UK United Kingdom

Book review: Big Coal

Burning coal is the one of the main sources of greenhouse gases, but mining expansion continues apace in Australia. Given the all-but unqualified support of federal and state governments for new mining…

Coal has become part of Australia’s economic landscape, and questioning it is difficult. Bill Collison

Burning coal is the one of the main sources of greenhouse gases, but mining expansion continues apace in Australia. Given the all-but unqualified support of federal and state governments for new mining ventures, there is the very real prospect that coal extraction will escalate with a dramatic increase in emissions.

Which brings us to Big Coal, published this month by NewSouth. Written by former lobbyist Guy Pearse, media academic David McKnight and environmental journalist Bob Burton), the book is an important challenge to the pro-coal narrative. The book outlines the long sorry story of coal’s history: the pollution of the atmosphere; the toxicity generated by the early use of coal in the manufacture of gas; the devastating health impacts for miners; the deleterious consequences of the dust and ash released in mining, transport and burning of coal which continues to plague communities to the present day.

If coal projects in Queensland’s Galilee Basin proceed, construction of port facilities will have an immediate impact on the Great Barrier Reef. The shipping of coal will turn the Reef into one of the world’s great sea superhighways, with all the risks this entails.

As Big Coal very neatly outlines, this destruction is justified on the pretext the industry is generating considerable economic benefits, and is on the cusp of resolving the problem of emissions. The assured imminence of a “clean coal” solution - carbon capture and storage - is an illusion that Australian taxpayers have thrown millions at.

Big Coal identifies the figures who have contributed to, and are benefiting from, this ruse. There are the global mining company barons – BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Xstrata, Anglo American and Peabody – who have been joined “by a dozen or so medium-sized players”. To these are added the familiar names of the local nouveau-riche – Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and Nathan Tinkler – and “offshore barons” such as the Indian industrialists Gautam Adani and GV Krisna Reddy, and Chinese energy giant, Yao Junliang.

Naming the principal beneficiaries of the energy resource boom is important. But it does tend to introduce a tone to the analysis not unlike the “don’t sell off the farm” rhetoric of the National Party. The structural forces that link Australian coal to the industrial development of China and India and are key to a global energy security pact but are downplayed. The Big Four miners – BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Xstrata and Anglo-American – already have established relationships with Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese energy and industrial companies, but this is overlooked.

These partnerships have laid the foundations of a regionally-based energy commodity chain, and are worthy of more critical reflection. The export of coal is reflected in the decline of Australian manufacturing industry. This manifests as a decline in per capita emissions, yet is more than offset by the consumption of imports produced in China with Australian coal. All the noise about China’s reputation as the world’s biggest emitter, with India quickly following up on this lead, overlooks the continuing increase of global emissions to fuel the profligate consumption habits of the West, whilst Australia’s fossil fuel industry simultaneously benefits by firing the economic development of China and India.

We need a better understanding of just how much the fortunes of Australian mining are tied to the economic momentum in the region and the continuing demand for coal. This understanding would provide for more critical reflection on some of the hype about the end of the resources and energy boom, as well as the extent to which the shape of the Australian economy has become structurally embedded in the dynamics of regional economic development.

This could also provide additional entry points for further reflection on the beneficiaries and losers of the energy and resources boom. It could help to explain why those who might otherwise be quite sympathetic to challenging the might of the coal barons - the Labor Party, the labour movement, or a left-leaning union such as the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) - continue to support this polluting industry.

Certainly there have been employment opportunities; although as Big Coal notes these have been greatly exaggerated and more than overshadowed by the employment losses from the inflation of the Aussie dollar driven by the energy and resources boom. More analysis is needed of the jobs that have been created. Pearse, McKnight and Burton expose the drawbacks of the move to a fly-in, fly-out workforce, including the deleterious consequences this has for workers and local communities. But it would be constructive to have more details of the impact of changing employment practices as the global corporate barons have jettisoned the direct employment of workers through subcontracting arrangements. How has the CFMEU responded to the challenge of precarity displacing job security?

One of the positives of Big Coal is that it signposts some ways forward. The book notes the ageing stock of coal-fired power generators, and, if energy output is to be maintained, the opportunity this presents for shifting investment to renewables. Underscoring this note of optimism is an appreciation that the tide is turning. The cost of renewable sources of energy is plummeting while the costs and risks of investing in coal-fired power generation are increasing.

The challenge, the authors argue, will be channel this appreciation into a fiscal reality. Government must withdraw its financial subsidies for fossil fuels and contribute to the future wellbeing of the earth by withdrawing the commitment to fossil fuel exports. These are laudable, and necessary, steps, but they will require - as Big Coal advocates - challenging the hegemony of the global corporate barons. It is not immediately clear that an Australian government of whichever political persuasion would demonstrate that resolve.

Guy Pearse, David McKnight and Bob Burton, 2013 Big Coal: Australia’s Dirtiest Habit: NewSouth Press. 272pp. ISBN 9781742233031

Articles also by This Author

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

27 Comments sorted by

Comments on this article are now closed.

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    The imminent election could be taken as an endorsement of the coal industry. Whatever you think of the carbon tax it had a fair way to go to make much effect on emissions since they declined a measly 1% or so 2000-2012. Our current emissions from all sources are about 550 Mtpa whereas I estimate CO2 from exported thermal coal, coking coal and LNG at about 800 Mt. It makes the domestic carbon tax look silly. As for emissions embodied in imports notably from China it is a shame the EU botched their…

    Read more
  2. Neville Mattick
    Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

    Thank you for this summary of the new book.

    Would "juggernaut" be appropriate?

    Larger than Government?

    My concern is that large scale renewables will all but dry up here (given the raft of projects canned in the last six months for example) as they seek viability in the US or China where the 'atmosphere' is more amenable to the technology.

    A recent development in NSW is the scaling down of the DPI; in my opinion Agriculture is seen as a hindrance to the march of Coal and CSG, case in point our Agronomist is now hundreds of kilometres away as the local office has just shut further easing the path of the Coal mines in the region.

  3. Comment removed by moderator.

  4. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Thanks for this review.

    Perhaps Big Coal could be read as a companion volume to Sharyn Munro's "Rich Land, Wasteland"?

  5. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    "... overlooks the continuing increase of global emissions to fuel the profligate consumption habits of the West ..." Correct.

    We can easily break the impasse over CO2 emissions production (capping, trading, Direct Action), with consumption taxes as suggested by

    CEDA's Geoff Carmody, Michael Porter and William Nordhaus ( ),

    Oxford Energy Policy Professor Dieter Helm (book "The Carbon Crunch"),

    Thomas L Friedman (

    and even James Hansen (book "Dreams of My Grandchildren").

  6. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Yes, coal does significant damage to the environment.

    Yet cheap sources of energy have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the last twenty years.

    That's the dilemma.

    Smug 'we care about the environment' articles like this, and, equally, propaganda from the coal industry, are just not good enough.

    1. Garry Claridge

      Systems Analyst

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Re: "Yet cheap sources of energy have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the last twenty years."

      James, I doubt this! In fact, the economics of cheap coal has probably increased poverty over the last 20 years.

    2. Sebastian Poeckes


      In reply to James Jenkin

      Yeah, sure. What about the next twenty years? What about the century after that? And the century after that? Of course, by the your genetic endowment would be so diluted that you couldn't give a proverbial could you?

    3. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see:

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Good point James, and it seems one passed over in a book that appears one sided to say the least. With some irony the taxes paid by big coal have helped pay the salaries and helped raise the children of the academics and the curators who contribute here.

      Without big coal many academics would find themselves looking for work. Who in the world outside the sheltered workshop would employ them?

  7. Steve Phillips

    Nurse Practitioner

    I think that the environmental movement as a general group is one of 'Big Coal's' greatest allies.
    Because everytime an credible alternative to using that filthy black stuff is mooted they pull out the banners and squash it.
    Australia has a naturally occuring resource, 2 resources actually that are an alternative to coal but 'god forbid' we talk about them, even whisper their names.
    No discussion is allowed, no none at all, better we die in a cloud of coal induced CO2 than the 'power that dare not speak it's name'.

    1. Will Hardy

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Steve Phillips

      The environmental movement are also against nuclear because it's a dirty thing to mine and use, and there is currently no solution for long term storage/disposal (ask Germany and France about this). And it's really not necessary.

      Even without paying for the externalities (Governments usually pick up that tab anyway), it's still very expensive and unnecessary given the enormous potential for renewable energy in Australia. The rest of the world is very envious of the abundant renewable resources Australia isn't even making use of.

      It's pretty silly to say that the environmental movement is an ally of Big Coal, other powers are ensuring its continued existence.

    2. Ken Fabian


      In reply to Steve Phillips

      You think it's greens that pulled the rug from under nuclear? Complete and utter nonsense. Fringe minorities don't set the agenda - unless mainstream politics chooses to let them.

      The choices of conservative Right politics to deny the reality and seriousness of the climate problem killed nuclear in Australia dead and did it right at the moment in history that was nuclear's greatest opportunity - the moment when science confirmed the link between emissions and climate. No climate problem, no need…

      Read more
    3. Steve Phillips

      Nurse Practitioner

      In reply to Will Hardy

      "there is currently no solution for long term storage/disposal (ask Germany and France about this). And it's really not necessary."

      Since when? Long term safe storage IS available and possible just not politically possible due to superstition and since when has it not been necessary to find a credible base load alternative to CO2 producing power generation?

    4. Steve Phillips

      Nurse Practitioner

      In reply to Ken Fabian

      John Howard cautiously mooted the idea of discussing nuclear power before losing office.
      The shrill screams of the superstious greenies reverberated across the land.
      "The thought wouldnt even consider the idea of crossing their minds" that nuclear could be built safely and effectively in Australia one of the most geologically and politically stable countries in the world. With modern technology and advanced there is no reason to think that we can and I believe willgo nuclear. Technology and science has come a long long way since places like Long Island (1983), Three Mile Island (1974) Fukushima (1967 for goodness sake).

    5. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Steve Phillips

      As one who could be termed an environmentalist, I can assure you, the first thing many (like me) have done, is find room on the roof for solar. I use a third of what I produce. Squashing, is something I do to cardboard boxes before they go on the garden. Metaphorically speaking, there are many people with bizarre recalcitrant underdeveloped thoughts about coal and energy in general, who I may try to squash also.

    6. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Steve Phillips

      Yes.. Good try Steve, I'm sure superstitious greenies aren't the only who don't want nuclear power. Prior to the tsunami in 2011, Tepko wanted to put a nuclear power plant on an island off the coast which was in fact a double volcano. Well managed is an oxymoron in this case. It could get much worse at fukushima, they can't keep the reactor cool and stop radioactive water leaking into the pacific. In Australia maybe you could think of somewhere to put these things close to cities which is not fire-prone? Then you could add 2-5 temperature rise to the Australian landscape, and light a match to see what could happen to a reactor on a 45-48 degree day. The point is that people always cheat, lie, don't imagine every scenario, cut costs and accidents do happen. We don't have to use toxic substances to make power. There are alternatives to coal and nuclear. They are renewable energy sources.

  8. Steve Hindle

    logged in via email

    " The shipping of coal will turn the Reef into one of the world’s great sea superhighways, with all the risks this entails".
    There are many serious problems facing the GBR from coal mining, but this is not one of them.
    Can you support how much damage has been done to the Reef by actual shipping? Compared to damage caused by pollution and fertilizer run off flowing out from our river systems, the damage caused by shipping movements is trivial. When increased global warming is looming as a potentially devastating problem why bother with such distracting smaller problems such as shipping? It burns up oxygen from a debate that should be more focused on more important issues.

    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Steve Hindle

      Wrong Steve.

      Yes, there are many serious problems facing the GBR. But coal shipping IS most definitely one of them. And the reason we discuss such issues is that we are perfectly capable of discussing more than one thing at a time. Climate change, fertiliser run off etc are all issues that we need to address, but to suggest that we ignore shipping because it is 'trivial' is nonsensical.

      You may wish to visit Gladstone one day.

    2. Steve Hindle

      logged in via email

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Mike, I never suggested we ignore the effects of shipping, instead I suggested that in ranking the risks to the GBR it is very low down compared to other risks.
      Can you give any evidence on how much actual damage has been caused to the GBR by shipping?