Greenie attack on Australian coalmining

It used to be that carrying coals to Newcastle was considered the height of idiocy, a wasted effort without the hope of a financial return. The new height of idiocy is to stop coal going from Newcastle.

The backbone of NSW's second-largest city - a Labor town built on the steel of the BHP mills and the coal from the Hunter Valley - is still coal, despite all the changes the valley has been through. It is also the undeniable backbone of Australia's domestic energy needs for decades to come and will continue to supply the bulk of the world's energy until 2050. And this is not the pipedream of a fossil industry but the conclusion of the British Stern report, which urges economic changes to fight greenhouse gas emissions. We can't do without coal; we have to learn to live with it.

To try to kill off the $9 billion coal industry in NSW and the exports shipped from Newcastle is to condemn the city and thousands of workers and businesses. Yet this week, in the grip of greenhouse hysteria, the Newcastle City Council, at the behest of Greens councillors and supported by Labor councillors, determined that Newcastle's coal shipments should be limited. The motion said the council recommended "the NSW Government establishes a cap on coal exports from Newcastle at existing levels" and "initiates a moratorium on new coalmines at Anvil Hill and elsewhere in the Hunter Valley and Gunnedah Basin". It went one further by backing calls from conservation groups to shut down the coal industry, and called for the industry "to fund the just transition to sustainability in the Hunter beyond coal". That is, levy the coal industry to fund its own closure and find jobs for the displaced workers. "Just transition" is greenhouse-friendly code for sack workers.

Not surprisingly, local federal MP Joel Fitzgibbon, a Labor frontbencher and former resources spokesman, went ballistic: "Extreme environmentalists are launching a jihad against the industry in an attempt to close it down, and the community must be told the other side of the story," he said. "We must strive to increase the share of electricity produced by renewable technologies, burn our coal more cleanly and efficiently and tighten environmental safeguards. But killing King Coal would be a disaster for the valley."

The heresy committed in Fitzgibbon's electorate allowed him to publicly vent feelings about anti-coal campaigns being conducted by conservationists in the name of fighting greenhouse gas emissions. There is trepidation in the ranks of Kim Beazley's supporters about the ALP being swept along in the emotional surge of anti-coal feeling.

Endorsed federal Labor candidate and potential ALP leader Bill Shorten and Victorian state Labor candidate Evan Thornley both suffered collateral damage this week because of their links with the GetUp campaign. As the national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Shorten was defending the pay and conditions of the unsung heroes of the Melbourne Cup, the jockeys, but at the same time GetUp, of which he and Thornley are board members, was calling for an end to the coal industry and a "just transition". Both rapidly distanced themselves from any suggestion they supported the closure of the coal industry.

Beazley also made it clear yesterday that the future of Australia's baseload electricity power would come from coal and that he was backing the coal industry: a clean coal industry. The Opposition Leader was emphatic about the Newcastle council's ban: "That's not the right answer. The right answer is to go down the road of active measures for clean coal technology. We've got to become the world experts at clean coal technology and, as we export coal, we need to export those technologies with it, make sure we can survive economically and also survive environmentally."

Beazley is right: it's a mixture of surviving economically and environmentally. But there has been too much emphasis from Labor on the potential effects of greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power stations. Certainly there is a clear political differentiation between the Howard Government and Labor over the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and entering a carbon emissions trading scheme that makes coal more expensive. But Labor has to be careful not to be seen as embracing unreal emotional claptrap that threatens the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Australian workers. Labor's industrial relations campaign and its position on Iraq have rebuilt the ALP base and secured it a steady spot above the crucial 40per cent of the primary vote in opinion polls, but it cannot afford to alienate that base in pursuit of a new campaign to pick up concerned green Liberals in leafy suburbs and keep faith with the progressive Labor Left.

Howard's response on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions has been ad hoc and sloppy. Some sort of an emissions trading scheme is inevitable, yet the Coalition is poorly placed to deal with the politics. However, don't dismiss the prospect of Howard preparing an important statement on greenhouse emissions and climate change before Christmas in which he sets out a more coherent agenda that is unapologetically worker friendly. Howard learned in 2004 that playing cat and mouse with Mark Latham over the Tasmanian forest issue worked in his favour in two ways: first, Latham went too green too early, and second, the reverberations of defending jobs went far beyond Tasmania. Putting forward practical steps to address greenhouse emissions and protecting jobs is a political winner.

The anti-coal brigade is already damaging Labor by association and creating internal tensions, and the next frontier of forests is yet to be reached. Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation Minister Eric Abetz started the forest fire in the Senate this week when he pointed out that plantation forests cut carbon emissions and offset greenhouse gas emissions from industry. Conservation groups have also pointed to a forgotten aspect of the Stern report, which urges a halt to deforestation and highlights the positive aspects of planting trees and using wood instead of other materials in building.

Howard was surprised last week in the face of Senate committee evidence that in 2002-03 electricity generation emitted 160 megatonnes of greenhouse gases while in just three weeks bushfires released 130 megatonnes. Old-growth forest management, logging state forests, plantation timber and pulping are the next frontiers in the greenhouse war. Howard has been slow to enter the fray but Labor has more to lose if the realisation dawns before the election that there are drastic and unjustified changes being proposed in the name of greenhouse panic.



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