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Issue #1703      September 23, 2015

Coal’s last gasp

Australians are being subjected to a high energy advertising campaign selling the “benefits” of coal. The Minerals Council of Australia, perhaps sensing that the jig is up for the malodorous fossil fuel, is seeking to win friends for the “little black rock” and squeeze the last remaining super-profits from it.

The world has turned on coal. The resource that fuelled the industrial revolution and a sizeable chunk of modern industrial development since has rightly been identified as a major cause of the planet’s climate crisis. Current heavy users, emerging economies such as India and China, are working hard to reduce their reliance. Sustainable energy sources are becoming cheaper and more adaptable to a variety of applications. Battery and other energy storage technologies are also advancing rapidly. The words “base-load power” no longer have the persuasive capacity they once did in the debate for or against renewable energy.

The price of coal on international markets has slumped. Coal seam gas is facing stiff resistance, mobilising rural communities as never before in opposition to corporate environmental vandalism. The Lock the Gate movement has made history in this regard.

The Minerals Council would have its work cut out getting the public to feel affection for the “little black rock” on looks alone so it is backing up the appeal with “science”. The Council’s executive director, Greg Evans, was given space to make a pitch for coal in the Australian Financial Review recently. He pointed to projects around the world where coal is being burned for power generation with greatly reduced emissions. Elusive Carbon Capture and Storage technology is held out again as a solution to our current predicament.

The “sell” for “clean coal” is reminiscent of the one for nuclear power. Rather than denying the planet has a problem with climate change, coal is held out as part of the “answer”. In fact, people would be reckless not to embrace “clean coal” technology or nuclear power, depending on which vested interest is peddling its wares.

Unfortunately for the coal lobby (and the nuclear lobby), people aren’t buying it. The politicians most in tune with the ambitions of the coal industry, like former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, were never able to persuade the public to embrace “clean coal” and its alleged capacity for slowing the pace of climate change. The fact that Abbott was previously an open climate change denier didn’t help the cause of coal, either.

As the Minerals Council is quick to point out, the coal industry in Australia is still huge. It clearly has a major influence on policy making. That is a great pity for the future of the country and the planet. The Council effectively ended Kevin Rudd’s first stint as prime minister with its campaign against the mining super-profits tax, dubbed the “hands off our billionaires” campaign by workers.

Reaction to the Minerals Council’s campaign has been strong. Australian Conservation Council chief Kelly O’Shanassy pointed out that the industry is responsible for a string of disasters going back a long time. She mentioned the illness cause by the fire at the coal mine outside the Victorian town of Morwell in 2014. “While the world’s climate scientists and most Australians realise we need to get off our addiction to coal, the Minerals Council and the federal government want to keep us hooked,” she said. “To promote coal as ‘amazing’ could be considered negligent, or it might even be considered culpable.”

The actions of the federal government over the next few weeks and months will show if the change of prime minister indicates a change of attitude towards coal. The previous ministerial line-up was moving to make it harder for the public to protect the environment in the wake of the Federal Court’s ruling against the proposed Carmichael mine in Queensland. Money talks and it is unlikely that the Turnbull government will move away from coal and all its devastating consequences as quickly as the people of Australia have. Pro-corporate, dirty business-as-usual politics stand in the way of the sustainable energy future that people want. Inevitably, the lesson that we need a new type of politics will be learned.

Next article – Canning by-election – Handy Andy limps in

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