According to recent reports, the Brumby government plans to export brown coal to India. For those who don’t know, brown coal is one of the most emissions-intensive ways to generate electricity — even more polluting than oil, gas or black coal. The Brumby government is desperate to capitalise on Victoria’s abundant coal reserves before a global emissions treaty or carbon price takes effect. After that happens, burning brown coal will be socially unacceptable and considerably more expensive.
But isn’t there a simpler way to offload the stuff? After all, how do most people get rid of a dodgy product in a hurry? They auction it on eBay, of course.
So that’s what I’ve done. Victoria’s 13 billion tonnes of unallocated brown coal are now listed as an eBay item, under the seller name “BrumbyGovt”. Bids are open for the next seven days. The starting price is $1,000,000, but the Brumby government hopes to make billions from the deal.
Of course, brown coal could be a hard sell for the government. A power station using Victorian brown coal is 37% more emissions-intensive than one using black coal, according to a 2002 paper from the University of Technology, Sydney. Wet and highly flammable, brown coal has for years been stigmatised as an inferior energy source.
The Brumby government hopes to dry the coal so it’s less polluting, but buyers will still have concerns. That’s why, until bidding ends on October 21, “BrumbyGovt” will answer any questions about brown coal and its exportation. Responses will draw on government media releases about climate change and energy supply. (Of all the eBay sellers currently peddling their wares, the Brumby government has perhaps the most experience of spruiking a defective product. It’s been spinning untruths about brown coal for years.)
Once bidding finishes, the best queries and responses will be published here on Crikey. So if you’ve got a question about brown coal to ask the Brumby government, submit it on the eBay site or email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below are some sample questions and responses to get you thinking.
Isn’t burning brown coal a really dirty way to generate electricity?
Yes and no. Yes if you compare it to wind, solar, solar thermal, tidal, hydro, gas, oil, black coal and just about everything else. No if you compare it to itself. Naturally, we prefer the latter comparison. For example, in a 2008 media release we said our new drying technology can reduce emissions by 30% “compared to current best practice for brown coal power generation in the Latrobe Valley”. Technically that’s about the same level of emissions as a black coal power station. But hey, we’re “glass half full” kind of guys.”
Won’t people protest if we start burning brown coal?
Probably. But at the Brumby government, we’ve come up with a unique solution to the problem of free speech. We’re proposing new penalties for protesters who attempt to shut down coal-fired power stations. Two years’ jail and a $28,000 fine should convince greenies not to kick up a fuss. Of course, Australia has a fairly robust democracy, which means we’re limited in how we can clamp down on civil disobedience. The Australian public gets all uppity about police brutality. But if you’re buying the coal for use in a developing country, you could probably ask the military to just bash the protestors instead.
Citizens in my country won’t support new coal-fired power stations. Is there any way to convince them this is a good idea?
We don’t recommend challenging their views directly. The argument can easily become bogged down in “facts”. At the Brumby government, we know facts are dangerous to promoting the interests of industry. That’s why we prefer to manipulate the public subtly and indirectly.
What we do in Victoria is simply call brown coal something else. We’d been trying to set up a new brown coal-fired power station in the Latrobe Valley for ages, but the public wasn’t buying it. So a little while ago we decided to establish a company called Dual Gas to oversee the project. This allows us to refer to the power plant as Dual Gas, even though it uses brown coal. Neat, huh? Can’t remember who came up with that idea, might have been Batcho. Anyway, it’s a corker. You might want to try it in your own country.
The other thing we do is call our plants “clean coal”. Of course, they’re not “clean coal” because that would involve capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground. Bugger if we know how to do that. But we’ve found that if we mention “clean coal” enough times, it tends to stick in people’s heads and, eventually, they start to believe it. Read this next sentence. Clean coal, clean coal, clean coal, clean coal, clean coal, clean coal. Now when we say “coal”, what’s the first word that pops in your head? Exactly.
Greg Foyster is a Melbourne-based writer. He was involved with Environment Victoria’s campaign against the original HRL power plant proposal and is the former environment columnist for Voiceworks magazine.