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The Great Barrier Reef has been rammed by a Chinese coal ship. This could just be a metaphor for climate change, if it were not sickly true. The ship was hauling more than 65,000 tons of Australian coal to China.

Who said bringing about our own species destruction would not be ironic? The Los Angeles Times reports that already the bulk coal ship is leaking oil in the waters of the world's largest coral reef and Australians are racing to keep the Shen Neng 1 from breaking apart and more seriously damaging the reef.

Besides physical damage to the reef, the greatest threat from the cargo vessel comes from the roughly 300,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil it carries to run its engines.

Shipping companies favor such low-grade fuel because it's cheap. But it's also particularly viscous, almost like sludge, and needs to be heated before injected into engines. The gooey texture makes this class of fuel more ecologically troublesome and more difficult to clean up, as it coats birds and other wildlife, corals and sandy beaches.

The world's merchant ships burning this low-grade fuel oil is accounts for nearly 4.5% of all global CO2 emissions. Burning bunker fuel to haul coal is a double-whammy of climate destruction.

Adding to the toll, the Sydney Morning Herald reports the coal ship at risk of breaking apart because it continues to be damaged by the action of the waves grinding the ship onto the reef. The main engine room of ship was breached and its engine was damaged. The ship's rudder is also seriously damaged.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has said the Chinese-registered Shen Neng 1 was off course and travelling at full speed without a marine pilot in a restricted part of the park when it hit a shoal shortly after 5pm on Saturday...

The Shen Neng 1 was travelling at full speed from Gladstone without a marine pilot in a restricted zone - 15 kilometres outside the shipping lane - when it hit Douglas Shoal.

Its crew did not notify authorities for two hours.

Such a sadly fitting symbol of climate change and the environmental destruction we humans are doing to our home, then I don't know what is. As RLMiller commented yesterday:

Coal is mined in Australia, polluting the earth; shipped thousands of miles to China using an oil-fueled tanker, sending carbon pollution into the atmosphere; in China, it will be burned, polluting the earth even more.  And that's before the crash.

Yes, even before today's shipwreck, the Great Barrier Reef is facing 'catastrophic damage' from climate change.

Last September, Australia's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority gave its its first report on the reef's health and it found that already the reef was impacted by ocean acidification, coral bleaching, and algae blooms.

Even with the recent management initiatives to improve resilience, the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor and catastrophic damage to the ecosystem may not be averted.

And it won't just be the coral and fishes that will be hurt by the death of the Great Barrier Reef. "the reef contributes about $5.4 billion to the Australian economy through tourism, fishing and other industries and supports more than 50,000 jobs," the Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time.

This Monday morning, the leader of Australia's Queensland state said the owners of the Chinese shipper could be fined up to A$1 million ($920,000).

"I think the book should be thrown at this organization," Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"This is a very delicate part of one of the most precious marine environments on earth and there are safe, authorized shipping channels and that's where this ship should have been."

A government said the vessel was owned by The Shenzhen Energy Group, part of the group of the China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company, better known by its acronym COSCO.

The problem is that $1 million Australian is just the cost of doing business and really the shipper are just the middlemen. The problem is the world's dependence on fossil fuels and the unwillingness to break our addiction from them.

Just two months ago, the New York Times reported an Australian coal company signed a $60 billion deal to supply Chinese power stations with Australian coal for at least the next two decades.

"It is hypocritical for Australia to on the one hand blame China for climate change and on the other hand try so hard to sell more coal to China," said Ailun Yang of Greenpeace China. The deal, she said, "will only lock China further up in its unhealthy dependency on coal."

Bradley Smith, spokesman for Friends of the Earth in Queensland, Australia, said it "drives another nail into the coffin of climate change. If the project goes ahead, then emissions from the exported coal would equal 20 percent of Australia's total domestic emissions."

Maybe the wreck of the Shen Neng 1 might stir Australian's politicians to take positive action on curbing their country's greenhouse emissions? Maybe China will continue to boost their country's investment in wind and solar energy? Maybe we Americans will think beyond how we'll get our cars' next fill-up and face the reality that coal is not clean? I hope so.

I hope a coal ship ramming the world's largest coal reef is just too obvious a symbol of our civilization's suicide pact with fossil fuels for people to ignore.

Originally posted to Magnifico on Sun Apr 04, 2010 at 10:21 PM PDT.

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