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Conservation group seeks injunction to stop Woodside gas project to protect Great Barrier Reef

It is 3,000 kilometers from the Great Barrier Reef, but according to a Federal Court challenge mounted by conservationists, a gas project in Western Australia could have disastrous impacts on Queensland’s embattled World Heritage site.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) has applied for an injunction against Woodside’s Scarborough gas project, asking that it be halted until new federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has assessed whether the operation will damage the Great Barrier Reef by exacerbating climate change.

ACF boss Kelly O’Shanassy said the west coast project posed a major risk to Australia’s precious World Heritage site.

“People in Australia would be shocked to know that the Scarborough gas mine that is proposed has never been approved under Australia’s environmental law or assessed for the impact that [it] will have on places like the Great Barrier Reef,” Ms O’Shanassy said.

“It’s a really, really big carbon bomb.”

Woodside said gas produced by the project would generate enough electricity to power 10 times the number of homes in Perth, and it would do that with emissions of about half of what would be generated by coal.

In a statement, Woodside CEO Meg O’Neill said:

“The Scarborough Project has been the subject of rigorous environmental assessments by a range of regulators.

“The project will deliver significant local and national benefits in the form of employment, tax revenue and reliable gas supply in the energy transition for decades to come.

“Woodside will vigorously defend its position in these proceedings.”

Woodside’s Scarborough gas project includes expanding the current Pluto facility on the Burrup Peninsula.(Supplied: Woodside)

According to the documents filed to the court, predicted emissions from the project would cause global temperatures to rise by nearly 0.0004 degrees Celsius, “which will result in the deaths of millions of corals during each future mass bleaching event”.

ACF also argued that additional warming presented “a real risk” that could in turn trigger a spiral of further, runaway warming, which would all but destroy the Great Barrier Reef.

Any increased warming would result in additional death of coral on the Great Barrier Reef, Selina Ward, a coral reef scientist at the University of Queensland, said.

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the University of Queensland agreed.

“We’re at a point now where every bit of carbon going into the atmosphere has a price and that price is growing by the day,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.

A close-up of bleached coral.
Coral on the Great Barrier Reef in 2020, after a significant bleaching event.(Supplied: ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies)

This year, the Great Barrier Reef experienced its sixth mass-bleaching event — a phenomenon driven by global warming, which was never observed prior to 1998.

Scientific arguments similar to those used by ACF were presented to the Federal Court by a group of young people trying to establish a duty of care on the environment minister to protect them from climate change.

At the time, then-environment minister Sussan Ley accepted the scientific arguments, instead disputing the legal implications of them — an argument she won on appeal.

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