Bank Ducks Challenge Over Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

     OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – No breach of federal environmental laws occurred in the funding of natural gas projects near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
     The Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Environment and Turtle Island Restoration Network sued the Export-Import Bank of the United States in 2012, claiming that it failed to make mandatory biological assessments and environmental impact surveys before agreeing to a $4.8 billion funding of two liquefied natural gas projects in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
     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 at least 1,500 species of tropical fish, more than 200 species of birds and dozens of species of reptiles, including crocodiles and sea turtles. 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.
     Environmentalists say the Australia Pacific LNG Project and the Queensland Curtis LNG Project – collectively amounting to up to 16,000 on-land well and 510 miles of pipeline to the coast – will irreparably damage the reef’s beauty and vibrant ecosystem. Both projects will be located partially within the boundaries of the heritage site, and within the habitats of threatened and endangered species.
     But while the environmentalists argued that Ex-Im Bank had an obligation to make environmental and biological assessments under both the Endangered Species Act and the National Historic Preservation Act – which implements the World Heritage Convention – U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong held Tuesday that neither law applies to the bank’s actions outside the United States.
     In the case of the Endangered Species Act, Armstrong noted that Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries services stopped requiring consultations for actions taken internationally in 1986 – except for those done on the high seas. But the natural gas wells and lines will not be located on the high seas, the judge said.
     “The complaint simply alleges that the projects will require ‘dredging of Gladstone Harbor to facilitate tanker access,’ and that, once the projects are operational, ‘tankers will transport LNG … to destinations worldwide,” Armstrong wrote, citing the complaint. “It does not allege facts plausibly suggesting that the transportation of LNG is part of the projects funded by Ex-Im Bank. To the contrary, the allegations in the complaint demonstrate that transportation of LNG will occur after the projects are completed. Furthermore, defendants have submitted environmental review documents that do not identify transportation of LNG as a component of either project.”
     The judge passed on the environmentalists’ theory that federal regulations apply to actions funded in the United States but carried out on foreign soil.
     “Plaintiffs have not cited any authority supporting such a novel construction of the regulation,” Armstrong wrote. “Moreover, plaintiffs’ proposed construction contravenes the services’ express purpose in revising the regulation in 1986, which was to limit the geographic scope to agency actions taken in the United States or upon the high seas. Plaintiffs’ proposed construction is also contrary to decisional authority interpreting the regulation as only requiring consultation for ‘actions taken in the United States or on the high seas.’ Accordingly, contrary to plaintiffs’ contention, the court finds that Ex-Im Bank was not required to consult with the services prior to providing funding for the projects based on the plain language of the regulation.”
     Although the environmentalists urged the judge to find the services’ 1986 amendments invalid, far more than the six years allowed to challenge regulations has passed, Armstrong said.
     The environmentalists have 21 days to file an amended complaint or face dismissal, Armstrong concluded.

%d bloggers like this: