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Friday, September 25, 1998 Published at 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Oil threat to Great Barrier Reef

Going down under: Oil mining threatens the Great Barrier Reef

Environmentalists say the Great Barrier Reef will be under threat if the Australian Government allows oil explorations in the area.

After years of controversy, the government has started testing ways of tapping oil reserves around one of the world's most spectacular sites.

[ image: Waterworld: Oil pollution will kill sealife]
Waterworld: Oil pollution will kill sealife
Experts say there is more oil to be tapped in the reef's coastal rock next to the coral than has ever been found on the entire American continent.

Environmentalists say the processes involved could destroy the delicate coral.

"It's not that kind of industry that you want to have on your coastline directly next to the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area," said Mark Horseman from the Australian Conservation Foundation.

"And some of those mining licences for those deposits actually extend into the water below the low water mark into the Great Barrier Reef heritage area."

[ image: Oil production starts next year]
Oil production starts next year
Australia is already one of the world's largest suppliers of fossil fuels. Coal is the country's largest export and much of that technology could be adapted to extract the oil.

The reserves around the reef are not in liquid form but contained in a substance called oil shale. The oil is locked inside the rock which is excavated in open-cut mines.

"To get the oil out of the rock you have to crush the shale rock and then heat it up to very high temperatures. That then liberates the oil from the rock," Mr Horseman said.

"To do that requires a lot of energy and the oil you get is very carbon intensive, making the whole process a very dirty kind of mining."

[ image: The reef attracts millions of tourists]
The reef attracts millions of tourists
More than one million people visit the reef each year but oil pollution has the potential to ruin the tourist industry. Each year about 3,000 large merchant vessels navigate the hazardous coral channels.

Dr Ian McPhail from the Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority says there have only been a few mishaps, but it would only take one wrecked oil tanker to cause an environmental disaster.

"Of course it's everybody's nightmare that we could have a major oil spill," he said. "Most oil spills in the world have occurred in situations of major storms and it doesn't matter how good your response is, the storm determines what happens to the oil."

Recently, an oil spill - although not related to the oil shale industry - threatened the Whit Sunday Islands off the Queensland Coast.

[ image: The coral reef supports a delicate ecosystem]
The coral reef supports a delicate ecosystem
The government says measures are in place to deal with any spills and says waters around the reef are sheltered and so less hazardous for shipping.

It also says the country cannot afford to ignore the reef's precious resources.

"We need efficiencies but we also need alternative fuel resources," said Australia's Environment Minister, Robert Hill.

The international currency crisis of recent weeks has strengthened the government's resolve to at least experiment with the oil shale industry.

But such is the sensitivity of the issue, the authorities have only given the go-ahead for one pilot area to be exploited for oil.

Oil production is due to start next year.

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