AGL CEO Andrew Vesey likes to paint himself as a sort of “greenie” who is shifting the company in the right direction in these “carbon constrained” times.
But that was contested by about 200 protesters who stationed themselves outside the company’s AGM in Sydney’s CBD on September 28. The protest was organised by Stop CSG Sydney and 350.org, and supported by GetUp!.
Their message to the AGL board and its shareholders was that it must accept the science and leave coal and gas in the ground. They called for an immediate shut down of its coal seam gas wells in Camden and a phase out of its coalmines by 2025.
“AGL presents itself as a clean energy company, but it has a dirty secret”, said 350.org campaigner Josh Creaser. “It is Australia’s biggest carbon polluter, emitting 38 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. That is equivalent to the pollution produced by almost half of all the cars in Australia.”
The Australian Conservation Foundation’s 2016 Australia’s 10 biggest climate polluters report has AGL at the top of the list, up from third place last year.
These 10 companies are responsible for the equivalent of nearly a third of Australia’s climate pollution and together are responsible for pouring more climate pollution into the atmosphere than Switzerland, Ireland and Denmark combined. The vast majority of this climate pollution comes from burning coal to generate electricity, including from the highly emissions-intensive brown coal plants in Victoria owned by AGL.
A “real” AGL report, distributed by 350.org to shareholders, noted that AGL’s “carbon emissions increased more than 92% in 2014–15 and the company continues to explore investments in the fossil fuels that are devastating our climate, communities and ecosystems”.
AGL’s black and brown coal plants and its 2050 timetable for departing the industry, make it anything but green. 350.org pointed out that AGL’s power stations in the Hunter Valley, which source coal from a number of regional mines, “are leaving terrible scars” on those communities.
Mick Fetch, a resident of the Wollar district in the hunter Valley, put the case movingly to the rally outside AGL’s AGM. He said the Wilpinjong mine, owned by US company Peabody Energy, “has had devastating impacts upon our once vibrant rural community”, including driving people out of the area entirely. He said the noise emissions from Wilpinjong had been unrelenting.
While the Australian arm of Peabody Energy recorded a loss of nearly $3 billion in June, two months after it declared bankruptcy in the US, it still wants to expand the mine to within 1.5 kilometres of the village.
“The social impacts of this ongoing mine expansion include the closure and sale of both churches in the village, the closure of the volunteer bushfire brigade and its amalgamation with a brigade more than 30 kilometres away. The public school is under threat of closure. Peabody owns the general store and has closed down the only mechanical service within 50 kilometres,” Fetch said.
“I came to ask AGL what it has planned with regard to a transition away from coal-fired power. I also want to know when this madness of the expansion of the Wilpinjong mine is going to stop,” he told the rally.
Recent analyses shows that Australia has little to no remaining carbon left to burn if it is to stay below 2°C — the agreement reached at the Paris Accords last December. AGL’s announcement it would not close its coalmines until 2050 defies this reality.
Inside the AGM, out of 19 questions asked of the AGL board, 13 related to climate change. One shareholder asked why AGL had not responded to Danielle Hodges, a resident of Spring Farm near Camden, who lives close to 20 of AGL’s CSG wells, some of which have had major leaks. The Camden community wants AGL to close its CSG wells immediately, not in 2023.
Melinda Wilson, who spoke outside, said more than 10,000 people had signed a petition calling on AGL to close down its Camden project immediately due to health concerns and the disposal of its waste water. AGL executives have repeatedly refused to take the petition, let alone respond to the community’s concerns.
Later, AGL executive Douglas Jackson accepted the petition and agreed to release a schedule for closure. Wilson told <em>Green Left Weekly</em> that the community would not stop protesting until AGL had left Camden — Sydney’s new growth area. She said the NSW Department of Planning had approved 35,000 new homes to be built within 20 metres of AGL’s existing CSG wells.
“This is a health epidemic in the making. The people of south-west Sydney should not be used as guinea pigs in a CSG experiment. The serious health effects relating to CSG must be acknowledged by AGL and the government.”
She said AGL’s plan to close all CSG wells in Camden by 2023 “is not acceptable”.
Dr Helen Redmond, from Doctors for the Environment, told the protest that despite the unknowns, US population health studies showed a correlation between the proximity and density of wells and low birth weight, preterm, birth defects, increased cardiac and neurological hospital admissions and increased asthma attacks.
“With climate change upon us we don’t have time for a transition fuel, but nor do we need one! We have cleaner and healthier alternatives right now,” Redmond said.
“The risks are so potentially dangerous, so difficult to manage and so likely to be long-lived, that any further development of unconventional gas in the country has to be seen as unwise and unhealthy.”
Carol Bennett, a Knitting Nanna from Gloucester, challenged AGL to show it really means what its glossy brochures project, including challenging Vesey to immediately announce its well-decommissioning schedule and to “close down the Camden operation as soon as possible, and certainly well before 2023”.
“Do it for the children,” Bennet said, “as they are the ones who are being put at risk.”
Meanwhile, inside the AGM, the greenwashing Vesey gave himself a pay rise of about $2 million, bringing his total remuneration this year to a whopping $6.94 million.
[For more information about AGL’s greenwashing check out Behind the Greenwash and Australia’s 10 biggest climate polluters. Pip Hinman is the president of Stop CSG Sydney and was one of the organisers of the protest.]