U.S.-Backed Project Threatens Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Environmentalists Say


     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The U.S. Export-Import Bank illegally supplied $2.95 billion for a "massive fossil fuel project" that could pollute Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the hundreds of species that depend on it, environmentalists claim in court.
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     The Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Environment, and Turtle Island Restoration Network sued the Export-Import Bank of the United States, in Federal Court.
     The environmentalists claim the bank supplied the funding despite the lack of mandatory biological assessments and environmental impact surveys.
     The 1,600-mile-long Great Barrier Reef parallels the coast of Queensland, Australia from 10 to 90 miles offshore. It is longer than the Great Wall of China, and is the only living thing on Earth that can be seen from space.
     More than 400 species of coral inhabit the reef, as do more than 1,500 species of tropical fish, dozens of species of reptiles, including crocodiles and sea turtles and more than 200 species of birds. Humpback whiles migrate to the reef from the Antarctic to breed.
     The UNESCO World Heritage Committee listed the Great Barrier Reef as a world heritage site in 1981.
     The environmentalists claim the Australia Pacific Liquefied Natural Gas project will irreparably damage the reef's beauty and its vibrant ecosystem.
     "This case challenges the Export-Import Bank of the United States' ('Ex-Im Bank') decision to provide $2.95 billion USD in financing for the development and construction of the Australia Pacific Liquefied Natural Gas ('LNG') Project within Australia's Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Ex-Im Bank, a U.S. federal agency, funded this massive fossil fuel project, which will include gas drilling, pipeline construction, construction of an LNG production facility and terminal, and transport through the Great Barrier Reef, without properly consulting and considering the project's substantial impacts on threatened and endangered species and the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, as required by the U.S. Endangered Species Act ('ESA') ... and the National Historic Preservation Act ('NHPA')," the complaint states. (Citations omitted).
     "Specifically, the Australian Pacific LNG project ('the project') is located in Queensland, Australia and will comprise the entire process of liquefied natural gas production. The project's proponents will drill up to 10,000 coal-seam gas wells in interior Queensland, install nearly 300 miles of pipeline to transport the gas to the coast, construct and operate a massive LNG facility to condense the gas to liquid and prepare it for transport, dredge the adjacent harbor, and then ship directly through the Great Barrier Reef to export the gas around the world."
     The project is a joint venture between Origin energy, ConocoPhilips, and the China Petrochemical Corporation (Sinopec).
     In addition to wells and pipelines, the project will include a facility that will cover 740 acres of land and 800 acres of seabed, and process 18 million metric tons of natural gas per year.
     "The LNG processing facility and terminal will be located on and near Curtis Island, within the boundaries of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, which is renowned for its beauty and rare species habitat. The LNG facility is also located within designated habitat for the dugong, a species listed under the U.S. ESA as 'endangered,' and is located within habitat for U.S. threatened-listed green sea turtles, endangered loggerhead sea turtles, and threatened saltwater crocodiles," the complaint states.
     The plaintiffs claim the project poses special harm to dugongs and sea turtles.
     Dugongs, which are related to manatees, have been listed as endangered since the 1970s. Their shrinking populations are threatened by hunting and human destruction of their delicate seagrass habitats, and by "underwater noise and vessel strikes," according to the complaint.
     "A large portion of the world's dugongs inhabit Australia, including the Great Barrier Reef. Dugongs occur in Port Curtis and Gladstone Harbor and near Curtis Island. In recent years, the number of dugong strandings along the Queensland coast has increased, and the Gladstone area is considered a hotspot for these strandings. Between January 2011 and September 2012, the Queensland Department of Environmental and Heritage Protection documented 17 dugong strandings in the Gladstone area alone and a total of 41 dugong strandings throughout the state," the complaint states.
     The Great Barrier Reef is also a breeding ground for green and loggerhead sea turtles. Like dugongs, sea turtles face population decline due to vessel strikes from fishing boats, beach erosion and seagrass destruction, the complaint states.
     The plaintiffs say the project also will damage the environment by contaminating the water with toxic metals.
     After completion, the project will "emit over 11 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents ('C02e') per year at maximum capacity," the complaint states.
     Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to obtain lists of protected wildlife from wildlife services to ensure that their actions will not harm endangered or threatened species - even if their actions do not take place on U.S. soil.
     As the "official export credit agency of the United States," the Ex-Im Bank must comply with federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, the environmentalists say. But the Ex-Im Bank did not consult with wildlife agencies to mitigate the project's impacts on endangered species.
     Since the Great Barrier Reef is a world heritage site, the plaintiffs say, Ex-Im Bank should have conducted surveys assessing the project's impacts to the ref and "develop[ed] modifications to avoid or mitigate those impacts" as required by the National Historical Preservation Act.
     Ex-Im Bank can use its authority as financial backer to force the project leaders to include mitigation measures to its environmental impacts, the complaint states.
     If compelled to complete surveys in compliance with the ESA and NHPA, the plaintiffs claim, "Ex-Im Bank might require additional environmental mitigation of the project's impacts as a condition of its funding. Further, in order to conduct the required ESA and NHPA processes without irreversibly committing resources, Ex-Im Bank may delay its provision of financing for the project, and thus delay the project's construction or operation, or even cause the cancelation of the project."
     The environmentalists seek declaratory judgment that Ex-Im Bank violated the ESA by failing to conduct biological assessments for endangered wildlife in the project area, and violated the NHPA by not taking into account its impacts to the Great Barrier Reef.
     They seek a court order suspending the project until the bank fulfills these obligations.
     They are represented by Miyoko Sakashita, staff attorney with Center for Biological Diversity.