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Minerals Council raked over the coals for troubled PR campaign

The Minerals Council has a new pro-coal PR campaign, but it seems to be a flop. We factcheck “Australians for Coal”.

When the brains behind the Minerals Council launched an advertising campaign to defeat Labor’s mining tax, they nailed it. The tax was gutted, and the PM who dared propose it — Kevin Rudd — lost his job. Miners spent $22 million on the ads and saved billions in tax they never had to pay.

Now the Minerals Council has a new multimillion-dollar ad campaign, this one to defend the coal industry. But “Australians for Coal” doesn’t seem destined for the success of the anti-Resource Super Profits Tax (RSPT) campaign. This campaign seems to be a dud.

Launched on Monday because coal is “under attack from powerful groups determined to shut the industry”, the PR campaign includes a slick pro-coal website and TV ads (they’ll come later). Its dedicated Twitter handle turned into a social media farce within hours, and its campaign to get the public to email conservationists seems to have failed.

So what’s the campaign aimed at? The federal Coalition government is already on coal’s side — there’s little risk of an RSPT-style tax there. Rather, it seems to be aimed at pressuring state governments (and courts) to approve coal developments, and encouraging investment funds and super funds to stick with coal despite conservationists’ complaints.

With the Minerals Council’s PR strategy under a cloud, Crikey has fact-checked Australians for Coal. The campaign says it will “help start to set the record straight”. Does it?

1. Coal is “indispensable to modern life”.

Not necessarily. According to The World Bank, there were more than 50 countries that burned no coal for electricity in 2011. These include Singapore, Switzerland, Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Luxembourg, Venezuela, Latvia, Libya, Nigeria, the UAE, Cuba, Egypt, Ghana and Jordan.

When consumption of total energy is considered, these countries derived less than 5% of their energy from coal in 2012; Mexico, Brazil, France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Iran, the UAE, Egypt and Singapore. Successful economies like Brazil, Norway and Sweden get far more energy from hydropower than from coal. This data comes from BP.

2. “Coal is also an essential ingredient in the manufacture of steel and cement.”

This refers to two things; coal-fired power is often used to turn iron ore (iron oxide) into steel, and coal (i.e. coke) is often used as a chemical in the process. But is coal “essential”? The electricity can be renewable, and there are alternative chemicals (recycled scrap metal replaces coke in “electric arc” technology, and charcoal from wood or other biomass can be used).

According to the book Big Coal by Guy Pearse, David McKnight and Bob Burton:

Despite the coal industry’s claims that coal is a key component of steel manufacturing, alternatives exist. Approximately 30% of the world’s steel is produced in electric arc furnaces, which rely on scrap steel and can be powered from renewable electricity. While some electric arc furnaces use a small amount of coal, in 2011 over 55 million tonnes of steel was produced from gas-fired direct reduced iron plants …”

Coal-fired power is often used for cement, but renewable energy can be used.

3. ”Coal benefits all Australians through its contribution to exports, wages, investment and tax revenue.”

Not everyone in the Victorian town of Morwell would agree that coal benefits them. A fire in a nearby open-cut coal mine burned for 45 days this year, covering the town in strong-smelling smoke and ash. Authorities told the elderly, pregnant women and those with lung conditions to leave (they’ve since come back). Many people complained of headaches, sore eyes, nausea, etc. The Morwell fire is not mentioned on “Australians for Coal”.

4. “Please support the 200,000 Australians who work in our coal industry.”

There are not 200,000 people working in coal mining. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says coal mining employs 56,900 people in full- and part-time work, as of February 2014. The most people employed in coal mining since 1984 was 60,300.

Far more people work in food manufacturing (almost 200,000), the construction sector (669,000 people) and agriculture (274,000).

5. ”Your electricity bill is being driven up by powerful groups trying to shut the coal industry down.”

Electricity prices have risen sharply, but most experts do not primarily blame environmental campaigns and schemes. The Productivity Commission concluded this in a comprehensive report last year:

Average electricity prices have risen by 70 per cent in real terms from June 2007 to December 2012. Spiralling network costs in most states are the main contributor to these increases, partly driven by inefficiencies in the industry and flaws in the regulatory environment.”

A report for The Australia Institute found a major contributor to price rises was the privatisation of electricity networks and associated lower productivity (a tripling of people in management). Energy expert Dylan McConnell says “by far the largest contributor to the increasing prices over the past six years has been network costs”. On green schemes, McConnell wrote:

Currently, state-based green energy schemes add about 1% to an average household power bill, while the federal schemes including the Renewable Energy Target add another 3%.”

Bloomberg New Energy Finance has calculated that power from unsubsidised renewable sources is cheaper than power from new coal and gas-fired power stations, even without a carbon price.

6. “Working alongside the Great Barrier Reef demands meticulous care when planning all developments, but especially ports. Where impacts may occur, rigorous environmental assessments are compulsory under state and federal laws and then monitored closely.”

Some don’t think the system for protecting the reef is rigorous or closely monitored. A recent report from the Queensland Audit Office concluded:

[The Department of Environment and Heritage Protection] is not fully effective in its supervision, monitoring and enforcement of environmental conditions and is exposing the state to liability and the environment to harm unnecessarily … Poor data have hampered past approaches to effective environmental regulation of the mining and waste industries.”

In 2013 a whistleblower raised concerns via Four Corners that two large resource projects, to be located near the reef, were waved through the government approval process. Environment assessment specialist Simone Marsh said key information on the environmental impacts of the projects was missing.

The World Heritage Committee has threatened to put the reef on a list of World Heritage sites in danger over concerns about resource development in the area. In 2010 a Chinese coal carrier ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, causing an oil spill.

And to finish, here are some of the more memorable tweets from the Australians for Coal official Twitter handle @Austs4Coal, which was the talk of Twitter this week for its feisty tone, for attracting criticism and ridicule, for complaining about that criticism, and for retweeting some of that criticism. The account has toned down in the last 24 hours …

One of the campaign’s aims is to get people to email a pre-written pro-coal message to MPs and “anti-coal activists”, via the website. It’s not clear if this has worked; staff at the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have received emails (which include the email address of the sender), but only about 30. The Minerals Council claimed yesterday that “five figures of emails have been sent” to MPs. So has the council stopped emailing conservationists?

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  • 1
    ianjohnno
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    ROFL. This is what happens when people believe their own propaganda.
    A curse on them all.

  • 2
    Electric Lardyland
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Australians For Coal”: yes, I’m sure that they’re just a bunch of concerned average citizens, who were so offended by renewable energy, that they decided to form their own grassroots organisation. And I’m sure that they wouldn’t get any funding for their PR blitz, from coal mining corporations or anyone like that.

  • 3
    David Hand
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Coal is an essential ingredient for making steel. The alternative process using scrap metal merely melts and recycles old steel. There is no methodology to make steel other than turning coal into coke, and iron ore into sinter, layering them into a blast furnace and then blasting air and oxygen through them to generate the chemical reaction that releases pig iron that is then further refined.

    The greenie idea of electric arc processing scrap is a thought bubble dressed up for PR purposes. 70% of Queensland’s coal exports are coking or metallurgical coal used for making steel.

  • 4
    Tamara Kovacs
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    See, this is why you just shouldn’t mess with Twitter. Or try to force a meme. I’m not sure why they didn’t see it coming.

  • 5
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    I am very pleased that my superannuation company, UniSuper, has recently excluded coal from its socially responsible option.

  • 6
    JohnB
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    Whoever said that making cement, specifically portland cement, does not need coal should do a bit of reading. The alternatives aren’t exciting either.

    Besides which, converting CaCO3 to CaO leads to large emissions of CO2 from this source alone.

    Cement is a villain for two reasons - coal consumption and CO2 production from lime.

  • 7
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Thursday, 17 April 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Thanks JohnB, I’ll look into it further. It was scientists from the ANU and UNSW who told me coal was not essential to making cement (steel is more complicated because coal often used as a chemical input). Your point about CO2 being a byproduct of making cement is very valid (tho not technically relevant to the Minerals Council’s claim that “Coal is also an essential ingredient in the manufacture of … cement”).

  • 8
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 17 April 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    The corporatists did so well with the Australian Forest Alliance and People for Forests one might have expected them to learn but that is the difference between primates & kapitalists, they learn from experience.

  • 9
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 17 April 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Is there not something called “truth in advertising” legislation…?

  • 10
    Posted Thursday, 17 April 2014 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    Unfortuntaely there is no law against lying, in advertising or anyhow else. However, s18(1) of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 provides -

    18 Misleading or deceptive conduct

    (1) A person must not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive.’

    Is this ‘in trade or commerce’?

  • 11
    @chrispydog
    Posted Friday, 18 April 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    This article is nicely misleading when it includes Luxembourg because it burns no coal. It also has nearly three times the CO2 emissions per capita as the EU average because they import nearly all their power, and have the lowest installed amout of RE in Europe.

    Also, to not mention the word ‘nuclear’ is a huge disservice to the facts:

    France gets over 70% of its electricity from nuclear, Sweden and Switzerland both have nuclear (and lots of hydro of course). Brazil has some nuclear (and lots of hydro) too.

    The UAE is now building a large amount of nuclear because their growth in consumption is about 9%/pa and they must desalinate water. Burning fossil fuels forever is not an option, as they know.

    Implied in this article is the notion that renewable source (solar/wind) alone can reduce the dependence on coal, and this is wrong.

    Just take a look at Germany, a massive investement in renewables while they slash nuclear has resulted in more coal burnt and higher emissions.

    Spain invested a lot in renewables too, but did not cut back on its nuclear and its emissions actually fell.

    Let’s start talking about ALL sources of clean electricity, and stop pretending nuclear power doesn’t so a lot of the heavy lifting.

    Because it does, and must do a lot more if we are to see emissions drop around the planet.

  • 12
    David Laurie
    Posted Sunday, 20 April 2014 at 5:04 am | Permalink

    I haven’t heard from “Little Stephen” as yet !!! Obviously, they’re not as “on the ball” as they would like to believe..

  • 13
    Toni Reid
    Posted Tuesday, 22 April 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Nice work Cathy Alexander. Great to see someone cut through the bs for a change.

  • 14
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Wednesday, 23 April 2014 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Hi Crispy, I was careful not to give the impression that those countries which burn little or no coal for electricity, use renewable energy instead. Some of them use a lot of oil instead. Some use a lot of nuclear. Some use a lot of hydro. This was a simple fact check on the specific claim that coal is “indispensable to modern life”. Your counter claim - that come countries which don’t use much coal use other fossil fuels instead - is correct and relevant to the broader debate, but I was fact-checking the specific coal claim.

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