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Issue #1688      June 10, 2015

People vs. polluting coal

All over the world, the word is out. Coal is on the nose. The enormous health and environmental bill for the resource that fired the industrial revolution is now long overdue and, in many notable cases, the transnationals are looking for a quiet, taxpayer-funded exit. Australia has been a bastion for coal interests but, even here, the dominance of the climate-threatening mineral is under threat.

Sonoma Coal Mine.

The fact that communities and environmental treasures are still under threat from the coal and coal seam gas industry in Australia has a simple, but not immediately obvious, explanation. In common with exploiters of other human and natural resources, the coal industry has been careful to cultivate political influence. The head of the NSW Minerals Council is Premier Mike Baird’s former chief of staff. The Warkworth mine project threatening the future of Bulga in the Upper Hunter is represented by Endeavour Consulting. One of its principals is Jeff Townsend, a former private secretary to Bob Hawke. Others include Mark Barker, former senior adviser to John Howard and Paul Chamberlain, a former adviser to Nationals leaders John Anderson and Warren Truss. The lobbyists’ register in Canberra is peppered with former politicians now serving coal and other resource industries.

Not even the most persuasive advocates for the outdated fossil fuel can argue away realities. The Abbott government will be obliged by a combination of community opposition and international pressure to do something about its emissions record. United Nations climate talks are due in Paris at the end of the year. Potential international embarrassment is said to be behind the revised, extremely modest renewable energy target (RET) agreed recently by the federal government. Five black coal fired power stations will become marginal. Others will run well below capacity.

Pressure has been building for some time to revise Australia’s emissions standards. Public concern and activism have broken through and exposed a situation in which, as the National Environment Protection Council noted in 2009, current standards simply do not protect health. Residents of Anglesea west of Melbourne have been at the forefront. For 46 years they have lived close to a plant originally built to power the Alcoa aluminium smelter 40 kilometres away at Point Henry. The smelting operation is closing in August but the dirty old power station will simply be plugged into the state’s electricity grid.

Parents and teachers pushed to get details of the power station’s emissions. The documents were previously exempted from Freedom of Information laws. It has been revealed that in 2013-14, the plant pumped out 43,000 tonnes of toxic sulphur dioxide along with particulate pollution and heavy metals, including mercury. Alcoa refused requests to fit “scrubbers”, costing around $150 million, to bring down the high sulphur dioxide emission levels. Alcoa has tried to sell the plant without success and its future, along with other dirty coal-fired power stations in the state, looks doubtful.

Other developments, including the re-opening of the inquiry into the fire at the Hazelwood mine that threatened the health of the people of Morwell, don’t bode well for the coal industry, either. Another issue looming for owners and governments is the cost of repairing coal’s toxic legacy. Bonds levied by the state government on miner’s for the rehabilitation of mine sites are raising concerns.

“The bonds issued are comically low,” said Nick Aberle of Environment Victoria. “The three Latrobe Valley mines have bonds of $15 million. The actual cost of rehab is likely to be $150 to $200 billion if not more.” Financial risk is adding to coal’s worsening image. The public may be left with a huge bill for the long delay in taking timely measures to get out of coal-fired power generation and move to renewables. The public is keen to embrace them. One in six households now have solar panels to help power their homes. That is the highest uptake in the world. Governments and their commitment to the powerful resource sector are to blame.

Internationally, the writing on the wall is even clearer. The Norwegian sovereign wealth fund worth $1.7 trillion is getting out of its holdings in companies with a heavy exposure to coal. Global insurer Axa is to offload $710 million of coal assets and tripling “green investments”. Axa chief executive Henri de Castries cited climate change as the major reason for the divestment strategy. “The facts are undeniable,” he said. “If we think we can live in a world where temperatures would have increased by more than two degrees, we’re just fooling ourselves.”

There will be no profits on a dead planet. A section of the capitalist ruling class has been dragged kicking and screaming to that conclusion by the actions of the working class and other progressive forces. Some capitalist interests will promote the perilous nuclear industry to keep the (taxpayer subsidised) profits flowing but, it seems, the end of coal is in sight.

Next article – Editorial – Two-tier citizens

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