On Wednesday this week, the New South Wales Deputy Premier and Minister for Regional NSW, Industry and Trade John Barilaro stood next to a train packed with coal, hurtling past metres away as he espoused the benefits of coal mining (sadly, he failed to literally salute it, as he had promised in the tweet).
“This train is what’s powering the economy”, he yells over the sound of several tonnes of coal thundering towards its destination. The visual is striking and memorable: the deputy leader of one of the most climate-ambitious states in Australia sincerely paying his respects to the single largest cause of the biggest threat ever faced by our species.
Saluting a train full of coal, jobs and prosperity in the Upper Hunter. pic.twitter.com/5H4NhPt2ro
— John Barilaro MP (@JohnBarilaroMP) April 7, 2021
The context for the Morrison-esque direct expression of love for coal was the recent appointment and more recent un-appointment of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to chair a net-zero emissions advisory board in New South Wales.
Only days after Turnbull was made chair of the group, he called for a moratorium on new coal mines, specifically on the grounds that they produce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions domestically, and that their are lingering problems with remediation once those mines are exhausted. “It would be good to have a public inquiry into the whole rehabilitation program. The state government is going to end up picking up the tab”.
The backlash was immediate and intense – a classic demonstration of the power and speed of Australia’s fossil fuel lobby, which stands on its hind legs and hisses when threatened. They do not operate in the shadows, or with subtlety. When a NSW coal mine expansion was rejected on the grounds of the climate impact of the coal sold, the industry’s immediate and full-scale seizing of regulation and decision making was similarly stunning.
29 March – Turnbull appointed as chair of NSW net zero advisory Board
31 March – Turnbull calls for halt on new coal mines
4 April – Barilaro attends football match as a guest of the NSW Minerals Council, with Fitzgibbon and Latham
6 April – Turnbull's appointment is rescinded
— Michael Mazengarb (@MichaelM_ACT) April 6, 2021
“You can’t do good policy without managing the politics,” NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean helpfully explained. There’s an atmosphere of total honesty, around this. No one’s even bothering to pretend that the fossil fuel industry isn’t in total control.
“The NSW government has a Coal Strategy and, given the importance of the sector to the NSW economy, Malcolm should read it because 12,000 Hunter coal miners don’t need another rich guy from Sydney telling them what’s good for them,” said Stephen Galilee, the Chief Executive of the NSW Minerals Council, in response to Turnbull’s comments.
The other relevant context is the sparking of a by-election in the upper-hunter region, thanks to the resignation of former Nationals MP Michael Johnsen, who has been accused of raping a sex worker in 2019.
Johnsen previously appeared on Sky News Australia’s “Kenny Report” to claim in the midst of the 2020 Black Summer bushfires that any link to climate change was “complete and utter folly”. He’s also more recently appeared to claim that climate change “zealots” are pushing “fanciful” renewable energy projects.
Those are some big, pro-fossil fuel boots to fill – today, Glencore is hosting Barilaro at the Ravensworth coal mine to launch their campaign by the by-election.
John Barilaro will announce his party's candidate for the Upper Hunter by-election at a coal mine.
Cool and normal. pic.twitter.com/W5jJDDSkCh
— Michael Mazengarb (@MichaelM_ACT) April 7, 2021
The culture of coal mining in New South Wales is badly removed from reality. A former Prime Minister can be yanked for a relatively straightforward technology advisory role for merely expressing an opinion about the immediate impacts of coal mining (presumably not the ‘cancel culture’ conservatives talk about), while leaders ‘salute’ coal trains.
This feverish, high-intensity ludicrousness serves a very important purpose – distracting from the sheer danger of the mining boom that is being pushed across NSW.
Resuscitating a dying mining boom
Turnbull’s comments seem to have been sparked by a recent report released by the Australia Institute (TAI), which highlights the fact that NSW is planning 23 new coal projects, a total production capacity equivalent to 15 Adani-sized mines. Of those, there is “ten Adani’s worth” of mines proposed in the Upper Hunter region.
TAI’s messaging matches Turnbull’s closely – it is local issues, particularly existing employment in coal mining and localised environmental impacts, that ought to drive a moratorium. This is presented in the context of a new ‘coal boom’ in NSW – a very massive upwards line in coal mine approvals in the same year that the state’s ambitious domestic emissions reductions policies were announced:
In March this year, the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER) released an update of their major projects listing. NSW has been a growing presence on this list, and though Queensland easily leads the country, the expansions and new coal mines in NSW are substantial. And from the estimated start dates in the dataset, the planned new capacity in NSW is comparative in the short term.
The argument against this massive expansion used by Turnbull and The Australian Institute is that these new coal mines will likely harm existing coal mining jobs. “Turnbull’s proposal to protect existing coal workers from competition from new mines would save jobs, not threaten them. He didn’t suggest coal mines be shut down tomorrow, or even early. And, given existing coal mines are running so far below capacity, his call has no potential to impact coal exports”, wrote TAI’s Richard Denniss.
The other argument that features heavily in the report and public comments from Denniss and Turnbull is that the global demand for coal is very likely to fall, and if the world aligns with strict climate targets, will plummet off a cliff in the span of the next decade. Today, another Indian state has been ordered to stop investing in new coal power plants (an official described the thermal power sector as a “dying market”), and RenewEconomy reported that new Indian coal capacity has likely peaked.
Of course, an influx of new coal supplied by freshly opened coal mines would surely depress prices, and that leads to increased burning of coal for power and steel-making. That releases emissions – known in parlance as ‘scope 3’, when those emissions are burned outside Australia.
Coal mining causes climate change – Net zero doesn’t deal with this
NSW has emerged as a leader in planning to decarbonise its power sector among tough competition in Australia, with its recent ‘Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap’ sitting comfortably on the ‘high ambition’ end of possibilities.
But coal mining has its own domestic emissions footprint, in Australia. According to the NSW government, coal mining was responsible for 15 million tonnes of CO2 as fugitive emissions from coal mines in 2015, around 11 percent of the state’s total emissions. 93% of the state’s fugitive emissions are from coal mining.
Of course, once the coal exported is sold, it is burned. The emissions created by that process impact Australia, just as much as emissions from local power stations impact Australia.
The ‘drug dealer’s defence’ – that the act of supplying a harmful product is morally neutral and the only wrongdoing is from users – is used by both the fossil fuel industry and the NSW government, who claim in a recent report into the future of coal mining that “ending or reducing NSW thermal coal exports while there is still strong long-term global demand would likely have little or no impact on global carbon emissions”.
Glencore’s Ravensworth coal mine, in which the Nationals candidate for the NSW Nationals Upper Hunter contest, David Layzell, was to be formally announced on Thursday morning, has the following emissions footprint per annum, according to their 2018 GHG plan:
The annual emissions reductions associated with the NSW domestic net zero climate plan is 10 megatonnes per year – the coal mine that’ll feature as the backdrop for this campaign wipes out the climate benefits of the NSW plan three times over every single year.
Australia is unique in the world in terms of the raw size of its planned coal mines, with a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report written in collaboration with the coal industry showing exactly how unique it is:
Only a few weeks ago, Glencore announced a “pathway to net zero”, insisting, of course, that “under all credible scenarios, fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil) will continue to be a part of the global energy mix for many years to come”. Though they take into account scope 3 emissions, Glencore says that “By 2050, our only remaining coal mines, if any, will likely be in Australia”.
The coal mine backdrop for the Nationals candidate unveiling is perfect. Not just as a demonstration of the fossil fuel industry’s sway over politics, nor just as a demonstration of the wilful blindness towards domestic issues around employment and environment for coal mines – but as a demonstration of how ‘net zero’ plans are pocked with holes in which new coal mining operations can be plugged.
Turnbull breached the unspoken rule of net zero rhetoric- don’t mention mining – and provoked an industry that likes to stamp out criticism and threats with a public pride. It is an industry that has been promised a bounty of new coal in Australia, in direct breach of the safety of those in nearby communities, and the safety of every living thing on Earth.
If there are any risks that politicians and decision makers will criticise coal instead of saluting it, they will be met with the full force of a cornered beast.