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Apr 16, 2014

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".

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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?

Cathy Alexander —

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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