Jul 7, 2009

Why are CSIRO scientists spruiking for the coal industry?

Just when did it become normal for publicly-employed scientists to spruik for the coal industry? asks Clive Hamilton.

Since when did it become normal for publicly-employed scientists to spruik for the coal industry? The Australian Coal Association’s slick new website aimed at promoting "clean coal" features video grabs of CSIRO experts mixed in with industry spokespeople. ACA Executive Director Ralph Hillman begins by informing us that renewable energy cannot meet our energy needs. So "on this website independent scientists" explain how clean coal technology will cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired electricity by up to 90%. He’s followed by the Director of the CSIRO’s Energy Flagship, Dr John White, who tells us that coal "has been blamed" for climate change and "the climate scientists tell us there is a problem in global warming". Then the Senior Social Scientist at the CSIRO Division of Exploration and Mining, Peta Ashworth, opines that the only way we will solve the global warming is "for everybody to make the effort", including "changing behaviour at the individual level". The "big problem", she says, is that the public "don’t link their daily behaviour to being part of the problem". The message is reinforced by Anna Littleboy, Operations Director of the CSIRO Minerals Flagship, who says that when she is dialoguing with the public they "are often surprised by how little greenhouse gases Australia produces relative to the rest of the world". The CSIRO is perhaps Australia’s most trusted "brand" so Big Coal has struck marketing gold with this website. Next comes a spokesperson for Delta Electricity -- owner of four coal-fired power plants -- telling us that, "mathematically", cutting Australia’s emissions won’t do much for climate change and "the best way Australia can contribute" is through projects like Delta’s Munmora carbon capture pilot. It’s less surprising to find Tony Maher from the CFMEU talking on the website about the union’s "united front" with the coal industry to encourage the Government to spend more money on clean coal, as if the vast sums already diverted to coal from the renewables industry were not enough. Participating directly in coal industry propaganda is the culmination of an increasingly intimate relationship between the industry and Australia’s peak scientific research body. Concerns about CSIRO management’s commitment to independent science go back at least to 1994 with the appointment of Donna Staunton as director of communications. Staunton was the chief executive of the Tobacco Institute of Australia where she had rejected the science linking smoking and cancer, telling a Senate committee: "I do not believe that cigarette smoking is an addiction, based on any reasonable definition". We now know that there are close links between those who denied medical evidence about smoking and those who deny climate science. In fact, the two campaigns were often conducted by the same organisations using the same "experts" following the same strategy of sowing doubt in the public mind. It turned out that Staunton had served on the board of the Institute for Public Affairs, one of the foremost climate science denial organisations in this country. Fast forward to 2006 when the Howard Government appointed two fossil fuel industry executives to the CSIRO board -- Dr Eileen Doyle was Chair of Port Waratah Coal Services and Mr Peter Willcox had served as the CEO of BHP Petroleum. In February 2007, Rosslyn Beeby reported in the Canberra Times that "the CSIRO has confirmed coal industry bodies have the power to suppress a new report questioning the cost and efficiency of clean-coal carbon capture technologies because they partly funded the research". For some years, CSIRO management had been gagging climate scientists from speaking about their research. Dr Graeme Pearman, an eminent climate scientist and head of the Division of Atmospheric Research, felt he had a duty to tell the public what the science was showing. His old-fashioned belief that the public has a right to know the truth led in 2002 to the refusal to reappoint him and his departure from the organisation. In 2009 senior climate scientists are still being gagged by CSIRO management. Climate scientists were forbidden to make a submission to the Senate inquiry into the Government’s emissions trading scheme. Four of them took a gamble and submitted their expert opinions in a strictly private capacity. But there was no gag on Dr David Brockway, Chief of CSIRO Energy technology and its foremost "clean coal" expert, who appeared officially to explain the benefits of clean coal.  Brockway had blithely confirmed that the coal industry was entitled to suppress the results of CSIRO research if the results didn’t suit it. The capture of key sections of CSIRO by the coal industry occurred under the watch of Chief Executive Geoff Garrett. Recruited in 2001 from CSIRO’s South African sister organisation, Garrett is a firm believer in commercialisation and worked hard to rein in the traditionally independent divisions by exerting tight managerial control, often against strong resistance. According to journalist Peter Pockley, when divisional Chiefs needed intellectual refreshment, instead of the traditional stint at another major research institution, Garrett send them to business school. When Garrett famously announced that CSIRO should set "big, hairy, audacious goals" few guessed they would dovetail so neatly with the commercial interests of the Australian coal industry. He defended CSIRO’s decision to shift money out of renewable energy research and into coal by saying our dependence of coal-fired electricity was "unlikely to change in the foreseeable future". Garrett finished up at CSIRO at the end of last year, but there is no danger of any break in the CSIRO-Big Coal nexus. His replacement as Chief Executive, Dr Megan Clark, was plucked from a senior executive position with BHP Billiton. In May this year, four months after Clark’s appointment, it was announced that BHP Billiton would be shifting a substantial portion of its research capacity into the CSIRO’s Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

12 thoughts on “Why are CSIRO scientists spruiking for the coal industry?

  1. j-boy57

    didn’t they give smoke free ciggies a run there for a while
    and a rearguard action on hardie-plank
    not to mention the chief scientist doing the peter allen

  2. Mark Duffett

    Er, Clive, what do you think the ‘I’ in CSIRO stands for? It would be truly bizarre if senior management of the Energy and Minerals flagships and Division of Exploration & Mining were not closely involved with the coal industry. Besides which, what precisely is the problem with what they’ve got to say? Is any of it factually wrong?

    The Australian public gets the independence it pays for. It’s been quite some time since CSIRO was anything like fully funded by the government.

  3. Peter Logue

    Like Mark Duffett, I wonder what Clive Hamilton is actually complaining about? As the Director of Communications at the ACA and one of those responsible for generating the website – which clearly states its association with the ACA – it appears to me that the public has a right to know in some detail why Federal and State Governments, the coal industry and the research community are putting billions of dollars into carbon capture and storage technologies which aim to turn our abundant fossil fuels into low emissions energy. The CSIRO Scientists involved can speak for themselves but it seems clear, from their public job descriptions, that they are paid to explain and encourage the development of such technologies as an important part of tackling global climate change. Similarly, they can – and do – speak about new and existing renewable energy technologies, all of which will be needed in a world where energy demand is growing.

    So what are you saying Clive? Are you challenging their knowledge, their capacity or their personal integrity or is this just a bit of the dog whistling that – in another situation – you so might be be railing against?

    FYI, the site has been running since last November and has attracted more than 175,000 unique visitors.

  4. Scott Grant

    I am sure Clive can manage a better response, but let me have a go.

    “clean coal” is spin and no more believable than “healthy cigarettes”. Burying the CO2 MIGHT cut atmospheric emissions “by 90%”, if someone could actually get it to work on a large scale before it is too late. Extremely doubtful. The time and money wasted on this diversion could be put to far better use elsewhere.

    “has been blamed” and “climate scientists tell us” implies doubt. Whoever made these statements is therefore in denial about climate change. More spin of the classic kind. As Clive puts it, “sowing doubt”.

    “changing behaviour at the individual level” and so forth, is spin, pure and simple. It attempts to deflect attention from big polluters and blame it on individuals. It is essentially a “do-nothing” approach, while deceitfully pretending to take a finger wagging, high moral stance. If we really want individuals to change their habits we would charge more for carbon intensive energy. For everybody. Especially the big polluters. No exceptions.

    Then there is furphy that what Australia does makes no difference. If one of the world’s worst polluting economies cannot reform itself, then we are truly lost.

    As for the CFMEU, there are many ex-miners who know what a con job is being perpetrated. They might serve their members better by pushing for greater assistance for ex-miners as the coal mining inevitably winds down. One hopes places like the Hunter Valley will still be a green and pleasant land after the coal miners have left.

    The rest of Clive’s piece is fairly self explanatory. A list of corruption and perfidy that should make any sane citizen ill.

  5. Edmund Moran

    When asked on a personal and confidential level, re “carbon capture”, a very senior engineer and expert in the Hunter said;

    “It’s all bullshit mate!”

    Ed Moran

  6. keith goodwill

    The Australia that calls me a proud citizen used to be comfortable about influencing the world and not trying to present that we are of no relevance. See Geoffrey Robertson’s new book “The Statute of Liberty” for some examples.

    A good one is the role Australia played in drafting The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To quote Robertson “… the Australian delegation, instructed through (Doc) Evatt’s cablegrams from Canberra…carved out a presence and position that at times confounded the Soviet Union, at other times defied the US and was often independent of Britain. In fact, in the endless to-ing and fro-ing that it took to hold the draft of the declaration together, as winds of the approaching Cold War threatened to tear it apart, the Australian delegation became crucial to the entire project because of the way it was able to win support from the unaligned but mildly socialist countries of Latin America, and eventually build bridges with the Soviet Union…. (paraphrasing) … our tiny nation (whose population then was only seven million) played a remarkable part in the eighty-one drafting sessions over two years..”

    Me thinks if Penny Wong showed courage and her (Chinese speaking) Prime Minister backed her up, we are once again positioned to lead the world on climate change policy rather than cower in a corner and act as if coal has a future. Be in no doubt Europe, the US and China are already on a path to substitute renewables (wind, solar etc) for coal and our main export will one day soon be a product that no-one wants to buy.

    Wake up Australia, we have a proud history of leadership.

  7. Tony Kevin

    a good but depressing story. as far as i know, only clive hamilton, christine milne and greenpeace australia are coming out in australian public dialogue to expose the truth about clean coal. everyone else is busily admiring the emperor’s new clothes, or keeping a discreet silence on the matter. minister martin ferguson and prime minister kevin rudd in particular are the biggest spruikers. rudd has done it in washington with obama and steven chu, and at the peterson institute, and now again in malaysia. with this sort of high-level end0rsement of gross falsity, what chance does CSIRO have to promulgate truth? australia is deeply into collective delusion on CCS..

    we need more retiring engineers and scientists to come 0ut – not anonymously – and tell the truth about CCS. but they had better nail down their super packages first.

    tony kevin

  8. Clive Hamilton

    Thanks Scott. I could not have put it better. It shows how much the world has changed that intelligent people like Mark Duffett and Peter Logue cannot understand the distinction between the public interest and the interests of the coal industry. They seem to believe that what is good for BHP is, ipso facto, good for Australia. So whatever BHP executives decide is necessarily in our interests. The CSIRO used to be a proud defender of independent science but now will happily accede to the suppression of its research results and allow to speak only those scientists who will say things that the coal industry likes to hear. It’s completely unprincipled, yet some say “what’s the problem?” Is the next step for the CSIRO to ask job applicants to outline their political views so it can weed out anyone who does not fit in with the corporate culture?
    Clive Hamilton

  9. Mark Duffett

    Leaving aside the question of how congruent Australia’s interest is with that of the coal industry, my main point was that it is not unreasonable for CSIRO to be acting as it is in this instance. My understanding is that its brief has always been research on behalf of Australian industry, with all that that may entail.

    Hence, if there is a legitimate quibble here, it’s with Ralph Hillman’s billing of CSIRO people as “independent scientists”. If such a beast exists outside the realms of retirement, it’s probably more in the direction of universities that you’d have to look.

  10. Peter Logue

    Clive, I suppose the issue is that many in the science and research community, more knowledgeable about the technology than either you and I, actually believe the technology (much of which already works in the gas and oil industries) will work and will work at large scale. The fact that this view co-incides with BHP or Rio and others in the industry (and, yes, there are sceptics there, mainly about the cost factors, not the technology) is not something the CSIRO should be asked to justify. What you’re saying in your comment is that some scientists had different views back in 2005: well, that’s novel. A lot of scientists and engineers have similar views nowadays but many accept that there have been significant advances in the development of the technology (there is a technology curve, ask anyone in the aviation or computer industry) and the current demonstration projects will prove them right or wrong. Blanket opposition to technolgy that might solve the problem of coal and climate change, is just plain daft. Even Tim Flannery and the WWF and the Climate Institute and many other climate advocates have come to that conclusion. And the main reason? They know that China and India and the US are not going to stop burning coal, no matter how much jumping up and down the environment in comfortable western countries does.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details