Battle between ice cream and coal heats up

An Australian minister has called for a boycott of a popular ice cream company after it joined forces with the WWF to protect the Great Barrier Reef. The reason has to do with the country’s struggling coal industry, explains Barbara Barkhausen from Sydney. reef_d

A diver in an aquarium holds up a sign that reads “Scoop ice cream, not the reef”, which is ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s way of showing support for the conservation organisation WWF’s work in the Great Barrier Reef. Together, they want to protect the largest living structure on Earth and fight against coal ports in the region.

Boycotting Ben and Jerry’s

Queensland Environment Minister Andrew Powell sees the ‘Fight for the Reef’ campaign in an entirely different light. At a press conference last week, he called it “propaganda” and accused it of damaging the reputation of the reef and threatening jobs and tourism revenue. “I am disappointed to see companies like Ben and Jerry’s signing up to a campaign of lies and deceit that has been propagated by WWF,” said Powell.

The minister is direct and clear in his call for a boycott of the popular ice cream brand. But indirectly, he is trying to accomplish something else altogether: Support for the coal industry. According to WWF, the coal industry is one of the main culprits behind the rapidly shrinking Great Barrier Reef, which is being dredged for coal and gas ports. More than 50 per cent of the reef’s coral have died in the past 27 years, according to a 2012 study. Even Unesco has become concerned, recommending that the reef be placed on its “in danger” list in 2015 unless it receives protection.

Coal port expansion approved

Back in December the government approved plans to expand the Abbot Point coal port along the Great Barrier Reef. Upon to three million cubic metres of ocean bottom will be dredged and dumped at various locations just a few kilometres from the reef, irritating flora and fauna in this World Heritage area and dealing yet another blow to the already ailing health of the reef, say environmentalists.

But if you believe Andrew Powell and his emotional press conference, then these environmental fears are at best misplaced and at worst complete lies. Quoting the Tourist Minister Jann Stuckey, he said :“The truth is the reef is looking fantastic” and went on to claim that “the only threat to tourism and the reef is this misguided and ill-informed campaign.”

Coal market slump

The two ministers place so much priority on the coal industry because Queensland is dependent on its coal like never before, explains Brisbane-based mining and energy expert Frank Leschhorn. Until now, coal has been Australia’s second largest export after iron ore. But all that is in jeopardy as China’s demand for coal has dropped and the price for coal is now at its lowest level in six years. Many Australian mines are no longer turning a profit and several production facilities are on the brink of closing. The solution, in the eyes of the government, is to expand coal shipping routes to reach new markets by slicing even deeper through the Great Barrier Reef.

Analysts are not convinced of this plan. According to finance analyst Tim Buckley, Australia’s largest coal mine in the Galilee Basin in Queensland is just no longer profitable. And in a report from last October, Deloitte economists found that Queensland’s future does not lie in coal mining, but rather in gas exports, agribusiness and of course tourism. As for the latter, the Great Barrier Reef is the number one visitor attraction, and in that regard one thing is very clear: Tourists would much prefer to scoop sweet ice cream over dirty coal dust.


Photo credit: Richard Ling/Creative Commons

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