Coal - leave it in the ground

November 22, 2006

With the speed of global warming and the seriousness of climate chaos now firmly established in the minds of our politicians, it is urgent that they display leadership on actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The leadership so far — in that it has promoted the dirty lie of "clean coal" and the farcical view of nuclear energy as clean and green — has been ethically vacuous. The frames that the Howard government has used to drive public debate on our energy future are dangerous dead ends that will deliver huge problems to future generations.

Leaving aside the nuclear energy debate that we simply don't need to have, the open-cut mining of coal is one of the most destructive activities on the face of the Earth. It creates massive and permanent damage to regional landscapes wherever it is undertaken.

In NSW's Hunter Valley, between Singleton and Muswellbrook, more than 200 square kilometres of valley floor is severely disturbed by the impacts of coalmining and power generation. The view from the air is of a "moonscape", with total desolation of the endemic landscape, and massive impacts on human and ecosystem health.

Moreover, even given the current drought, coalmining as a designated priority water user is continuing with business as usual while potentially sustainable industries such as dairying, cropping, viticulture and horse studs are having their water allocations cut to unviable fractions (less than 10%) of their entitlements.

It is ironic that the industry most implicated in climate chaos in eastern Australia is given priority status for water during a prolonged drought that climate experts tell us is exacerbated by the burning of coal and the global warming process. It is simply madness to allow this situation to get worse with new mega open-cut coalmines such as Anvil Hill, now in the approval process with the NSW government.

With respect to coalmining and burning, it is not just its role in global warming and climate chaos that we should be concerned about. Millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, health damaging particulate matter and highly toxic chemicals (volatile organic compounds, lead, chromium, mercury and arsenic, to name a few) spew out of the chimney stacks of coal-fired power stations worldwide.

In 2001-02, according to National Pollution Inventory data, the coalmines and power stations in the Muswellbrook postcode in the Hunter region emitted 18,000 tonnes of particulate matter, 60,000 tonnes of nitrous oxides and more than 100,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide. The cumulative impacts of the 22 existing open-cut coalmines and three power stations are already overwhelming the Upper Hunter region; more mines will make the situation intolerable.

Leaving aside that there is no such thing as "clean coal", the capture and storage underground or undersea of carbon dioxide (geosequestration) remains a risky "solution". While some politicians and media commentators remain sceptical about the overwhelming evidence of global warming, they seem easily convinced, despite the lack of long-term evidence, that carbon geosequestration will solve our excess carbon problem.

It will be at least 10 years before large-scale testing of this method is possible and another 10 before new power stations are operating with connections to the new technology in regions where it is geologically permissible. Meanwhile, another 20 years of carbon emissions would have been added to the Earth's atmosphere, with impacts that will be felt in the atmosphere for another 50-80 years. Such an outcome is ethically unacceptable and should be rejected by all.

More pointedly, there is no guarantee that the stored carbon dioxide would remain "safe" in the earth for the indefinite future. Should huge volumes of stored carbon be released by geological or chemical instability, all the money and effort will be wasted and the warming problem will massively and suddenly escalate. The fact is sequestered carbon dioxide is potentially toxic and dangerous for all time.

Evaluating what must be done now to address greenhouse gas emissions in Australia is not difficult. The most obvious first move, since it is likely to be the largest source of all new carbon dioxide emissions, is to place a moratorium on all new coalmines and all new coal-fired power stations while we consider our options for a post-carbon energy scenario.

A radical, but defensible, next step is to argue that coal not mined and not burnt is a form of clean and safe carbon geosequestration. In a carbon-constrained world, Australia has a potentially huge carbon credit. In a tough post-Kyoto carbon trading scenario we should be arguing to the rest of the world that they must pay us carbon credits to not mine and burn our coal.

Finally, despite the fact that it is a "no brainer", we should be immediately concentrating our intellectual and economic resources in genuinely clean, renewable and low-risk energy production. We could immediately redirect the perverse taxpayer-funded subsidies given to the fossil-fuel industry, such as the diesel fuel rebate subsidies for fuel used in the coal industry, which are worth about $300 million per annum in the Hunter region alone and at least another $100 million in the now redundant Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate announced in early 2006.

New frameworks that emphasise the need for low-risk energy systems that deliver genuinely clean and renewable energy are urgently needed to deliver a sustainable future for all. To do otherwise is to speed up a climate-based disaster that will cost us the Earth.

[Glenn Albrecht is senior lecturer in environmental studies in the School of Environmental and Life Sciences at Newcastle University.]

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