Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Making coal protest "acceptable"

Tomorrow (Wed. 1 Feb) an important coal protest will take place at 12.30pm on the steps of the Victorian Parliament to call for the end of a brown-coal gasification power station proposed by HRL in the Latrobe Valley.

Such protest should be a commonplace - as acceptable as protest about job security and conditions, the availability of affordable child care, or safer level crossings - but coal protest has been blackened in the eyes of ordinary people.

That's due in part to the governments and coal interests ranged against it. It's probably also due to the remoteness for many of coal-fired power generation - in Victoria, primarily in the Latrobe Valley.

Perhaps its arrival through long overhead lines seems for some to have cleansed coal-fired power of its carbon emissions, airborne pollutants, and other environmental impacts. By the time it reaches our lights and fridges, where it is undeniably needed, what could seem cleaner? How could anyone protest that?

Yet, before we dismiss as "radical" or extreme the growing and peaceful protests against the generation of electricity from coal, before we allow to pass unchallenged the documented surveillance of coal protesters, we should imagine this.

What if the burning of coal to meet our domestic energy requirements could only be undertaken house-by-house?

In some cases we might even imagine "fortunate" households sitting atop their own coal reserves. To the choking airborne particulates - implicated by medicine in cancer, heart attack and stroke - to the carbon emissions driving climate disruption, those "resource-rich" individuals could then add the ground-water pollution and environmental damage of mining itself - coal or coal seam gas, take your pick.

That at a trivial level these problems are seemingly concentrated elsewhere fails to negate the health and environmental impacts of coal-fired power in the Latrobe Valley, or the pumping of emissions into a global atmosphere we all share, an atmosphere that does not care about the geographic location of an emissions source.

When they protest, it is coal's dark and central role in this process that campaigners oppose.

Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal, and is set on the headlong expansion of coal exports. Despite a wealth of renewable energy sources that could slash Australia's total and per capita emissions, we also persist in our heavy reliance on coal for domestic power generation.

Yet scientists consider the end of coal essential if we are to seize the fading opportunity for a safe climate future.

Some may be tempted to reply that we now have a carbon price, a modest 2020 emissions reduction target and a seemingly substantial but very distant 2050 target. They may argue that Australia is doing what it can to take "economically responsible" climate action.

Unfortunately, our efforts are more show than substance, with the Australian Government entered in two contradictory races - one the public relations race to persuade us it is doing its bit to "save" the climate; the other, the coal-driven race to destroy it.

In this race, the climate is losing, with the coal barons racing off 50 metres and the protesters heavily handicapped.

To make matters worse, a recent report in The Guardian suggests that not only are fossil fuel interests starting a long way ahead, but they are also being boosted by "performance-enhancing" subsidies.

The report considered modelling by the International Energy Agency on the effect of ending global fossil fuel subsidies - currently some 500 per cent greater than those available to renewables.

By 2035, the modelling projects a saving of 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, or around half the estimated emissions cuts needed to keep global average temperature rise within two degrees Celsius.

While this "guardrail" temperature limit is now considered unsafe by leading climate scientists, the modelling gives some indication of the impact of ending subsidies alone - not to mention the potential benefits of redirecting them to renewable energy technologies.

In Australia, fossil fuel subsidies have been estimated by the Australian Conservation Foundation at around $12 billion annually. It's also not hard to scratch beneath the surface to find large nuggets of support for coal from public funding.

In Victoria, HRL's Latrobe Valley "dual gas" power station project - combining brown coal gasification and natural gas - has $50 million in State funding and $100 million in Federal funding, the latter now under review.

The review follows the Environment Protection Authority's qualified 2011 project approval (subject to appeal at VCAT), which cut the output of the power station from the proposed 600 megawatts to 300. Unmet funding conditions for the Federal support have also played a role.

It is this review that Quit Coal and other climate groups will be highlighting tomorrow at 12.30pm on the steps of Victorian Parliament as a vital opportunity to end the project and the unacceptable growth in emissions it would otherwise threaten for decades to come.

Protesters will not be arguing for mass power black-outs - just that we finally begin as we must continue, by choosing proven renewable energy sources and technologies that offer not only energy security, but climate and job security as well.

It would be naive to suggest this will be an effortless transition, but we can share that effort fairly to avoid climate impacts that will otherwise be felt where they fall - in terms of more frequent and severe bush fires, for example, particularly in south-eastern Australia.

Sir Nicholas Stern and Professor Ross Garnaut have consistently highlighted the economic benefits of early intervention. However, beyond the figures, we must acknowledge that the need for climate action is a matter of science as surely as emergency surgery is a matter of medicine. A vital part of that action is to leave coal safely in the ground - the only existing form of carbon capture and storage we know to be safe.

Governments at State or Federal level cannot defend inaction because they consider action politically difficult, because they have failed in their obligation to plan a future we can sustain, or, more damningly, because individuals such as Federal resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson are too close to powerful coal interests.

It is further reprehensible that any government should seek to veil inaction by demonising coal protest.

Protest against coal is an act of citizenship in the Australian and global interest. That's why I will be at Parliament tomorrow in my lunch break joining the call to stop HRL - it's acceptable because it's high time we Quit Coal.

For further information:

Read Environment Victoria's Eight Good reasons to cut HRL's government funding.

Updated 8.47am Wednesday 1 February 2012

Comments welcome


  1. Good post Darren. All the best to the protests tomorrow - I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

    It was actually good to see the Herald Sun (typcially one of the nasty denialosphere) post today's AAP article: "Climate change a 'fundamental' risk, expert warns".

    I'm always reminded of the lyrics of a song when
    I think about the reality of coal expansion:

    "The all truth passes through three stages
    The first stage it is widely ridiculed
    The second stage it is violently opposed
    And the third stage it is has got to be accepted as being self-evident
    So it makes you wonder that all that we know about life or all that we think we know about life?"

  2. Thanks for this Darren. If we are to have any chance of a safe climate future we need to stop all new coal. So stopping HRL is a great first step.


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