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Issue #1698      August 19, 2015

Fossil fuels

A fossilised government

Several weeks ago Peter Coleman, chief executive of gas corporation Woodside Petroleum, shocked the coal industry when he attacked its environmental impact. He also ridiculed the so-called “clean coal” technology, which involves the collection, liquefaction and disposal of carbon emissions from coal combustion.

coal truck

A representative of oil giant Total also observed: “Among fossil fuels, gas is the greenest – at any rate the cleanest – energy, especially in the production of electricity.”

The statements highlight the struggle to claim environmental credentials regarding energy generation in the run-up to the Paris climate change conference later this year.

Aware they will eventually be phased out, the coal and gas industries are now fiercely competing for market dominance. The coal industry has been undercutting gas exports in Asian markets, which prompted Coleman’s angry statement.

The coal industry still claims it is the cheapest form of energy production. However, the claim is phoney because it is based on a comparison between energy generated by our elderly coal-fired power stations, which have already amortised their cost of construction, compared with proposed brand new gas or renewable energy power stations which would require rates sufficiently high to repay their construction costs.

The comparison should be made between new coal-fired or renewable power stations, because Australia’s existing coal-fired power stations will all need to be replaced within 15 years. One energy economics firm estimates that the cost of energy from new wind power stations would be less than from new coal-fired stations, while the cost of solar power energy would be almost equivalent to that of coal and is falling.

Moreover, the extra cost involved in implementing “clean coal” technology would make coal-fired power generation far more expensive than gas or renewable power generation.

On the other hand, claims that gas is “clean” are highly suspect. Combustion of gas certainly produces far fewer carbon emissions than coal – approximately 50 percent – but investigation of coal seam gas wells in the US has revealed extremely disturbing emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas at least 14 times as potent as the carbon dioxide produced by coal combustion.

And in terms of pollution, neither coal nor gas can compete with wind or solar power, which are carbon free.

Government rants as it teeters

Trade minister Andrew Robb is said to have erupted in a “reptile rage” after a court ordered postponement of construction of the vast new $21 billion Carmichael coal mine in Queensland by Indian mining corporation Adani.

The Commonwealth Bank has now quit as financial advisor for the project, and Britain’s Standard Chartered investment bank has also withdrawn.

Dismissing local residents’ protests and national concern about climate change, Robb snorted that conservation groups “just wanted to kill the project because they don’t like fossil fuels” and that prior approvals had been overturned “on a technicality”. PM Tony Abbott declared angrily that “As a country we must favour projects like this”, and grumbled about the courts being used to “sabotage” similar projects.

The government is now investigating withholding public funding from environmental groups such as The Mackay Conservation Group, which launched the court action against Adani, and withdrawing their tax exempt status.

Last year the NSW Baird coalition government amended the State Environment Planning Policy (SEPP) with regard to new coal seam gas wells after it realised the current policy would require mining corporation AGL to carry out a full environmental impact study for a proposed new project.

The lawyer acting for residents action group Groundswell Gloucester commented, “This is law made on the run to accommodate the proponent’s needs”. The amendment was later scrapped, but according to the Fairfax Press, the government now wants to amend the SEPP, which is supposed to be about protecting the environment, in order “to promote equal weighting to environmental, social and economic considerations”.

The giant South Korean steel producer POSCO also wants to build a massive new mine near Berrima in the pristine NSW southern highlands. Another Korean company plans to remove bodies from a cemetery on land they purchased near Mudgee in NSW, in order to build a vast open cut and underground mine that would operate 24/7 for 25 years. As a resident activist commented bitterly, the company would be “digging up people to dig up farmland to dig up coal to send to Korea”.

Fossilised government

The Abbott government is obsessed with ensuring the dominant position of fossil fuels in energy generation. However, it is desperate not to appear a pariah at the climate change conference, so it recently announced its intention to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions by between 26 and 28 percent of its 2005 emissions level by 2030.

The figures appear similar to those of the US, which aims for a 28 percent reduction of its 2005 emissions level. However, the US intends to reach its target five years earlier, and should reach a 40 percent reduction by 2030. The government also claims its target is in the middle of those set by the developed nations, but it’s actually near the back. The US, the EEC, the UK, Canada and New Zealand all have more ambitious targets.

There are now 1.4 million solar power systems on Australian roofs, and the average solar system costs less than a third of what it did eight years ago. With the imminent arrival of super-capacity batteries, most consumers will soon be able to achieve full energy independence. As a result the demand for power from the national electricity grid is falling.

Public pressure is building on the Abbott government to reverse its unconditional support for the coal industry, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu has publicly challenged the government to set a target of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050!

The government’s disastrous opinion poll results reflect public concern about climate change as well as a great many other issues on which the government has taken a thoroughly reactionary position.

Abbott himself is on the way out, but his replacement will certainly not take the decisive action necessary to meet the challenge of climate change. The public must look elsewhere for that.

Next article – Hard-working organiser hit with fine

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