Antarctic runway plans fail to take off

Ethan JamesAAP
Australia has bailed out of a plan to build a 2700-metre concrete runway in Antarctica.
Camera IconAustralia has bailed out of a plan to build a 2700-metre concrete runway in Antarctica. Credit: AAP

Australia has abandoned plans to build a 2700-metre concrete runway in Antarctica, a project fiercely criticised by conservationists, partly due to higher-than-expected costs.

The federal government on Thursday announced it would not proceed with the runway, slated to be built near Davis research station, following a detailed environmental and economic assessment.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the government had thoroughly researched the proposal over five years "in a way that has greatly increased our understanding of this unique terrestrial and marine environment".

"It is now clear that higher projected costs, potential environmental impacts, and the complexity of a 20-year construction process in an extreme and sensitive environment, are such that we will now focus on alternative options for expanding our wider Antarctic program capability," she said in a statement.

"There will be significant announcements on Australia's enhanced capability in the near future while we continue to protect the environment and create jobs."

The Bob Brown Foundation has campaigned against the runway, claiming it would cause irreversible harm to unique ecology and set a dangerous precedent for future development.

"The Australian government has done the right thing by putting the Antarctic environment first," foundation campaigner Alistair Allan said.

"This proposal should be permanently relegated to the history books and the idea of laying hundreds of thousands of tonnes of concrete in such an incredible ecosystem chalked up as a bad idea, with catastrophe avoided."

Ms Ley said the decision sends a clear message about Australia's commitment to due process and robust environmental assessment.

The Australian Antarctic Division previously said the runway would allow year-long flight access to the frozen continent, revolutionise scientific activities and enhance the country's long-term interests in the region.

The plan, announced by the federal government in 2018, also included an access road, new wharf and aviation infrastructure.

It would have been the first paved runway in Antarctica.

Construction would have relied on two cargo vessel deliveries to Antarctica each year for up to 10 years. A 2040 completion date was slated.

Federal Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson said the government's decision was a win for common sense.

Ms Ley urged all countries to place the Antarctic Treaty System, which sets aside the continent as a scientific preserve, at the forefront of decision making.

The Australian Antarctic Program operates an intercontinental ice runway at Wilkins Aerodrome in summer.

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