Min­ers must face cli­mate change is­sues

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IT’S been a hard road to recog­nis­ing the new re­al­ity of cli­mate change for Aus­tralia’s min­ing in­dus­try. And un­wanted pub­lic­ity — such as Aus­tralia be­ing named as the world’s big­gest emit­ter of green­house gases on a per capita ba­sis, thanks largely to its reliance on coal­based power gen­er­a­tion — hasn’t helped mat­ters.

But the Min­er­als Coun­cil of Aus­tralia says a fun­da­men­tal shift in min­ing in­dus­try at­ti­tudes to cli­mate change has taken place in the past five years or so, and the in­dus­try is now keen to meet the chal­lenges head-on.

I think there was a cer­tain de­gree of headin-the-sand stuff even five years ago,’’ says MCA chief ex­ec­u­tive Mitch Hooke. But I don’t know any­one in the min­ing in­dus­try who se­ri­ously con­tests the con­cept of global warm­ing th­ese days, even if they doubt its mag­ni­tude or im­pact.

Even where there is scep­ti­cism there is also pre­cau­tion — you don’t need the science to hit you in the face with the prob­lem be­fore you do some­thing about it.’’

Sus­tain­abil­ity and eco­nomics are key to un­der­stand­ing the in­dus­try’s about-face.

Any min­ing com­pany that has not got cli­mate change on its radar as part of its risk man­age­ment strat­egy has gone AWOL,’’ Hooke says. The in­dus­try has moved on big time — it now de­fines its whole rai­son d’etre in terms of a con­tri­bu­tion to sus­tain­abil­ity.

You just can’t ig­nore the most fun­da­men­tal shift in eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity glob­ally since trade lib­er­al­i­sa­tion.’’

The MCA is ad­vo­cat­ing a four-pronged in­dus­try approach to cli­mate change — en­sur­ing Aus­tralia’s cli­mate change poli­cies form part of a global pro­to­col, sup­port for mar­ket-based mech­a­nisms such as emis­sions trad­ing schemes, push­ing for a stream­lin­ing of state-based cli­mate change re­sponses and crit­i­cally, sup­port­ing the de­vel­op­ment of new tech­nolo­gies such as clean coal so­lu­tions.

Tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances are the key to the in­dus­try’s fu­ture, says Hooke, who is pleased at the noises com­ing from the Rudd Gov­ern­ment in this area. ‘‘ We were de­lighted with Rudd’s pre-elec­tion com­mit­ment to a Clean Coal Fund, and we want to keep the mo­men­tum up,’’ he says. ‘‘ The de­vel­op­ment of th­ese clean coal tech­nolo­gies has got to be a part­ner­ship be­tween in­dus­try and gov­ern­ment be­cause that’s the only way they’re go­ing to be achiev­able.’’

Chief among them is car­bon cap­ture and stor­age, or geose­ques­tra­tion — bury­ing ex­ces­sive car­bon diox­ide un­der the ground. Hooke says the tech­nol­ogy has al­ready been im­ple­mented at 15 dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions world­wide, al­though he con­cedes none of th­ese is a largescale power gen­er­a­tion plant. ‘‘ That’s the chal­lenge, but I think we’ll get there,’’ he says. ‘‘ The re­al­ity is we don’t have a lot of choice be­cause you just can’t put in enough wind­mills and enough so­lar pan­els and enough wave power — nor can you build enough nu­clear power plants quick enough — for a di­rect sub­sti­tu­tion for fos­sil fuel.’’

Im­prove­ments in the ef­fi­ciency of coal-fired power sta­tions will also help. ‘‘ For ev­ery 1 per cent in­crease in ther­mal ef­fi­ciency, we can get a 2 to 3 per cent re­duc­tion in emis­sions, ’’ Hooke says.

Clean coal tech­nolo­gies don’t come cheap and will sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease elec­tric­ity costs — by around 50 per cent for the car­bon cap­ture and stor­age sys­tems cur­rently in de­vel­op­ment. How­ever, Hooke be­lieves the price of coal will re­main com­pet­i­tive re­gard­less. ‘‘ The price in­crease will only bring it into line with gas — and nu­clear, if it ever hap­pens — and re­new­ables. In fact, it’s still prob­a­bly cheaper.’’

Hooke has no doubt about the long-term vi­a­bil­ity of the coal in­dus­try. ‘‘ Coal is go­ing to con­tinue to be a pri­mary en­ergy source for cen­turies to come — for your grand­chil­dren and well be­yond.

‘‘ It’s cheap, it’s abun­dant, it’s avail­able to de­vel­op­ing coun­tries — and those coun­tries are not go­ing to com­pro­mise their ac­cess to this form of en­ergy for all those other noneco­nomic ob­jec­tives.’’ How­ever, he be­lieves clean coal tech­nolo­gies are the way of the fu­ture. ‘‘ If we can’t get a suite of clean coal tech­nolo­gies — in­clud­ing car­bon cap­ture and stor­age — we’re cooked,’’ he says. ‘‘ You can’t have a global change so­lu­tion with­out a global clean coal strat­egy.’’

Ian Lof­tus from the As­so­ci­a­tion of Min­ing and Ex­plo­ration Com­pa­nies, which rep­re­sents ju­nior and medium-sized min­ers, says his mem­bers are lim­ited in what they can do in the area of cli­mate change.

‘‘ They’re not huge con­sumers and gen­er­a­tors of green­house gases,’’ he says. ‘‘ If your big­gest ex­pen­di­ture is rel­a­tively small vol­umes of diesel, petrol and elec­tric­ity, the scope for con­tribut­ing mean­ing­fully to green­house gas emis­sions is very very lim­ited.’’

Lof­tus be­lieves a tougher approach on tax­ing green­house-gas-emit­ting en­ergy sources would pro­duce re­sults. ‘‘ Ev­ery­body has a role to play in ad­dress­ing cli­mate change, but I think for a lot of our mem­bers the real driv­ers are the costs in­volved,’’ he says. ‘‘ If green­house emit­ting sources of power were taxed — if a com­po­nent of that cost re­flected the true en­vi­ron­men­tal cost, then that would force more peo­ple, in­clud­ing min­ers, onto sources of en­ergy that are cleaner.’’

The Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion’s Tony Mohr sup­ports the idea of more fed­eral leg­isla­tive re­forms forc­ing the min­ing in­dus­try to take fur­ther ac­tion on cli­mate change. As well as heav­ier taxes on fos­sil fuel power gen­er­a­tion, Mohr is call­ing for the scrap­ping of the diesel fuel re­bate for min­ers.

‘‘ At the mo­ment we are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing boom times and yet the min­ing in­dus­try re­ceives a very heavy tax sub­sidy in the form of a diesel fuel re­bate,’’ he says. ’‘‘ It would be a much higher in­cen­tive for min­ing com­pa­nies to re­duce their fuel con­sump­tion with­out it. Out­side of the coal process, fuel emis­sions are prob­a­bly the big­gest source of green­house gases.’’

Hooke is not wor­ried by the en­vi­ron­men­tal lobby and is op­ti­mistic about the min­ing in­dus­try’s fu­ture de­spite the chal­lenges of cli­mate change.

‘‘ I don’t see any job losses on the hori­zon and I don’t see a con­trac­tion in the min­ing in­dus­try’s busi­ness on ac­count of our re­sponse to cli­mate change,’’ he says.

‘‘ If any­thing, there’ll be an ex­pan­sion be­cause there’ll be a whole stack of new tech­nolo­gies to be rolled out.

‘‘ I see this as part of the chal­lenge of de­vel­op­ing a highly so­phis­ti­cated, tech­no­log­i­cally in­no­va­tive in­dus­try, and one that un­der­stands its en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.’’

Re­al­ity: Mitch Hooke says any min­ing com­pany not ad­dress­ing the con­cept of cli­mate change is off-track

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