QUARTERLY ESSAY 33 Quarry Vision



Patrice Newell

Guy Pearse’s Quarterly Essay builds on his massive and important High and Dry (Penguin, 2007). Given his erstwhile status as a Liberal insider – working in the belly of the beast – he can reveal the depth of Howard’s climate-change denialism and give the names, ranks and serial numbers of the greenhouse mafia that successfully derailed the ideal of sustainable progress. Now we see how powerful that lobby remains in the era of Rudd and Wong.

Pearse is a first-class researcher, dogged and courageous. He unearths facts like a miner following a seam. In the case of Quarry Vision he quarries a vast number of cited sources. And the revelations pile up, identifying the miscreants. (We learn that X and Y and Z left the ministry to get jobs in the mining industry, with Z scoring a well-paid directorship of mining company A.) 

Recently Rudd’s new parliamentary secretary for climate change, Greg Combet (member for Charlton), spoke at a local meeting in northern New South Wales. Environmental chat rooms ran hot with the revelation that Combet was unfamiliar with James Hansen. The Australian prime minister’s new adviser hadn’t heard of NASA’s leading climate scientist? 

We now know where Combet’s ignorance begins. But where does it end? Thankfully Combet has political skills – we saw them during the waterfront dispute. It’s imperative and urgent that he gets up to speed on this issue and fights. He could learn from Graham Richardson. Richo, the classic “fixer,” was a potent environment minister. 

The central problem for the best-intentioned politicians is posed by the central question, ‘‘How do we get there from here?” While Rudd may well dream of getting to 100 per cent renewable energy in 2020 or fantasise about being a world leader on climate change, he doesn’t seem to have any idea how to get there. He seems bogged in caution – overwhelmed by the limitations of power in an arena of big money, big government revenues and a convergence of trade-union and corporate resistance. 

This cautious approach to climate-change reform is in fact the riskiest. The failing big three car makers offer a convincing lesson. Propping up last century’s energy system prohibits new innovations from gaining momentum.

The Australian Industry Group calculates that a $20 per tonne carbon price would increase the cost of goods and services by 0.9 per cent and yet businesses are screaming for government aid, claiming they will be uncompetitive internationally. But the Australian dollar fell by 35 per cent in three months last year and two years before that rose by 35 per cent. Entire industries can grow or be wiped out with such volatility. Whinging about a possible 0.9 per cent overall cost increase is unconvincing.

Politicians habitually associate with companies that generate cash flow. As well as filling their shareholders’ coffers and government kitties, they are often the source of election donations. You see the dynamic most clearly in New South Wales, where the state government is addicted to coal. My research shows that no application to open or extend a coal mine in New South Wales has ever been denied – and there are more than seventeen currently queuing for approval as the miners march across the state, munching prime farmland and devouring river systems.

To paraphrase an old TV ad for oil, coal ain’t just coal. It’s used for two distinct purposes: making electricity and making steel. We know clean electricity alternatives abound: solar-photovoltaic and thermal, wind, hydro, geothermal and bio-mass are all poised to contribute. But steel production? That’s another matter. The blast furnaces making steel use almost three times more coal than iron ore in the process, and the alternatives are harder to provide. So when anti-coal advocates crusade against coal, they must differentiate. The first target has to be thermal coal rather than metallurgical. We still need steel, if only to build giant windmills, solar installations and other components in the renewable-energy infrastructure.

It’s coal mining for electricity that must be phased out. 

To get there (to a non-carbon-polluting economy, i.e. a sustainable future) from here (Australia is the biggest per capita CO2 polluter in the world) requires governments and political parties to free themselves from the gravitational pull of coal’s easy money. If only governments didn’t have to waste so much money on education, health care and public transport.

And where coal fills government coffers as it fills the coal trains heading to Newcastle and Gladstone, those pesky renewable-energy industries keep clamouring for funds. It seems private-sector investment must be seduced by tax incentives and matched by the public sector.

How do we get there from here? 

After establishing a proper target to reduce emissions, that is, 25–40 per cent by 2020, let’s start by reducing government expenditure on infrastructure for existing polluting industries. 

April 2009 will be remembered for the contribution to the debate of the little-known Professor Peter Newman, from Infrastructure Australia, who urged Rudd to scrap the expansion of the coal-export capacity at Newcastle and deplored government spending on “clean” coal. Here was one of the PM’s team saying what Al Gore, James Hansen and every climate-change crusader had been saying for years. Stop spending government money on both extending and underwriting the coal industry.

To get there from here, let’s see Rudd, Wong and Combet table a plan for the total phasing out of Australia’s coal-generated electricity. It may take decades but let’s start. 

Clean coal? If and when that turns from spin to science and coal-fired power stations can capture and store their pollution, we can renegotiate. But now, with the desperate need to reduce the amount of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere, it is both reckless and immoral to keep bank-rolling thermal coal.

Let’s see a national campaign educating us, the voters, on the true costs of climate change – not just a one-off event like the welcomed Hidden Costs of Electricity report recently launched by the minister for finance, Lindsay Tanner. I want to see a national TV campaign like the one we all endured when Howard was hard-selling the GST.

Let’s cap and reduce our thermal-coal exports (for electricity generation overseas).

And let’s not fall for the plan to offset Australia’s pollution by reducing deforestation in Asia. It’s an admirable idea – to reduce the burning of jungles and habitats. But in terms of energy policy this is fobbing off, not reform, and will only delay the restructure we need at home.

How to get there from here? It’s not something Rudd can do on his own. Not while our constitution has the states responsible for land, water and energy. It’s state governments that pretend to assess every exploration licence, mine plan, breach of condition and environmental complaint. For instance, in September 2008, in New South Wales, Invincible Colliery (Coalpac Pty Ltd) near Lithgow was found guilty of extracting 80 per cent more coal in a year than it was approved to do. Coalpac was fined $200,000. Imagine building your house 80 per cent bigger than your approved plan. 

The list of coal mines breaching approval conditions is long and includes such complaints as over-extraction, dumping saline water into rivers, blasting when windy, noise pollution, cracking river beds, polluting streams and subsidence. 

With the Rudd government endorsing the expansion of Gladstone and Newcastle ports and co-funding almost half of a $1.2 billion project to expand new rail lines for the Hunter Valley – solely for the purpose of transporting coal – why would a state government bother even thinking about reform?

Until change happens within a state’s department of planning, quarry vision will continue to defeat the visionary. And negative climate change wins. 


Patrice Newell was a newsreader and broadcaster on SBS and Channel Nine. She is the author of several books on sustainable farming and a co-founder of the Climate Change Coalition.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 33, Quarry Vision. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 34, Stop at Nothing.


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