On Saturday, Queensland, Australia, goes to the polls, and the issue defining the election is being billed as a choice between creating new jobs and saving the Great Barrier Reef.
The Labor Party has promised it will reject $900 million in federal funding for a rail link to the proposed Adani Group coal mine in Queensland because of environmental concerns. The link is needed to carry the coal from the interior of the country to the shore along the Great Barrier Reef. The Liberal National Party, on the other hand, does not want to threaten the thousands of jobs that could come from the mine, providing work to an area of the country with over 12 percent unemployment. Both parties have played up the issue, framing “coral or coal” as the choice voters are being asked to make.
Although the mine itself is located hundreds of miles from shore, it can indeed damage the Great Barrier Reef. Coal dust and fragments can get in the water around the reef during the transportation process, with a toxic effect on the coral. In addition, increased burning of coal near the reef warms the water, which causes bleaching. The Australian Conservation Foundation estimates that if the mine runs for 60 years, it will produce 2.3 billion tons of coal, which would generate 4.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide when burned.
This debate brings to the forefront Australia’s continued reliance on coal as other countries are committing to move away from it. While only about 30 percent of America’s energy still comes from coal—and that’s been declining, despite a recent uptick in U.S. coal production—75 percent of Australia is powered by the fossil fuel.