Spinning the news on Baillieu’s brown coal plans
Yesterday the news broke that Victoria’s Baillieu government is preparing to open new brown coal allocations in the state and it will embark on a intense communications strategy to address “community concerns” about the high carbon emissions in brown coal.
Baillieu came to power with an anti-spin campaign, promising “no hidden agenda, no spin, no secrecy”. And yet, as Tom Arup reports in The Age:
“As part of the draft submission, it is proposed $120,000 will be spent on general communications material, local information sessions, industry engagement and promotion and marketing for the coal communications plan.
The document outlines a number of ”key messages” to be delivered to the community, such as ”Victoria’s abundant and easily accessible brown coal resource has helped keep electricity prices down and provided the Victorian economy a strong competitive advantage”.
Another message would be that ”the government is supportive of the export of high-value treated brown coal products so long as these comply with relevant federal, state and local legislation and regulation”.
On opposition from environment groups, the draft submission says ”an aggressive and pro-active communications campaign is required that demonstrates the continued relevance of brown coal in a carbon-constrained environment”
… It proposes media releases, briefings, fact sheets and brochures, websites, call centres and presentations as tools that could be used in the communications plan.”
The Latrobe Valley holds one of the world’s biggest reserves of brown coal and currently 92% of electricity generated in Victoria comes from brown coal. Brown coal isn’t currently exported, but the Baillieu government — and many mining companies waiting in the wings — hope that new technology to help convert brown coal to a black coal equivalent would make foreign exports — to markets such as China, India and Japan — viable.
Both Exergen and Australian Energy Company Limited have signalled their intention to bid for up to one billion tones of brown coal for export.
They aren’t the only excited businesses. “Environmental Clean Technologies welcomes these moves by the Victorian Government, especially as they recognise the need to dovetail these allocations with technology to increase value and mitigate environmental impacts,” rattled one press release. Environmental Clean Technologies Limited is the creators of Coldry technology, apparently the first economic method of dewatering brown coal and turning it into a black coal equivalent, meaning there is less carbon emissions and it’s easily transportable.
There’s been a lot of debate in the last few years on how “clean” brown coal can be. Last year on Rooted we ran an article by Paul Connor, an activist with Stop HRL, that discussed how Exergen’s claim of using coal-drying technology will reduce greenhouse emissions from burning brown coal by up to 40% — a technique called Continuous Hydrothermal De-watering and developed by another company — didn’t hold up to its environmental claims. As Connor wrote:
“First, this figure fails to take into account the emissions involved in the coal-drying process, which itself involves substantial energy use. So while there may technically be less emissions in China when the coal is burnt, there will be more here when it is dried. Second, it compares the emissions of burning Exergen’s dried coal in a hypothetical brand new state-of-the-art coal plant against the emissions from current coal plants in the La Trobe Valley. Yet virtually anything will seem clean in comparison with the decrepit dinosaurs currently choking the ‘smelly valley’.
And finally (and perhaps most importantly), there is no indication anywhere that Exergen’s figure has ever been scientifically tested or independently verified.”
Back in 2009 Environment Victoria released a 2007 government report written by consultants Firecone for the Department of Primary Industries on the brown coal industry. The report states:
“The government should not allocate all available coal now, as has been suggested. Private companies already have coal allocations well above their medium term requirements. The existing mines supplying the power stations in the Latrobe Valley have sufficient resource for around 40 years supply … A further allocation of coal should only be considered if there is evidence of credible, well resourced new investors who face difficulty in agreeing reasonable terms to access the coal resource that has already been allocated.”
Brown coal isn’t the super-cheap option many believe it to be, writes Dan Cass at ABC’s The Drum:
“The core issue that the Premier has to understand is that brown coal is cheap if you just calculate the value of the coal, but you can’t chill the beer or boil a cup of tea with a lump of coal.
Brown coal has to be dried, burned and used to boil water that becomes steam. Energy is lost at every step. Then the steam drives a turbine that generates electricity, losing more energy in the process. This is then stepped up to a high voltage and sent down the transmission network, for hundreds of kilometres, which wastes even more power. At this point the electricity is still useless to the consumer.
Before you can get anything of value done with the brown coal power, you then have to step down the electricity and pump it through a distribution grid, to the households and businesses that buy the power. All those steps waste more power and cost tens of billions of dollars in Australia, which all ends up on your power bill.”
The Baillieu government hopes new brown coal allocations will help create a mini resources boom here in Victoria. As Resources Minister Michael O’Brien said yesterday: “The Victorian government believes that brown coal can, and should, play a key role in our energy future. The allocation process will deliver this.
”Encouraging new investors and the right technologies could deliver a new generation of industry in the Latrobe Valley, boosting the local economy and creating new jobs.”
The Latrobe Valley has certaintly suffered economically in recent years, particularly with talk that the Hazelwood power station may be closed down. But as one Labor source who was involved in the 2002 allocation of brown coal and in 2005 when companies pushed for more allocations told The Age: ”The brown coal export push is led by a group of fairly anonymous businessmen with no track record of success in project delivery or job creation. They spent most of the last decade pestering Bracks and Brumby and now they see a new target in Baillieu.”