrong in 2020. Exmouth Gulf is one of the last intact arid-zone estuaries left in the world. Around 2600 square kilometres of unique and biodiverse waterway, it supports the nation reviewed

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