GUY PEARSE, DAVID McKNIGHT, BOB BURTON
Newsouth Publishing, 2013, 257 pages, $34.99 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
You don’t have to look far to see why Australians are locked in an absurd and vicious circle of climate change, burning more coal to, for example, run more air-conditioners to cope with the more severe heatwaves from the global warming resulting from burning more coal. The reason why Australia is hooked onto such coal-mad absurdities, say Pearse, McKnight and Burton in Big Coal, is because the economic and political power of Australia’s coal industry has pushed a more than willing political elite to support the mining and export of coal in a country which is the world’s 4th largest producer, and 2nd biggest exporter, of the largest single source of global greenhouse gases – coal.
The climate change cost of coal to Australia (devastating weather extremes, bushfires, droughts and floods) is the latest pricey instalment of the addiction to coal, following that fossil fuel’s grim history of lung-blackened, maimed and dead workers, and toxic landscapes and poisonous air in mining communities.
Whilst Australia’s coal-fired power stations produce one third of the country’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions, it is the $48 billion coal export industry which is Australia’s main contributor to global warming. Whether burnt in Mumbai or Shanghai for electricity generation or steel-making, Australian coal is at the forefront of catastrophic climate change.
Unconcerned with planetary survival, whilst lavishly enriching themselves from the coal rush, are the mining nouveaux-riche, billionaires like Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest, who have mastered the art of picking undervalued coal reserves that can then be on-sold to multinational mining companies at many times their initial value, in turn rewarding the giant companies’ owners - the big banks and large institutional investors - with bloated profits.
Greasing the money-making wheels with $9 - $12 billion in subsidies are coal-friendly Australian governments. State governments further assist with a genial mining lease approval process, compulsory purchase of prime agricultural land for mining, public funds on tap for private company rail and port infrastructure and obedience to coal industry lobbyists’ commands to hamstring renewable energy alternatives such as cutting household solar-panel feed-in tariffs and tightening the regulatory screws on wind farms.
In return for governmental services rendered are the royalties paid by the coal mining industry to state government coffers (plus occasional personal enrichment along the way for corrupt ministers). These royalties, however, mask the long-term cost to the states of climate change - one major natural climate-change-related disaster can wipe out several years of royalties (cyclone Yasi cost the Queensland public purse $7 million in 2011).
The federal government also chimes in through winding back mandatory renewable energy targets, and the tried-and-failed market mechanisms of emissions trading schemes and carbon taxes with their generous and self-defeating industry compensation. Where any sign of government resistance is met (through mining super-profits taxes, for example), the industry’s propaganda power and deep pockets are mobilised for poll-damaging “big budget advertising blitzes to turbo-charge their behind-the-scenes lobbying campaigns”.
Corporate-government harmony is always maintained, however, in the public spruiking of the grossly exaggerated economic benefits of coal mining. The coal industry’s 46,000 employees is a tiny percentage of a total labour force of over 11 million, whilst the industry’s self-portrait of itself as an altruistic job creator is undermined by its programs for driverless trucks and trains, and automated drilling rigs, loaders and shipping operations. Sucking up valuable capital, infrastructure and government funds, as well as labour, the coal mining industry results in a structural distortion of the economy away from job-rich economic sectors towards an environmentally dead-end industry.
This is not, however, the message delivered by governments, which act as Big Coal’s public relations hacks. State Premiers and Treasurers have been quick to dismiss as a ‘politically correct debate about climate change’ any concern that the bushfires, droughts and floods of recent years may be related to coal-burning in favour of stump-speeching the economic credentials of their state’s coal-fired power stations and coal export markets.
Close behind government on the image management is the coal industry. For fiscal peanuts, coal corporations and peak mining bodies buy good-will and a permanent stake in the community through funding local, state and national groups. Recipients of the don’t-mess-with-the-sponsor goodies include sports of all kinds, helicopter rescue, kindergartens, universities, hospitals, koala habitat restoration and many more. Xstrata Coal is typical, providing $14 million to fifty community organisations in 2012, a barely visible half a per cent of its $2.2 billion profit. Such cheap philanthropy is a common corporate strategy but the coal industry’s calculated benevolence is of grave concern because “no other industry in this country has ever threatened to cause harm on the same global scale – not asbestos, nor tobacco, not even uranium”.
The soothing corporate syrup flows with added sugar-coating from the public relations barrel with reassurances that coal’s carbon can be rendered harmless through technical fixes. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) still has its hymn-singing corporate zombies and political droids, despite decades of fanfare having been muted by commercial reality (carbon-scrubbers are expensive), time constraints (even if CCS works it would be deployed too late globally to avoid critical climate warming), practical hurdles (distant storage sites requiring a vast network of pipelines) and health risks (in high concentrations, CO2 is a toxic, potentially fatal, gas).
As CCS has been shown to be a mirage, however, so, too, is its ‘green’ cousin - carbon capture and recycling (CCR). For algae, CO2 acts as a growth steroid and feeding them in algal ponds adjacent to power stations and steel mills can turn the green weeds into bio-fuels, fertilisers, soil-enriching biochar and food for cattle and fish farms. The process, however, depends on a non-renewable fossil fuel, releases the carbon when consumed, and only works in sunlight, therefore, at best soaking up only a half of its CO2 food source.
The book’s authors have done a superb job in digging up the dirt on coal. Ending the world’s addiction to this dangerous product starts here in Australia, in King Coal’s castle.