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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