December 2018 – January 2019

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Saving Ningaloo again

By Tim Winton
Western Australia’s World Heritage site isn’t as protected as you’d expect

Out on the continent’s north-western edge, Ningaloo Reef is Australia’s lesser-known coral treasure. Home to the gentle, photogenic whale shark, and more than 400 species of fish, it’s our largest fringing reef. And it’s not bleaching. But if you thought it was safe, think again.

In July 2003, the then Western Australian premier, Geoff Gallop, famously drew a “line in the sand” on gung-ho development along the Ningaloo coast. After years of vacillation by several state governments, he vetoed the construction of a white-shoe resort and marina near Coral Bay. This signified a massive reprieve for the remote reef and its pristine shores, because it didn’t just stop one misbegotten project; it forestalled the stampede of opportunistic developments that would have followed in its wake. So, it was a momentous announcement. And a very rare decision for a Western Australian premier to make. Forced to choose between a private-business venture and an obscure stretch of coral, he ruled in favour of the ecosystem. And given the quarry mentality that still lingers here on the western frontier, it remains a decision as historic as it was unlikely.

HOW THE REEF WAS WON. The story ran nationwide, trumpeting the news that Ningaloo was safe. To some degree the headline reflected the story we told ourselves, even those of us who knew better, those who understood that the price of victory is eternal vigilance. But that’s how it felt. Ningaloo was safer. Saved, even.

Gallop wasn’t punished for sparing the reef. In fact, his Labor government rode a surge of popular support into a second term.

In 2004 the boundaries of the Ningaloo Marine Park were amended to include the entire reef. Sanctuary protection was increased from 10 to 34 per cent, and overdue planning controls secured the reef coast for nature-based tourism. Then, in 2011, when the Ningaloo Marine Park and adjacent Cape Range National Park were added to the World Heritage register, it looked as if one of the planet’s last healthy coral reefs was finally being given the status it deserved.

And it wasn’t only an environmental gain. All this happy news and intense focus produced a major social and economic dividend, especially in Exmouth, the community closest to these World Heritage assets. The town’s sustainable ecotourism industry was booming. People came from all over the world to see what all the fuss was about. Suddenly everyone wanted to swim with a whale shark.

In the wake of these turning points, most decision-makers responsible for the region’s future seemed to understand the link between the health of the reef and the fortunes of the local community. From the premier’s office down to the local shire, there was a clear consensus on the matter. As a result, Ningaloo looked like being that rare thing, an enduring good news story. Since those days, the reef’s global prestige has continued to grow, and Exmouth’s tourism reputation has risen with it.

Compared with the Great Barrier Reef, the Ningaloo Reef is tiny, a mere 260 kilometres long. But because it’s so remote and in an arid zone where agricultural run-off isn’t an issue, it’s in far better shape than its beleaguered eastern cousin. It’s also much closer to shore. At many points you can snorkel at Ningaloo without needing a boat. You just wade out, put your face in the water and marvel. Wow, a turtle. Far out, a dugong. Visitors continue to come from all over the world to swim in the reef’s clear waters, and to see its vivid corals, sponges and fish. The opportunity to swim with whale sharks, manta rays, turtles – and, for the past three years, humpback whales – in a single excursion is unrivalled anywhere in the world. Hundreds of people have told me they found the experience “life changing”, and I know how they feel because I’ve done it many times myself over the past 30 years, and I can honestly say the sense of awe and privilege never wanes.

But here’s the thing: Ningaloo isn’t saved. Worse than that, its future is now in jeopardy. Because during all those years of celebration and consolidation, despite the success of ecotourism and the research attention and the prestige that came with World Heritage listing, the fossil-fuel industry was moving in. And by moving in, I mean culturally, not just territorially. While the reef still has passionate local defenders and hardworking government agencies looking after its welfare, the sense of stewardship once evident among local decision-makers has faded to little more than lip service. Civic leaders still talk about “World Heritage values” and “sustainable tourism”, but it sounds pretty hollow while they court the oil-and-gas giants and seek to foster industrial projects incompatible with those values.

Some Australians will be surprised to learn how influential Woodside, Rio Tinto and Chevron have become in a nature-based tourism town like Exmouth. Many more would be shocked to see what a map of offshore oil-and-gas tenements in the Ningaloo region looks like today. In some places our historic “line in the sand” looks faint indeed. Few Australians understand how close the rigs are to Ningaloo Reef already, or how hard it’s been for conservationists and regulators to maintain the slim buffer between the drills and pipes and the World Heritage area. At night, rig flares are visible from the beaches and lagoons. And this year the monstrous flame of Chevron’s new Wheatstone gas project has lit up the sky like an endlessly rising moon. Wheatstone is based at the town of Onslow, 6o kilometres away.

About 100 kilometres north of Ningaloo Reef, Chevron’s even more contentious Gorgon LNG operation at Barrow Island is about to progress to its next, gargantuan, stage. The state government granted Chevron permission to extract gas there under strict terms that included offsetting its monumental carbon-dioxide emissions by sequestration. The company predicted that, in the first two years of operation, between 5.5 and 8 million tonnes would be injected into the ground. But those two years have passed and Chevron’s abatement strategy is still not operational. So those millions of tonnes of pollution are already in the atmosphere. It’s an uncomfortable reminder that LNG isn’t quite the clean energy alternative it’s marketed as. And as for the furphy about Gorgon bolstering the nation’s energy needs, most of that gas is exported.

The northern reaches of Ningaloo Reef are thoroughly encircled by oil-and-gas. Visitors find this hard to believe, but at night the sinister flares on the horizon are hard to miss. I suspect when tourists catch a glimpse of those flames, the sight produces only the briefest moment of discord. Because no one wants to think about leaks or explosions. And the prospect of a spill as catastrophic as the one at Montara? Well, that’s quickly dismissed. The great oil disaster of 2009 happened further north, in the Timor Sea. Somewhere safely foreign-sounding. Many locals are certain something so dreadful could never happen in the oilfields off Ningaloo. But even without a spill or a blowout, the oil-and-gas industry remains the biggest threat to the reef’s survival. Because the most significant acknowledged danger to the world’s coral reefs is the unchecked emission of carbon dioxide. At present, and understandably, the national focus is on coal. But some of Australia’s biggest carbon polluters are right on Ningaloo’s doorstep. They are visible to the naked eye. Their emissions are not. But they are real and present. And they can’t be ignored.

The current gas rush on the North West Shelf is no small phenomenon. But, like all resource booms, it will pass. Its benefits are temporary, and they come at a very high cost, because their negative consequences will endure forever. Long after the industry shuts up shop and its CEOs are buried with full honours, the dangerous emissions they’ve produced will still be in our atmosphere. Heating the oceans, turning them acid, killing coral. So when you take the long view, if you consider Ningaloo’s fate in those terms, you’re faced with more than a passing moment of disquiet, you’re left deeply worried, and that’s an entirely rational concern.

But now to the good news. Although the fossil-fuel industry has managed to physically colonise the coastal landscapes to the north in the Pilbara, it has never actually established a beachhead in the Ningaloo region. For a time the prospect was inconceivable. But regulatory oversight has been slipping. And, as the gas rush intensifies, big fossil-fuel operators are seeking opportunities to increase capacity. Some local decision-makers are doing all they can to help create some of those opportunities onshore.

A multinational called Subsea 7 intends to begin building a 500-hectare pipe-assembly and launch facility at Heron Point, deep in Exmouth Gulf, by 2020. Its operation requires 10 kilometres of rail line to haul gas pipes from factories to the coast so they can be towed to offshore platforms. That means a 380-metre stone-and-concrete launchway must be cut through the dunes and laid across the untouched beach and onto the corals and sponges of the intertidal zone. Tugs will drag these enormous steel pipes 1.5 kilometres across the seabed until they reach a depth of 6 metres and begin to float. Then, in 10-kilometre lengths, and stabilised by massive pendant chains that will scour the sea floor, they’ll be towed north through the gulf and out through the Ningaloo Marine Park to gas fields across the horizon. That means a lot of land-clearing, scouring, dredging and dragging. And the impacts will be cumulative and ongoing.

So this is a terrible idea. Reckless, even. I know Heron Point well. It’s a lovely, quiet beach. A great place for catching a feed of whiting or taking snaps of migratory birds. And it’s a favourite weekend camping spot for Exmouth locals. I can see why it suits Subsea 7. Access to the land is relatively cheap and the terrain is conducive. But this site isn’t just another scarred bit of Pilbara real estate; it’s deep inside Ningaloo’s refuge and nursery. The gulf is a major rest and birthing area for humpback whales, and a foraging ground for endangered dugongs and turtles and rare species of dolphin. It’s an entirely inappropriate site for a heavy-engineering operation like this. It was unthinkable last year. It’s unconscionable this year. And it’ll still be dead wrong in 2020.

Exmouth Gulf is one of the last intact arid-zone estuaries left in the world. Around 2600 square kilometres of unique and biodiverse waterway, it supports more than 800 species of fish alone. The International Union for Conservation of Nature acknowledges its World Heritage values. But, sadly, the gulf doesn’t have protection to match those values. In fact, its protections are modest indeed. Even though it’s the refuge and feeder system that replenishes Ningaloo. Even though its mangrove forests, sandflats and islands are where billions of small fry – crabs, prawns, fish and rays – begin life before moving out to the open waters of the reef. This unrepeatable ecosystem warrants increased conservation, not industrial-scale pressure. Because the degradation of the gulf will eventually threaten the integrity of Ningaloo Reef.

Subsea 7’s proposal will probably be built somewhere along Western Australia’s north coast, there’s no getting around that. But with an operational radius of 2000 kilometres, it should be sited north of Exmouth Gulf where industrial infrastructure is already present and gas fields are established. The company admits it has plausible but more expensive alternative locations to choose from in the Pilbara region. This development doesn’t need to be imposed on a greenfield site, in an ecotourism hub, in the shadow of a World Heritage area. And, of course, it mustn’t be. All the same, the Exmouth chamber of commerce is hotly in favour of building it in the gulf. And the Shire of Exmouth is so eager to oblige, it’s trying to wind back zoning protections to smooth the way.

Plans for this project were well advanced when Exmouth’s tiny environment group got wind of them in October 2017. At the time, the shire was without an elected council and under administration following adverse findings at the state Corruption and Crime Commission. Without the alertness of a few volunteers, this project might have sailed through without assessment by the Environmental Protection Authority. Which shows how close the unthinkable can come to being quietly inevitable.

If by some perverse circumstance Subsea 7 gets approval, much of the protection Ningaloo has garnered over the past 20 years will exist only on paper. The security that so many Australians battled to win for this world treasure will evaporate. Because this is only the beginning. There are already plans for a deepwater port at Mowbowra Creek, 10 kilometres south of Exmouth, and a vast saltworks on the eastern shore of the gulf. Subsea 7’s will be the gateway project, a signal to the fossil-fuel industry that the gulf and the town of Exmouth are open for industrial development of the sort already experienced by communities like Karratha and Port Hedland. If that happens, the distinctive low-impact ecotourism industry at Ningaloo will wither. The health of a major natural icon will be compromised. And the state’s excellent reputation as a custodian of World Heritage areas will be in jeopardy. Because if we allow Exmouth Gulf to be degraded, if we lose Ningaloo’s nursery, the biodiversity of the reef will decline and, with the entire tourism economy depending on a vibrant coral reef, recreational fishing catches will fall, dive charters will go to the wall, and associated businesses in accommodation and hospitality will collapse. In short, many sustainable jobs will disappear. Ningaloo will become just another wounded piece of the Pilbara landscape, and Exmouth will be one more desolate mining port that pays people to visit. From “eco” to “FIFO”. From high-value to high-vis. That’s quite a backward step. And for a region once marked out as globally exceptional it would be a tragic mistake.

Australia is such a big island: expensive to get to, costly to travel across and, even for its citizens, the distances and spaces are daunting. But there are a handful of places tourists will make epic journeys to visit: Kakadu, the Great Barrier Reef, Karijini, Uluru and, of course, Ningaloo Reef. And after encountering them, many visitors find the experience emotionally significant in ways they can’t always explain.

Humans yearn for places of respite, opportunities to be free from the ugly madness of the corporate world. We need to know there are still some precious sites left intact, ecosystems whose richness, scale and enduring health afford us hope for the future, even if we never get the chance to visit them ourselves. For our own sanity and honour we want to believe there are some habitats we won’t destroy, places so special they’ll never be offered up to the maw of industrialisation. Not now. Not ever. I believe Ningaloo is one of those places. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

In 2002, 100,000 Australians stood up for Ningaloo Reef. Fifteen thousand marched in Fremantle to save it. Those earlier defenders of Ningaloo haven’t gone away. Many have become parents and grandparents with an even deeper stake in the future. These are the people who will hold the line Geoff Gallop drew in the sand all those years ago. And there are thousands more like them, Australians who are only just hearing of the place now, thousands who are sick of watching their futures sold out to Big Gas, Big Oil, Big Business and Big Man politics. People who cry, “No more – enough of this!”

That’s why I think this can still be a good news story, why I’m determined to make sure it will be. Because that historic line in the sand remains. The era of cavalier exploitation is behind us. Ordinary Australians simply won’t put up with it anymore. They’ll defend Ningaloo. For love of the place, out of hope for their children, and for the enduring principle of the common good against the interests of a powerful few.

Tim Winton

Tim Winton is a writer. His most recent novel is The Shepherd's Hut.

December 2018 – January 2019

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