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'Coal highway' threatens Barrier Reef?

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Activists make allegation after ship accident

CANBERRA - Australia flagged a review of shipping laws on Tuesday after a coal ship ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and environmentalists warned the Asia resource boom was turning the fragile reef into a "coal highway".The Chinese bulk carrier Shen Neng 1 was fully loaded and travelling at full speed when it struck the Douglas Shoal, off Rockhampton in Queensland state, on Saturday, inside the World Heritage-listed reef park.

Authorities are trying to stop 975 tonnes of fuel oil leaking on to corals.

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Prime Minister Kevin Rudd flew over the ship with maritime safety officials and said he was concerned the bulk carrier had been far off course from official shipping lanes.

"From where I see it, it is outrageous that any vessel could find itself 12 kilometres off course, it seems, in the Great Barrier Reef," Rudd told reporters in tropical Queensland, where the reef park is a major tourist draw.

"From my point of view as prime minister of Australia, there is no greater natural asset for Australia than the Great Barrier Reef."

Rudd said after dealing with the immediate priority of salvaging the ship and containing any fuel oil spill, marine safety authorities would investigate why the accident happened and whether laws needed changing as resource exports intensified.

More regulation could add to shipping bottlenecks at Australian coal export terminals that have pushed the number of vessels in offshore queues to more than 220, with more than 100 ships waiting off the Queensland state coast alone.

Australian Greens party leader Bob Brown called for a review of shipping routes as the adjacent Gladstone coal port works to lift capacity by up to 25 million tonnes-a-year, driven by surging demand from Japan, South Korea, India and China.

There was growing speculation that a large number of oil tankers and other carriers were moving through an illegal "rat run" shortcut between reefs on their way to open sea and ports in Asia, Brown said.

"This is the A$60 billion-a-year, largely foreign-owned coal industry, that is making a coal highway out of the Great Barrier Reef," he said.

Maritime authorities downplayed the chances of the Shen Neng 1 breaking up and spilling its load of fuel oil and coal onto the reef, although salvage experts remained concerned about a possible environmental catastrophe if the weather worsened.

The stranded ship belongs to the Shenzhen Energy Group, a subsidiary of China's state-owned China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company, better known by its acronym COSCO.

In 2007, COSCO was linked to a major oil spill in San Francisco bay, while last year it was tied to another in Norway, both of which damaged environmentally sensitive areas.

COSCO could face fines of up to A$1 million dollars ($920,800) over the incident, while the vessels captain could be handed an individual penalty of up to A$250,000.

A small oil slick was broken up with chemical dispersants and local authorities prepared disaster management teams and oil containment booms in case a spill threatened coastal beaches popular with local and international tourists.

The accident was Australia's third such recent disaster, following two last year, another oil spill off the Queensland coast and a major oil well blowout in the Timor Sea.

Local authorities said with the same coastal route used by the Shen Neng 1 soon to be used by bulk Liquefied Natural Gas carriers, regulations should be tightened and experienced navigators placed on vessels moving through the reef.

"I believe that having pilots, while vessels are inside the reef, until they're clear of the reef, is absolutely essential and the legislation has to be changed," Rockhampton mayor Brad Carter told Australian radio.

Australia's booming coal seam gas sector has attracted more than A$20 billion worth of investments from a host of energy majors, as shrinking resources worldwide spur them to turn to unconventional gas reserves to feed Asian energy demand.

Four LNG projects are slated for construction in Queensland. Projects due for approval this year include Queensland Curtis by BG Group, Gladstone LNG by Santos and Malaysia's Petronas, and Australia Pacific LNG by Origin Energy and ConocoPhillips.

International law expert Don Rothwell said the grounding could lead to an increase in regulations for foreign and local shipping on the reef, with the agreement of the International Maritime Organisation watchdog.

"There will be an upsurge of shipping in and out of the ports in central Queensland, and that would seem to suggest that Australia would have a strong argument to be able to designate these lanes," Rothwell said.

International salvage firm Svitzer has been engaged tug boats are being used to stabilise the ship while authorities remove oil before attempting to refloat the vessel.


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