Why Protect the Great Barrier Reef When You Can Have Yourself an Aquarium?

Doug Norlen
Date: October 29, 2012
The U.S. government’s Ex-Im Bank and its director Fred Hochberg want to use over $3 billion in taxpayer monies to support two dirty fossil fuel projects inside the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer my nature wild, not behind Plexiglas. Sadly, not everyone agrees.

In early October, the U.S. Government’s export promotion agency, Export-Import Bank, issued a press release boasting its approval of a $105 million loan to the Brazilian state of Ceará to support U.S. exports for the construction of a massive aquarium in Fortaleza, Brazil. According to Ex-Im Bank, the aquarium will showcase 500 marine species and 35,000 individual specimens and is “dedicated to the research and preservation of aquatic life along the Brazilian coastal regions.”

Sounds like Ex-Im Bank has gone green, right?

Not so: Ex-Im Bank, under the leadership of fossil-fuel champion Fred Hochberg, is simultaneously considering over $3 billion in financing for two enormous liquid natural gas (LNG) infrastructure projects located inside the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area in Australia. This June, UNESCO, the international body charged with overseeing protection of World Heritage Areas, expressed “serious concern” over expected damage from these projects on the world famous marine reserve, and it may soon have to designate the Great Barrier Reef as a “World Heritage in Danger.”


In response, Pacific Environment, Center for Biological Diversity, and Turtle Island Restoration Network launched a legal challenge against Ex-Im Bank to protect sea turtles, saltwater crocodiles, dugongs, and other endangered species threatened by these ill-conceived dirty fossil fuel projects.

The survival of dugong (above), sea turtles, saltwater crocodiles, and other endangered species calling the Great Barrier Reef their home is threatened by two massive liquefied natural gas facilities.

Further north, Ex-Im Bank is reportedly considering financing a huge coal export terminal, also inside the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, for the massive proposed Alpha coal mine in Australia’s interior. Coal is one of the dirtiest fossil fuels in the world and Australia’s plan to triple coal exports with this and other coal projects will only worsen climate change and likely harm the Great Barrier Reef and similar reef ecosystems worldwide.

But dirty energy projects not only threaten wildlife and fragile ecosystems, they also harm peoples’ health and well-being. In the case of the two Australian LNG plants, local fishermen are already reporting uncompensated losses of their livelihood, likely caused by massive dredging and other pollution from the construction of the projects’ facilities. Meanwhile, the LNG plants will process coal seam gas. The fracking, extraction, and transport of this gas will likely damage farmers’ water and lands in Australia’s interior.

Up and down the Great Barrier Reef, courageous local groups are taking a stand against the onslaught of coal-related export projects in Australia, including the grassroots “Lock the Gate” movement, Gladstone Conservation,Capricorn Conservation Council, Protect Keppel Bay, Mackay Conservation Group, Australians for Animals, and national and international organizations like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Pacific Environment, and others.

This is me with Libby Connors, a member of Australia’s grassroots “Lock the Gate” movement, a coalition of over 160 local groups and thousands of individuals working to keep the rapidly expanding coal-seam gas and coal mining industries off their land and out of their communities.

Opposition is strong and gaining momentum, but unfortunately these are not the first LNG deals Ex-Im Bank has pushed under Fred Hochberg’s leadership. In 2010, Ex-Im Bank provided $3 billion to the Papua New Guinea Liquid Natural Gas project, which harms marine life while dissecting world-class primary tropical forests with a gas pipeline. It has also triggered violent conflicts with local communities that have at times turned deadly.

And it’s not the first time Hochberg’s fossil fuel binge has undermined otherwise worthy efforts to promote green exports. In 2011, Ex-Im Bank financing for renewable energy grew to $721 million from a base of near zero several years earlier. But in the same year Ex-Im Bank grew its financing of fossil fuel projects to nearly $5 billion, including support for two enormous coal-fired power plants in India and South Africa that will poison the air and water of local communities and fail to bring affordable energy to the poor, all while worsening climate change.

Direct CO2 emissions that will result from Ex-Im Bank-supported projects have risen dramatically since 2008. Fred Hochberg assumed his office at Ex-Im Bank in May 2009.

But don’t expect the Brazilian aquarium to feature an exhibit on the need to protect our oceans from Ex-Im Bank. Instead, we are treated to press releases hailing the aquarium deal while Hochberg appears oblivious to the damage that his billion dollar fossil fuel subsidies will wreak on real ocean ecosystems. It seems Hochberg is keen to keep nature in a bottle.