Issues Magazine

Activists Threaten One of Australia’s Great Industries

By Nikki Williams

The anti-development agenda of the Australian Anti-Coal Movement is a manipulative approach to opposing the industry.

Our strategy is to “disrupt and delay” key projects and infrastructure while gradually eroding public and political support for the (coal) industry... We urgently need to build the anti-coal movement and mobilise off the back of the community backlash to coal seam gas.

This call to arms was contained in the Australian Anti-Coal Movement’s Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom document, exposed by two of Australia’s leading newspapers in March and met with wide condemnation by state and federal government, the union movement and business.

The aims of the anti-coal movement contained in the secret plan were reported to be “severely reducing” coal exports by “some hundreds of millions of tonnes per annum” using tactics to disrupt and delay development.

Australians are fortunate to live in a democratic society where debate is encouraged and the rights of individuals and organisations are respected and protected. Unfortunately, the Australian Anti-Coal Movement’s plan aims to manipulate legal processes and community concern in an attempt to undermine the legitimate social and regulatory licences of one of Australia’s largest export industries and inflict maximum damage on the Australian economy.

The twin drivers of demand for our coal are as a fuel to provide electricity and as a key input for the manufacture of steel needed to deliver First World infrastructure in emerging economies. The role that our natural resources are playing in helping these nations drag their people out of poverty is a great story worth celebrating.

Australia’s coal industry is growing. Some of the issues we are working through with our communities are as a result of that growth. This is a legitimate challenge that we are intent on overcoming through consultation and constructive engagement with our local communities.

But this campaign is designed to hijack local concerns to provide a vehicle for an anti-coal, anti-growth, anti-business agenda. It is a systematic, targeted campaign that goes against the national interest.

Now that the document is in the public domain, Australians can see for themselves the cynical and manipulative way the anti-coal movement intends to destroy our economy by infiltrating community groups and manipulating legitimate concerns about a range of important local issues to progress a larger political agenda aimed at strangling the coal industry’s project pipeline.

Coal is one of Australia’s biggest natural advantages, providing over 77% of our nation’s electricity with an export value exceeding $43 billion. The coal industry helps to keep our economy strong. The anti-coal movement plans to tear it down.

The claim that Australian coal exports represent a climate tipping point is thoroughly misleading. Australia is the world’s leading coal exporter, but only around 16% of the world’s coal is traded. Coal is mostly used where it is extracted. For example, in 2010 China produced 3.1 billion tonnes of coal and consumed 2.5 billion tonnes. The US produced 932 million tonnes and consumed 733 million tonnes. In Australia we produced 353 million tonnes and exported 298 million tonnes. We have a decreasing share of an internationally competitive coal market.

Another example of misinformation peddled by anti-coal campaigners relates to shipping through the Great Barrier Reef. On the eve of a recent visit by UNESCO to inspect the reef and to examine potential threats to its long-term health, Greenpeace released a document titled “Boom Goes the Reef” (see box below), which was premised on predictions of coal export growth that would be impossible to achieve even in the absence of a regulatory and assessment regime that is among the most rigorous and tested in the world, such as the one we have in Australia. Greenpeace’s strategy was to build pressure and amplify the level of community concern around the UNESCO visit.

To reach Greenpeace’s figure of 944 million tonnes of annual coal exports we would need to achieve an annual growth rate in coal exports of 22%. Growth over the past three years of Queensland coal exports was only 2.3%, although that was impacted by the floods. Over ten years, the growth rate has averaged 3.5%.

This demonstrates the Greenpeace numbers as utter fiction. It would simply be impossible to access that much financial capital and have the human resources in place. The Greenpeace figure also completely ignores the reality of global demand. By all means, let’s have a debate about responsible development of coal resources, but let’s have one based on facts.

Over the past decade, Australia has lost significant market share to countries like Indonesia because of factors including infrastructure capacity constraints. Thankfully, we are starting to see that addressed through a range of infrastructure development proposals, although the reality is that only a proportion of these will ever be realised. What we are seeing is a commercial contest to meet global demand.

Greenpeace’s argument rests on the belief that every single proposal will mature to a project. This is simply inconsistent with historical experience.

If we go back to the anti-coal document, it outlines a six-pronged strategy (see box below). Priority one is to lodge legal challenges against coal port expansions in Queensland and NSW, two major rail lines to the Galilee Basin that would unlock a series of major mines and up to a dozen key mine projects.

As well as disrupting and delaying key projects, the strategy aims to “build on the outrage created by coal seam gas” to win federal and state reforms to block mines from certain areas.

The campaign also aims to increase the risk taken by financial investors in the coal sector, reasoning that driving up the costs of coal is “fundamental to the long-term strategy to phase out the industry”.

The document also details a strategy to deploy health professionals to promote health concerns as a way to shift public sentiment against the coal industry in general and against specific projects in particular.

The Australian Coal Association has very real concerns for safety, threats to the livelihoods of our workforce and the impacts on the economy and community more generally. We are very concerned about both the level of coordination and the clear anti-development agenda contained in the document.

This document uncovers a systematic plan to manipulate legitimate community concern about a range of local issues to progress a larger political agenda aimed at stopping the growth of the coal industry. If this strategy were successful it would inflict enormous collateral damage on the national economy, on the economies of Queensland and NSW, and on the many industries and businesses that support the coal industry.

This is a threat that reaches beyond the coal industry. We should be having a national discussion about productivity and building the resilience of our economy. Here is an orchestrated campaign designed to inflict economic damage on one of Australia’s biggest export industries.

Australia has an enormous opportunity from the responsible development of its coal resources. The coal industry pays the Queensland Government $2.7 billion and the NSW Government $1.2 billion per year in royalties. That has grown from $489 million in 2006–07. The coal industry helps put nurses in our hospitals, teachers in our schools and police on the beat.

Coal is not just important to Australia. Australian coal exports play a vital role in developing countries, allowing them to modernise their economies and help eradicate extreme poverty. Today, around 1.3 billion people, or more than one-fifth of the global population, still do not have access to electricity. Coal remains the cheapest and most reliable solution.