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Apr 20, 2010

Minister for coal out of step with climate change action

Darren Lewin-Hill led a group of four local climate campaigners meeting with their federal MP, Energy and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson. They weren't encouraged by his rhetoric.

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You could say we’d hit the jackpot – four local climate campaigners scoring a meeting with their federal MP, who also happens to be the energy and resources minister in the Rudd Labor Government.

Martin Ferguson holds the eminently safe but greening Victorian seat of Batman. A couple of weekends earlier, an Earth Hour demonstration at his Preston office had called on the champion of emissions-intensive fossil fuel exports and power generation to switch to renewables. Australia is heavily dependent on coal for its domestic energy supply, and is the world’s largest coal exporter.

Now Ferguson was sitting across the table from us, a minder scribbling quietly beside him. He said the Government would take the emissions trading scheme to the Senate again in May, but it would fail and Labor would face the next election without a price on carbon.

What of the Greens’ proposal for an interim, two-year carbon tax? Ferguson offered two main objections: a lack of certainty for business, and the blunt statement that there would “never be a settlement” with the Greens on this issue.

While some business uncertainty is surely a reasonable price to avoid the certainty of climate impacts, Ferguson’s blanket exclusion of a climate settlement seems at odds with claimed negotiations between climate change minister Senator Penny Wong and Greens Senator Christine Milne. In the week following our meeting, in fact, The Age quoted Greens leader Bob Brown as being “in a mood to do a deal” on the ETS.

Nothing, however, would be good enough for the Greens, Ferguson claimed – climate change was, for them, a political question, while for Labor it was an economic and environmental one. He had no reply to the argument that the Greens would be hard-pressed to reject for political motives any plan that actually reflected the climate science, in stark contrast with the measures currently proposed by Labor.

While there was some enthusiasm when the talk switched to renewables, Ferguson said coal “would be with us for both our lifetimes”, with no option, it seemed, to leave it in the ground – an imperative of the strongest current science on solving the climate crisis.

He asserted, instead, that carbon capture and storage (CCS) was a “proven technology”, challenged only by the “cost of deployment”. This contrasted with large-scale concentrated solar thermal (CST) technologies already working in Spain and the United States. Solar, according to Ferguson, needed to be “proved up”.

Yet for James Hansen, the world’s leading climate scientist, clean coal is an “illusion”. In September 2009, ABC TV Four Corners also questioned the beleaguered technology in its program. A few days after our meeting, it also aired ‘A Dirty Business’, a program exposing the health and environmental impacts of coal mining in the NSW Hunter valley. Without the elusive prospect of CCS, coal is more than twice as carbon-intensive as gas, which itself is more than 30 times more carbon-intensive than CST.

Despite the profound challenges of such a massively carbon-intensive energy source, the Government’s current ETS proposal includes $1.5 billion compensation for the coal industry and $7.3 billion for fossil-fuel electricity generators. To these billions of public funds can be added the slated $47-billion, five-year investment in an obsolete power grid that, according to Fairfax green business writer Paddy Manning, “entrenches electricity generation from fossil fuels and will only accelerate climate change”.

Though disagreeing with Manning’s analysis, Ferguson admitted that $100 billion would likely be needed “just to keep where we are” with the current power network – more than a Zero Carbon Australia 2020 plan would spend over 10 years ($92 billion) towards a renewables-friendly smart grid.

Strangely, Ferguson seemed also to draw support for his multi-billion-dollar fossil-fuel grid from evidence at the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission about the role of faulty power lines in the Black Saturday fires. A safe grid is, of course, a necessity, but one geared to fossil fuels would only promote global warming and a consequent worsening of bushfire risk in Australia.

By this stage, however, Ferguson had relaxed. He sat back in his chair, smiling. Here, after all, was the minister for the prevention of blackouts, standing against those he claimed would flick the switch on the super-polluting Hazelwood coal-fired power station tomorrow, without any plan for the workers or for keeping the lights on.

Darren Lewin-Hill met with Ferguson on Friday, 9 April 2010 with representatives from Darebin Climate Action Now, organisers of the meeting, and of the Earth Hour event at Ferguson’s electorate office.

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30 thoughts on “Minister for coal out of step with climate change action

  1. Stafford van Putten

    Michael, seriously, where are you getting your information?

    Aside from the numerous other sources of info available, here’s one:

    The Guardian
    “According to the Environmental Transport Association, by the end of today the flight ban will have prevented the emission of some 2.8m tonnes of carbon dioxide since the first flights were grounded.
    The volcanic eruption has released carbon dioxide, but the amount is dwarfed by the savings.”

    Here’s event a pretty picture

    Anyway, distractions aside, thanks Mr Lewin-Hill for bringing detail of your interview with Mr Ferguson to an audience. However a transcript of the interview would also have been appreciated. (you know how it is, earn our respect by showing us respect…)

    “He sat back in his chair, smiling.” Because, despite the arguments of people such as yourself, climate scientists, and even prominent economists, he knows he is a lot closer to winning the battle over lay people’s hearts and minds than you are. Why he wants to “win” in such a terrible way, with so much at risk is beyond me.

  2. James Bennett

    Dr Karl is obviously a re-user of dodgy information and has made some serious withdrawls from his credibility bank.


    Still it is hard to believe this volcano is emitting less CO2 per day than the grounded European air traffic would so i’d expect these figures to be adjusted again as real scientists investigate the proposal.

  3. Darren Lewin-Hill

    I thought I’d offer a response to some of the comments people have left on this story. A longer version of the story and some additional comments are also available at Northcote Independent.

    First of all, as one comment suggested, I’d love to be able to offer a transcript of the interview, but I can’t imagine there was ever any prospect of a recording being allowed – or of a frank discussion on Ferguson’s part if it had been. Of course, if Ferguson has any argument with anything I’ve said here or at Northcote Independent, he’s either silent or letting others do the talking for him. He certainly knows about the piece, I can assure you.

    On the Hansen supporting nuclear comment (and why did I only mention his views on coal), I did actually think about that while writing the piece. I guess his support for nuclear power really isn’t any part of why he’s right about climate change and the contribution of coal and other fossil fuels to the problem.

    Barry Brook is another example of someone who is very strong on climate science but supports nuclear. Because I disagree with Hansen and Brook (and agree with Al Gore) on the nuclear issue, I don’t think Ferguson is any part of the solution. There are just too many problems with proliferation, the risk of accident and waste – and too many sound alternatives – to think about nuclear energy as a (radioactive) silver bullet.

    I suspect that, for Ferguson, a similar principle applies to uranium as with coal: it appears unthinkable for him to adopt any solution that entails not cashing in on a mineral resource. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground isn’t destroying industry and jobs etc. as some commenters suggested, it’s the action needed to avoid catastrophic climate impacts and the far greater economic costs of ‘adapting’ to them (we can’t) rather than preventing them from happening in the first place.

    The volcano argument – why bother about human causes when a bloody big volcano has erupted – I think is a red herring. Even if there were a net contribution from the eruption not ‘offset’ by the reduction in emissions from flights (and it appears there isn’t), would that really justify us continuing to increase our own massive emissions, or argue even more strongly to reduce them?

    The answer is pretty clear, in my view. It’s an interesting example of the opportunism of climate denialism – unfortunately, there are millions of man-made carbon dioxide volcanoes all over the planet that we call coal-fired power stations, oil-fuelled transport etc. etc. that we can do something about and really should.

    Commenter Michael James I think is clearly wrong that we climate campaigners brought nothing to the table in meeting with Ferguson. If Ferguson and other politicians listened to the climate movement, we would stand a much better chance of avoiding the worst climate impacts – pretty tangible, I’d say.

    The claim that renewables can’t provide baseload is the old argument Ferguson likes to trot out, but it’s dead in the water. A combination of renewables connected via a smart grid can readily supply baseload power. In fact Beyond Zero Emissions has a Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Project to prove it. They say a 60/40 solar/wind mix will do it, creating thousands of jobs in the process.

    Finally, one commenter still bothered to quote Plimer. I thought the excellent John van Tiggelen piece in The Age Good Weekend magazine a while back would have put a stop to that.

    There’s very little doubt that we’re markedly warming the planet because of our greenhouse gas contributions, despite their small percentage of the atmosphere’s composition. To say there’s so much more carbon trapped within the earth only supports urgent climate action. The carbon stored in the earth is naturally sequestered there, but we are releasing it and unleashing its warming effects through mining and burning fossil fuels, warming the frozen tundra that releases methane etc. etc. Our aim must be not to release carbon that is already stored safely, and to draw down the carbon that’s already in the atmosphere.

    Hansen, Gore, Four Corners and many other reputable sources have shown that the artificial (and unproven at scale) process of carbon capture and storage is not the way to do it – especially when the renewable options are abundant, especially in Australia.

    What do you say, Martin? Anything at all?

  4. Mark Duffett

    Proliferation? Pffft. No one who is even half serious about building a nuclear weapon is going to be put off by an absence of Australian nuclear power generation.

    Waste? Generation IV nuclear reactors will consume most of it. What little is left after that is nothing that 4 km-deep holes in the most stable continental crust on Earth can’t handle.

    And I cannot fathom the thinking of anyone who is quite happy to risk hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars on a series of heroic scale assumptions, yet apparently bases their out-of-hand dismissal of nuclear power on an accident risk problem that has been solved.

  5. Darren Lewin-Hill

    Mr Lewin-Hill apologises for the lateness of his reply, but will have to differ. In my view, Dr Jim Green makes a very strong case re peaceful nuclear power and proliferation risk in his recent piece for New Matilda. Dr Green even talks about opium poppies, Mark.

    The unfortunate upshot is that even peaceful nuclear programs are associated with proliferation, as Gore has also noted in a quote in the article. And, yes, I’m willing to risk all that money from uranium sales to address the multi-dimensional nuclear risk that you dismiss.

    Nuclear power will remain too slow, dirty and dangerous (as Prof. Ian Lowe has noted) to be be any answer to climate change – especially when a combination of renewables can do the job. Their benefit, in addition to their very low carbon intensity, is that if you spill them it’s no big deal.

    In contrast, look what’s been happening with oil here (West Atlas) and overseas (US Gulf Coast), and with coal regarding the environmental effects of mining most recently detailed in the Four Corners program on the Hunter Valley. That’s aside from their massive carbon intensity. Add uranium to that mix, and it’s a pretty frightening scenario. Accident, nuclear terrorism, environmental damage from mining – it’s a very tall order to cover all those bases, Mark.

    Finally, I’ll never forget a photo my father brought back from Hiroshima, which he visited about a year after the bomb was dropped. It showed the image of a person burnt into the steps of a ruined building. Dirty bomb, suit-case nuke, or military weapon, we just can’t risk it for the sake of mining profits.

  6. Jim Green

    A useful newish report …
    Australian Sustainable Energy – by the numbers
    (based on Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, by David J.C. MacKay, FRS)
    by Peter Seligman
    Melbourne Energy Institute, University of Melbourne
    February 17, 2010

    Download from:
    or direct download:

    1. In theory, Australia could comfortably supply all of its power requirements renewably.
    2. In practice, for some interim period, the use of some non-renewable sources may be necessary but the overall carbon footprint can be reduced to zero in time.
    3. The major contributors would be geothermal, wind and solar power.
    4. To match the varying load and supply, electricity could be stored using pumped hydro, as it is at present on a much smaller scale. In this case, seawater could be used, in large cliff-top ponds.
    5. Energy efficiency would be a key aspect of the solution.
    6. A comprehensive modelling approach could be used to minimise the cost rather than the current piecemeal, politically based, ad hoc system.
    7. Private transport and other fuel based transport could be largely electrified and batteries could be used to assist with storage.
    8. In a transition period, liquid fuel based transport could be accommodated by using biofuels produced using CO2 from any remaining fossil fuelled power sources and CO2 generating industries.

  7. Mark Duffett

    That’s very impressive, Darren, managing to lump nuclear power together with not just Hiroshima, but coal and oil as well, in the space of two short paragraphs. Gee, we wouldn’t want to get too emotive about all this, would we? Sheesh.

    Nuclear power will remain too slow…

    Given $367,000,000,000 (as per the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Project) and a reasonable regulatory regime, I rather think we actually could persuade and/or train sufficient nuclear engineering capacity to do the business for us in ten years.

    You mention ‘environmental damage from mining’ a couple of times. Bad news, Darren: megawatt for megawatt, the solar thermal installations that are the mainstay of ZCA2020 require
    15 times more concrete (sand, limestone, coal)
    75 times more steel (iron ore, coal)
    and 2,530 times more land than nuclear reactors of equivalent capacity. That’s not even accounting for the millions of tonnes of glass (more sand mining and refining energy) needed for the ZCA2020 solar thermal installations. And ‘large cliff-top ponds’ for pumped hydro storage as well, ye gods. The amount of rock that needs to be shifted to extract uranium is piddling in comparison. Indeed, for Generation IV integral fast reactors, we don’t need to mine any more uranium at all.

  8. Darren Lewin-Hill

    Thanks for the info on renewables, Jim.

    Mark, I think you have to distinguish between arguments that merely appeal to emotions and those which evoke strong emotional reactions – for example, to environmental destruction and loss of human life – that are based on facts. You may prefer that I refrain from discussing the human consequences of the use of fossil fuels and uranium, but we can’t be guided just by mining profits.

    Re the environmental impact of renewables versus fossil fuels and nuclear, there are many dimensions including mining, construction and operation. Have a look at Four Corners on coal-mining in the Hunter Valley (link in story), or mountain-top coal-mining in the United States.

    Consider not only the carbon-intensity of fossil fuels, but the other pollution resulting from their use.

    Uranium, as mentioned above, has a raft of its own unresolved issues, and it’s not really a stretch from its mining to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Have a look at Securing the Bomb 2010, a disturbing April 2010 report by Matthew Bunn of the Belfer Centre of the Harvard Kennedy School. For example:

    Numerous studies by the U.S. and other governments have concluded that it is plausible that a sophisticated terrorist group could make a crude nuclear bomb if it got enough of the needed nuclear materials.

    There have been over 18 documented cases of theft or loss of plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU), the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons.

    Ignoring such threats is a dangerous convenience for our profit-hungry mining companies.

  9. kuke

    Coal’s the third word of your article title, so it’s relevant. I like the ABC mantra: Anything But Coal, so I’m open to nuke research, especially fusion, but I don’t like today’s reactors.

    I trust this is relevant: King Coal by Guy Pearse.

    “In Canberra, Kevin Rudd calls the coal industry “the backbone of regional Australia”. His resources minister, Martin Ferguson, regards new coal-fired power stations as inevitable and warns against holding back coal export growth. With the explicit aim of doubling exports, federal environmental approval and billions of dollars in subsidies are being given to expand port, rail and road infrastructure. And billions more are propping up pilot projects to help maintain the illusion that ‘carbon capture and storage’ might clean up Australia’s coal industry.”

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