Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Coal Industry Uses the Dope Dealer’s Defence

By Ian Lowe

The coal industry needs to take responsibility for the consequences of selling their product.

I recently appeared as an expert witness in the environment court of one state. The case concerned a proposal for a massive new coal mine. If approved, it would result in the release of at least 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the global atmosphere – about as much as New Zealand will release between now and 2050. The proponent – and their expert witnesses in the court case – advanced what can be called “the dope-dealer’s defence”: if we don’t supply it, somebody else will, and in any case we aren’t responsible for what the buyers do with our product.

Both points are contentious.

First, if an Australian coal mine is not approved, it is possible that a mine might be developed somewhere else to supply an equivalent amount of coal. But that is not inevitable. Usually mining companies start trying to sell their product once a mine is approved. If they aren’t out there offering a deal, those contemplating a new power station might negotiate with another coal supplier. They might also consider burning gas, or being more radical and commissioning solar or wind generation.

Second, nobody believes that customers will buy coal and not burn it. The mining industry generally accepts the broad notion of product stewardship, but coal companies seem to deny responsibility for the inevitable consequences of selling their product. The fact is that massive releases of greenhouse gases will inevitably be associated with the mine if it goes ahead.

What particularly interested me was that witnesses appearing for the coal mining company argued that governments should not regulate or prohibit specific projects like a proposed coal mine. They advanced the view that a market-based system with a price on carbon is the most efficient and effective way to slow climate change.

At the same time, the coal industry and other interested parties were lobbying heavily and spending a small fortune in advertising to try to prevent the Australian government from bringing in a modest carbon price. The initial price is set so low that the government admits it would only reduce our 2020 emissions by 5%. This is nowhere near the reduction that the Australian Academy of Science says is needed to play a responsible role in reducing the risk of dangerous climate change, but this measure is still being violently opposed by the coal industry.

There is an obvious contradiction between one company’s approach in the court case, which is to say that a market-based system with a price on carbon is the most efficient and effective way to slow climate change, and the industry’s public interventions aimed at preventing the introduction of a market-based system with a price on carbon.

As a final note, as I was writing this column I received an e-mail from a geologist pointing out that the coal deposit being discussed has unusual chemical properties that make it especially useful for more sophisticated and valuable applications than raising steam. In their rush to sell our coal for generating electricity, mining companies are probably neglecting its alternative uses.

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Early this year the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council published an important report on food security. There is arguably no more important topic. Some analysts attribute the uprisings of the “Arab Spring” to food shortages and high prices. People grumble about dictatorial regimes, they argue, but only take to the streets when they can’t put food on the table.

The report recommended a new body, the Australian Food Security Agency, to take responsibility for investing in our research capability. PMSEIC’s working group said that the long lead times between research and productivity gains demand a strategic plan and targeted investment. This will be essential to ensure that food production copes with the problems facing it, such as climate change and loss of productive land to urban expansion and past misuse, and restrictions on important inputs. The need to restore the health of inland river systems will force reductions in the extraction of water for irrigation, while increasing oil prices will affect food production directly, and indirectly through costs of fertilisers and pesticides. The report also recommended taking action to address the future shortage of skilled people in the farming sector.

It is an important subject that demands concerted action.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.