GREG BAILEY. The Coal Wars. Where next?

Mar 14, 2019

In writing on this subject I was initially going to focus on the manner in which a lobbying company funded by Glencore had undertaken a marketing campaign in support of coal and to plant doubts about the capacity of renewable energy to substitute for coal. If this might have represented the beginnings of a conflict between renewables and coal, it has now gone far beyond that, with a new war front opening up between the two wings of the coalition government.

Recent revelations by the Guardian (7/3) about the public relations company C/T founded by Sir Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, both associated with the LNP and the British Conservative Party, seem merely to publicize one part of a concerted program by several groups to spruik the benefits of coal in the face of increasing use of renewable energy throughout the world. This spruiking has taken four main forms.
Firstly, are the kinds of subliminal public relations efforts associated with Glencore. These have been subliminal in attempting to locate specific groups who might be influenced by simplistic views concerning the unreliability of renewable energy, and those who seek to have their existing prejudices reinforced. According to the Guardian, “Campaign teams [employed by C/T] helped set up online grassroots groups to push positive messaging about clean coal technology, attack renewables and criticize the Australian Labor Party. The practice is commonly known as astroturfing”. It is not possible to determine how successful this campaign has been, though it may have reinforced the LNP’s resistance to actively encouraging the use of renewables and phasing out coal.
Secondly, is the contestant advertising by BHP about the value to Australia of exporting clean thermal coal to Japan. Such advertisements are usually shown on commercial television after 8.30 pm and picture young BHP staff, a woman and a young man quietly forcibly spelling out the value of clea, with the emphasis on clean–coal to Australia’s export markets, especially Japan, and through that to Australia’s economy and the hard working workers who support it. Two features are important here: the assertion that coal can be clean because of new technology, hence implying it is not productive of carbon emissions, and its overriding importance in Australia’s, and the world’s, ongoing development.
Such advertising has also been supported in other ways by the activities of the lobbying group COAL 21. According to its website it, “Invests in minimizing emissions from coal-fired power production and developing carbon capture and storage to support cost-effective, reliable and cleaner energy.” It works in conjunction with the Mineral Council of Australia and focusses on lobbying politicians, rather than the general public, the target for the BHP advertising.
Thirdly, there is the proposal by the China Energy Engineering Corporation, in conjunction with the local company Cavcorp, to develop two new coal fired power stations in the Hunter Valley. It has just been mooted and would require state and federal government approval. While it has been severely attacked by environmental groups it has won support from some members of the Nationals. It could arguably even appeal to the ALP as the CFMEU, a powerful influence on ALP environmental policy, may view this development favourably guaranteeing the jobs of some of its members.
Fourthly, and as part of the Federal Government’s list of sixty-six proposals for new energy developments, a group of far right LNP members have made strident calls for more coal mines to be subsidized, on the grounds both of energy security and lowering of energy prices. The Government has received 66 submissions for its power subsidy scheme, ten of which are for coal-fired generation. What this means is that the Federal government still considers coal to be a valid source of energy, despite it’s the pollution it causes and in denial of the fact that the cost of renewables is progressively falling (The Age 12/3). Indeed The Age of 9/3 quote one former prime minister as saying, “But Mr Abbott signaled support within the Coalition for new coal projects by suggesting the Federal Government’s Snowy Hydro power company could invest in new coal-fired generators as well as its hydro-electric scheme.”
The war over coal has now well and truly boiled over. BHP and the various lobbying groups have tried the soft path. But now the major conflict is between those, mainly National Party parliamentarians, who are desperate for coal mines to continue, and those in the Liberal Party who see the writing on the wall and realise that, outside of Queensland, the general public has adopted the need for power to be generated by renewable energy. For them it is a matter of political survival.
The National Party, when it was led by Doug Anthony in the early seventies, moved away from its agrarian socialist stance to representing the interests of the big mining companies, especially in Western Australia and Queensland. While it still pays lip service to primary production, its real concern is support of big mining in Queensland and parts of New South Wales. This has guaranteed it votes in the past and no doubt considerable funds from lobby groups. Yet even the large energy companies are now placing an each way bet, going into renewables as well as continuing the traditional sources of power generation.
Certain members of the Liberal Party are now openly ridiculing their National Party colleagues. Barnaby Joyce is using the war to restate his credentials for leadership of the party, and those Liberal members sitting in marginal seats in city electorates know they must shift with the tide of public opinion that is favouring renewables, especially now after this summer’s extensive bush fires and heat waves. The relationship between extreme weather and climate change has finally hit the consciousness of most voting Australians, though not that of the National Party. The war has also exposed the differences between the city based Liberals and the National Party in the regions.
Who will win out of this? The proponents of coal mining like Glencore and BHP attempted to use soft-handed messages to make their point about the worth of coal, yet the antics of the LNP have seemingly negated this. To favour coal or not to favour it has exposed major splits in the ruling coalition and raised leadership tensions in the National Party. Worst of all for the spruikers of coal, it has succeeded in making renewables and climate change one of the major election issues. Nor will it please the ALP, which still sits on the fence in regard to Adani.
Dr Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of the Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.

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