Australian coal lobby plans another multi-million PR campaign

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Coal lobby promises follow up to its widely mocked “little black rock” PR campaign, as group funded by BHP and others plans $5 million marketing blitz.

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Credit: Bart Bernardes
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The Australian coal lobby is launching yet another PR campaign to try and win support for coal in a move that risks further amplifying pressures on firms such as BHP and Rio Tinto to end their membership of pro-coal lobby groups.

The details were revealed through leaked documents published by the ABC, showing that up to $5 million will be channelled into an advertising campaign by Coal21, with the goal of making Australians feel “proud” about coal, and “rebutting false campaigns by activist groups”.

The campaign would be a significant departure from Coal21’s stated aim of supporting the development of carbon capture and storage technologies and looks to be another move into openly serving as the public relations arm of the Australian coal industry.

The coal sector has fought back against concerted campaigns to limit the growth of the industry, particularly motivated by its contributions to global warming and the prospects of a diminishing global market for thermal coal. The issue of coal has been a major feature of recent election campaigns, particularly around the Adani Carmichael coal mine, and its claims to be a job creator for Queensland.

Coal21 is funded by the coal industry, with members voluntarily paying a “levy” into a fund on the amount of coal sold. Members currently include BHP, which last month declared that the world was facing a climate crisis with many species facing extinction. It announced plans to spend money on new technologies and put pressure on its customers, reprising a similar announcement it made in 2007.

Other members of Coal21 include Whitehaven, Glencore, Peabody and Yancoal, and the fund has amassed hundreds of millions in payments that have been used to promote “clean” coal technologies and to effectively fund public relations for the coal sector.

On paper, Coal21 is supposed to support the development of carbon capture and storage, and it has used this guise to win financial favours from governments, including from the NSW and Queensland Governments that both allow companies to claim funds channelled to Coal21 as a deduction against coal royalties payable to the Government.

The latest revelations are further example of how state government taxes are being redirected to funding promotional activities for the coal sector, and follows previous PR campaigns run by Coal21, including advocating for new coal-fired power stations ahead of the 2016 Federal election.

The group has funded previous promotional campaigns for the coal sector, including funding the Minerals Council’s ‘Little Black Rock‘ campaign, that was widely mocked on social media.

To run its latest campaign, the group has issued a ‘request for proposal’ for the production of media and promotional materials to advocate for the coal sector, including the production of television and radio ads, print advertising and social media promotions.

The Coal21 campaign would target an audience of what it considers “soft converters”, which includes men aged 18 to 39, and women over the age of 40, that the group believes are “open to being convinced of [coal’s] future role”.

The advertising campaign appears to lift the guise that Coal21 had any status as a genuine research organisation and confirms that its likely purpose is to act as another propaganda arm for the Australian coal lobby.

The links between Coal21 and the Minerals Council are pretty clear cut. Mark McCallum, who serves as CEO of Coal21, is also employed by the Minerals Council as general manager of its climate and energy section. The Minerals Council also has strong links with the government, with its former CEO and deputy CEO acting as advisors to the prime minister. Its char if former Coalition minister Helen Coonan.

“Coal21’s latest multi-million dollar propaganda effort reveals what we’ve always known: that the organisation is a pro-coal front, using the cover of CCS research and development to further its aim of influencing public sentiment in favour of the coal industry,” the Australian Centre for Corporate Responsibility’s Dan Gocher said in a statement.

“It once again exposes the claim that Coal21 is independent of the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) as false. While Coal21 and the MCA still refuse to explain their exact relationship, we know that they share staff, share services, and continue to collaborate on pro-coal propaganda efforts like this one.”

Members of both the Minerals Council and Coal21 have come under increasing pressure to re-examine their membership and influence over the lobby groups, with a flurry of shareholder resolutions being progressed by the Australian Centre for Corporate Responsibility and Market Forces being the issue in front of boards at company AGMs.

“BHP has committed to ensuring that its industry associations, including Coal 21 and the MCA, only advocate in a ‘technology neutral’ way. BHP’s ongoing membership of the MCA and Coal21 runs counter to this supposed commitment.” Gorcher said.

“Today we are calling on BHP to leave Coal21 and the MCA. Its policy positions are fundamentally at odds with both groups. Anything less than suspension of these memberships will show that BHP cannot be trusted on climate.”

BHP has tried to position itself as a resources company that recognises, and acts, on the threats posed to climate change. BHP recently announced that it would establish a US$400 million fund to invest in improving the sustainability of its operations and support greater adoption of low emission technologies.

BHP’s ongoing involvement in coal lobby groups like the Minerals Council and Coal21 is at odds with this climate-friendly image, with shareholder campaigns zeroing-in on this conflict to compel the resources giant to either rescind its membership, or use it to pressure the lobby groups to evolve their advocacy away from a position that is so staunchly pro-coal.

The Australian Centre for Corporate Responsibility intends to raise the issue again, and will seek to file a resolution at the BHP AGM later this year.

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