Alpha Coal

Large-scale coal mining backed by French bank Société Générale threatens the Great Barrier Reef

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Northeastern Australia’s enormous coal deposits attract interest from all directions. Nine huge mining projects are underway in Queensland – along with train tracks and freight terminals, CO2 emissions by the millions, and a vital threat to the coastline’s unique world heritage site: the Great Barrier Reef. A French bank, Société Générale is in charge of advising investors for the most advanced of these mining project, Alpha Coal.

This article was originally published in French. Translation : Guy Sephton.

Ah, the Australian coast! Its Great Barrier Reef, its surfing and its marine wildlife… along with its future gas and coal terminals and convoys of bauxite-filled tankers, not to mention record-breaking pollution. That’s the way things are looking along Queensland’s coastline, famous for playing host to the largest coral reef in the world. Exit the sea tortoises or the host of marine mammals; make way for progress, make way for coal!

Coal deposits some 350km inland are attracting a lot of interest from international investors. Nine mining mega-projects are under consideration, among them the Alpha Coal project which got the go-ahead from the Australian government last year. And it is the French bank Société Générale which is in charge of the feasibility report. Gina Rinehart, heiress to Australia’s largest fortune - who is also an avowed climate-sceptic and opponent of the Australian carbon tax - has gone into partnership with the Indian conglomerate GVK. Their objective? Extract 30 million tonnes of coal per year, for thirty years, and transporting it to the Queensland coasts. The coal will be exported via a future mega-terminal called ‘Abbot Point’ using specially constructed train tracks, and will be shipped off to energy-hungry horizons, in particular Asia.

Twice the CO2 output of France

If the feasibility report is favourable, the mining project would be “the first of a series of planned projects in the Galilee Basin,” and “could also play a key role in the opening up of the region [to large-scale coal mining].” That was the warning from fifty or so French, Australian and international environmental organisations in a letter to Frédéric Oudéa, CEO of Société Générale. If all nine of the planned mega-mines are carried through [1], the Galilee Basin would become the seventh most polluting area in the world, according to a report by Greenpeace Australia [2]. It would emit 705 million tonnes of CO2 per year – twice France’s output. Alpha Coal’s emissions would be about 10% of this.

Then there are the disastrous local impacts. The mega-mine is located near a natural reserve, Bimblebox, as well as a tropical forest. Worse yet, as the letter from international associations goes on to state, “climate change along with ocean acidification from burning fossil fuels and coastal industrialization induced by the proposed mega-port at Abbot Point – which could become the largest coal port in the world – would have substantial impacts on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.” With the new port terminals, there might be 11,000 cargo boats and tankers sailing each year between the coral reefs and the Australian coast. Will the Coral Sea have to be rechristened to a more fitting title, ‘the Coal Sea’?

From communication to reality

For the first anthracite rock to be dug up, the conglomerate GVK still needs to gather 11 billion dollars. Société Générale’s advice will therefore be decisive. If the project is deemed profitable, there is a good chance that the French bank will supply part of the finance, while at the same time going round canvassing other investors. “For all these reasons, we believe that to carry on with providing advice on the Alpha Coal project’s finance would be highly irresponsible,” say the associations in their letter, urging CEO Frederic Oudea to follow the lead of US bank Citigroup and “immediately and publicly step down from this project.” So far, Frederic Oudea has not responded. In the meantime, the French bank has been nominated for the Friends of the Earth France anti-prize for corporations, the ‘Prix Pinocchio’ 2013.

On its website, Société Générale boasts that it has reduced CO2 emissions by 20% in four years, put into place an “internal carbon tax” and financed “carbon offsetting projects.” The bank does not, however, mention how many tens of millions of euros it plans to devote, if the Alpha Coal project materialises, to offsetting its contribution to one of the most polluting global project of the coming decades, and to protecting the Great Barrier Reef when it is threatened with extinction. According to a ranking by the Banktrack Network on global banks’ investments into the coal mining industry, Société Générale comes up 22nd, with 1.3 million in liabilities in environmentally harmful projects. But that figure doesn’t get ‘communicated’.

Ivan du Roy

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