Divestment hits a nerve

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We’re going on tour!

When Richard debated the NSW Minerals Council chief spin doctor Stephen Galilee two weeks ago, Stephen challenged Richard to visit the mining towns of NSW.

Richard accepted his challenge on the spot and last week we wrote to Stephen to lock in dates and towns; so far, no response.

We reckon the taxpayers of Muswellbrook, Lithgow and Gloucester would be interested to learn how their tax dollars are subsiding companies which export 83 per cent of their enormous profits overseas, rather than being invested in schools and hospitals. Thanks to the support of hundreds of individuals who chipped in we’re going on tour – with or without the NSW Minerals Council.

We’ll keep you posted as we confirm dates and venues.

It’s pretty clear that highlighting the taxpayer subsidies the miners rely on hurts more than anything else our research has turned up, so thank you to everyone who donated to our tour – we couldn’t do this work without your support.

Divestment movement hits a nerve

The fossil fuel divestment movement seemed to hit a particularly sensitive nerve this week. The Australian Financial Review has published a litany of critical front page stories, editorial and opinion pieces. In particular, special outrage flowed over divestment decisions taken by the Australian National University (ANU).

ANU announced last week it would divest from seven resources companies on environmental, social and governance (ESG) grounds. ANU is home to a long running student campaign calling on them to divest from fossil fuels. Under pressure, ANU sought professional ESG research and declared it would knock out the companies that ranked worst. The companies impacted include gas giant Santos, Oil Search and other miners extracting copper, nickel and a range of other minerals.

ANU’s decision has drawn ire, not only from the companies themselves, but also from SA Premier Jay Weatherall, previous Resources and Energy Minister Gary Gray and some Indigenous groups. There have been all manner of complaints: the companies say they weren’t consulted; they have won ESG awards; Santos is a proud Australian “pioneer”; fossil fuels cure poverty “whatever the effects of carbon dioxide ­emissions on climate”; mining is essential to modern life, and so on. One company is talking about legal action.

Others have baulked at the unusual enthusiasm in the reactions and coverage. A Canberra Times editorial said it “verged on hysterical”. Clean energy commentator Giles Parkinson, himself an ex-AFR deputy editor, said the reaction was “as though someone had committed treason against Team Australia. Or at the very least against Team Coal.”

At first glance, coal has nothing to do with it. ANU is not divesting from coal companies – unlike Stanford, which is divesting from all big coal companies, and Glasgow University which this week said it would divest from fossil fuels. Indeed, without a sector wide screen, ANU is likely to reinvest in fossil fuels. But when ABC’s Lateline covered ANU’s decision this week, the Minerals Council sent the head of their Coal Division into bat for the miners. Maybe that’s because coal is most at risk from the reputational effects of divestment campaigns. Coal is the heaviest emitter, cheapest to substitute with renewables and at most risk of being displaced by new clean energy.

ANU Vice Chancellor Prof. Ian Young defended the ANU’s move:

as “a major researcher in environment and alternative energy, we need to be able to put our hand on our heart when we talk to our students and to our alumni and to our researchers and be able to say that we’re confident that the sort of companies that we’re investing in are consistent with the broad themes that drive this university.

ANU economist Warrick McKibbIn did not agree, saying “you need proper, clear, transparent policies such as carbon pricing… You don’t get the sort of adjustment we need by these token gestures by institutions like a university.”

But Swiss investment bank UBS endorsed the strategy in a recent investor note. UBS said this was a “potentially effective campaign”, noting that:

“many of those engaged in the debate are the consumers, voters and leaders of the next several decades. In our view, this single fact carries more weight than any other data point on the planet for this issue: time, youthful energy and stamina are on the side of the fossil fuel divestment campaign.”

TAI out and about

TAI’s Rod Campbell has been on the road, looking at coal mines and coal fired power near Lithgow and in the Illawarra.

First stop was Cullen Bullen, a pretty little town just north of Lithgow. The area is home to several coal mines and two power stations. With coal prices down from the higher levels of 2011, the mines and power stations have hit hard times. The NSW Planning Assessment Commission was in town to hear about the latest proposals for more coal and coal-fired power.

Even though the area’s mines have been scaling back and one power plant has closed, Hong Kong-owned Energy Australia is urging the NSW government to roll the dice again on coal fired power. They want approval to expand two small mines to access cheap, low quality coal. If they get this cheap coal, they promise they will generate more electricity which will push down prices and help NSW consumers.

Sounds good, right? Except that at the same time, Energy Australia is saying the exact opposite to the Federal Government, as Rod pointed out to the Commission.

In the company’s submission to the review of the Renewable Energy Target, the company complained that the electricity market was “grossly oversupplied” and that generation had to be reduced for prices to go back up to “sustainable” levels. They’ve also bragged to their shareholders that they can increase profit if they reduce generation from their most expensive power stations.

While Energy Australia tells the NSW government it wants to increase generation and it tells the federal government that it wants to decrease generation, many locals in Cullen Bullen are more concerned with the local environmental impacts. The mines are located right next to spectacular sandstone cliffs and sensitive environmental areas. There are proposals to turn the area into a national park, which could be heavily impacted by further coal mining nearby. (More details here)

After Cullen Bullen, Rod went down to Wollongong. He gave a seminar on coal in the NSW economy at the Corrimal Community Centre, organised by Illawarra Residents for Responsible Mining.

Like the Lithgow area, some mines in the Illawarra have been struggling financially and laying off staff. Others are proposing to expand, causing concerns about air quality in the suburban areas in which they operate. With several planning processes underway, it was a good time for all stakeholders to consider the role of coal in the local and state economy.

TAI in the media

Playing dice with the environment
Chips are down for jobs creation
Centrelink reverse mortgage scheme is just for the wealthy 
Impact of mining not all positive
Matt Grudnoff on The Project


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