$5 Billion in U.S. Funding Threatens Endangered Sea Turtles, Dugongs

SAN FRANCISCO— Conservation groups amended an existing lawsuit today to challenge U.S. funding for a second fossil fuel production and transport facility located inside Australia’s Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The U.S. Export-Import Bank has now committed nearly $5 billion in loans to support construction and operation of the two massive liquefied natural gas facilities. Located next to each other on Curtis Island near Gladstone in Queensland, the projects threaten sea turtles, dugongs and many other rare and protected marine species, as well as the world-famous Great Barrier Reef itself. Download the amended complaint here.

“The U.S. federal government shouldn’t be subsidizing the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These liquefied natural gas projects will be deadly to wildlife and will only serve to export our deeply unhealthy fossil fuel addiction.”

The Export-Import Bank, a U.S. federal agency that funds international projects to promote U.S. exports, provided a $3 billion loan in May 2012 for the Australia Pacific LNG project, and in December 2012, the bank loaned an additional $1.8 billion for the the Queensland Curtis LNG project. Both are located on mostly undeveloped Curtis Island, near sea turtle nesting beaches, a national park and a community of families that live there year-round.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network and Pacific Environment sued over the Australia Pacific project last December. Today’s filing amends that lawsuit to include the Queensland Curtis project.

“When I flew over Curtis Island recently I was shocked to see the devastation of the marine habitat and sediment plumes discoloring the coastal waters for miles,” said Teri Shore, program director for Turtle Island Restoration Network. “I met concerned residents who are heartbroken over the number of dead sea turtles, dolphins and dugongs washing up on shore like never before due to the disruption and pollution from these massive fossil fuel projects.”

Sea turtles, dugongs and their habitat in the Great Barrier Reef are threatened by both direct and indirect impacts of industrialization, such as dredging, vessel strikes, fuel and oil spills and water pollution. Ship strikes alone killed 45 turtles in Gladstone Harbor in the two years after LNG-project construction began, compared with an average of two a year in the past decade.

“Ex-Im Bank has a long history of committing billions of dollars in public financing to environmentally destructive projects abroad,” said Doug Norlen, policy director with Pacific Environment. “But funding two devastating fossil fuel projects in a world heritage area? It’s a new low.”

The two U.S.-funded projects will include drilling 16,000 coal-seam gas wells in interior Queensland using controversial “fracking” techniques, digging nearly 500 miles of gas pipelines, and constructing two separate natural gas processing facilities and export terminals. To provide access to sites, the projects require dredging a new shipping lane in the adjacent harbor and destruction of sensitive seagrass beds. Increased tanker traffic will eventually ship the fuel across the Great Barrier Reef to ports in Asia and around the world.

The Great Barrier Reef was given World Heritage status to preserve its remarkable natural beauty, coral reefs, and rare dugong and sea turtle habitat. The two liquid natural gas plants will be located within this World Heritage Area’s boundaries. UNESCO, the international body charged with overseeing implementation of the World Heritage Convention, expressed “extreme concern” over the projects’ impacts on the reef. In 2013 UNESCO threatened to add the reef to the “In Danger” list, a designation made when activities of a host country or outside entities threaten a world heritage area.

The lawsuit, originally filed in December 2012 in the Northern District of California and amended today, asserts violations of the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, which implements American obligations under the World Heritage Convention. The case raises the unresolved legal issue of whether the Endangered Species Act applies to U.S. agency actions taken outside of U.S. borders.