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Environment

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.

Clive Hamilton — Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University

Clive Hamilton

Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University

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.

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12 comments

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

  1. keith goodwill

    Peter, while if you forget cost there are some examples of infrastructure that would make carbon capture possible due to existing technology that has been used for gas and oil extraction (this may be true in Victoria). To make this a general solution is quite a different issue. The reality is that even if technically possible, it can never be cheap to do. My hunch is that this whole thing is about buying time from groups who don’t want to face reality. Solar and wind will become cheaper than carbon-captured coal quite soon anyway (if they are not already cheaper). Coal has many other bad things associated with it (eg health (asthma), messing up prime agricultural land, need to move it around, danger of mining it etc etc). With wind and solar, they are just there for the taking.

    As to China and India and coal. Look at what is happening in China with wind and solar. The goal for wind in China until recently was for 20GW by 2020. Because of rapid progress on this pretty worked out technology, the new figure is 100 GW by 2020. If they keep going the way they have been going over the last couple of years I wouldn’t be surprised to see a wind target in China of 500GW…. when they do that, you start to make coal irrelevant. On solar, China had a goal of 2GW for 2020 until recently, but with thermal solar coming on stream they have raised their goal with solar to 20GW by 2020. Same logic as for wind. Watch how they grow it. Once you have a technology, it is just rolling it out and China is brilliant at completing projects.

    Not so sure about India (I don’t have current figures), but we need to understand that at the end of the day no government is going to hurt their citizens if there is another way. The current problem is that the coal lobbies with their disinformation and fear of change have paralysed decision making, slowing action in directions that are going to work. China at least seems to be less hindered.

  2. Edmund Moran

    Well the game has hotted up with Mr Rudds “Advisory Panel for Global Carbon Capture and Storage” announcement that Nick Stern had come aboard.

    Money talks and the coal industry has deep pockets so expect a lot of noise.

    Coal will direct big $ into the realm of “independent scientists” that,understandably, will research on till the cows come home.

    Delay, obfuscate, make more money, and hope science will save the day.

    The Aus. economy and the emerging economies are reliant on coal, and so politically is Mr Rudd. Well, crikey said, “blatant self interest”!

    Cheap clean energy will eventually come but I don’t think it will be from be from old king coal!