Beyond the Spill

Beyond the Spill

The Sheng Neng 1 grounded atop the Great Barrier Reef

Newspapers and online news sites around the world this weekend ran the story of the Chinese coal carrier that has slammed into the Great Barrier Reef. In this latest assault on the delicate biodiverse-rich reef, the Sheng Neng 1 has already shed three to four metric tons of oil into the water, with many fearing that as much as 975 tons of oil will be spilled if the ship breaks further apart.

With a potentially disastrous oil spill on our hands, the media has been quick to report on the Chinese vessel’s violation of shipping in the reef’s waters, particularly as no marine pilot with local expertise was on hand. However, no media has dwelled on the fact that this ship was carrying 65,000 tons of coal from Australia to China, and what the long-term environmental consequences of such trade may be.

As it turns out, the Australian mining company Resourcehouse announced a $60 billion deal with China Power International Development in February, whereby the Chinese company will receive 30 million tons of coal annually for the next twenty years. The ecological repercussions of such a deal are immense, and according to Friends of the Earth Australia, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with this agreement will amount to a whopping 20 percent of Australia’s total domestic emissions.

With demand for coal from China, Japan, Korea and India only increasing, Australia, the global leading coal exporter, has been only happy to oblige. Much of this trade occurs via vessels such as the Sheng Neng 1, currently grounded atop the Great Barrier Reef, as seaborne trade in coal has grown by 7 percent each year over the past two decades.

The world’s oceans bear a significant brunt of the continued burning of fossil fuels such as coal. In recent years scientists have noted the growing acidification of our oceans, estimating that the oceans absorb some 25 percent of the extra carbon dioxide currently in our atmosphere. Increasingly acidic oceans eat away at coral reefs and make it more difficult for the coral to replenish itself’a phenomenon that has been duly noted on the Great Barrier Reef. Given the ecologically destructive nature of Australia’s coal trade, it’s a sad state of affairs when an oil spill of epic proportions may be the least of our worries when considering the fate of this coral reef.

Photo Courtesy of Australian Maritime Safety Authority