Oct 20, 2009

Buy our brown coal! Now cleaning up on eBay

Victoria’s 13 billion tonnes of unallocated brown coal are now listed as an eBay item, under the seller name "BrumbyGovt". Bids are open for the next seven days. The starting price is $1,000,000, writes Greg Foyster.

According to recent reports, the Brumby government plans to export brown coal to India. For those who don’t know, brown coal is one of the most emissions-intensive ways to generate electricity -- even more polluting than oil, gas or black coal. The Brumby government is desperate to capitalise on Victoria’s abundant coal reserves before a global emissions treaty or carbon price takes effect. After that happens, burning brown coal will be socially unacceptable and considerably more expensive. But isn’t there a simpler way to offload the stuff? After all, how do most people get rid of a dodgy product in a hurry? They auction it on eBay, of course. So that's what I've done. Victoria’s 13 billion tonnes of unallocated brown coal are now listed as an eBay item, under the seller name "BrumbyGovt". Bids are open for the next seven days. The starting price is $1,000,000, but the Brumby government hopes to make billions from the deal. Of course, brown coal could be a hard sell for the government. A power station using Victorian brown coal is 37% more emissions-intensive than one using black coal, according to a 2002 paper from the University of Technology, Sydney. Wet and highly flammable, brown coal has for years been stigmatised as an inferior energy source. The Brumby government hopes to dry the coal so it’s less polluting, but buyers will still have concerns. That’s why, until bidding ends on October 21, "BrumbyGovt" will answer any questions about brown coal and its exportation. Responses will draw on government media releases about climate change and energy supply. (Of all the eBay sellers currently peddling their wares, the Brumby government has perhaps the most experience of spruiking a defective product. It’s been spinning untruths about brown coal for years.) Once bidding finishes, the best queries and responses will be published here on Crikey. So if you’ve got a question about brown coal to ask the Brumby government, submit it on the eBay site or email it to [email protected]. Below are some sample questions and responses to get you thinking. Isn’t burning brown coal a really dirty way to generate electricity? Yes and no. Yes if you compare it to wind, solar, solar thermal, tidal, hydro, gas, oil, black coal and just about everything else. No if you compare it to itself. Naturally, we prefer the latter comparison. For example, in a 2008 media release we said our new drying technology can reduce emissions by 30% "compared to current best practice for brown coal power generation in the Latrobe Valley". Technically that’s about the same level of emissions as a black coal power station. But hey, we’re "glass half full" kind of guys.” Won’t people protest if we start burning brown coal? Probably. But at the Brumby government, we’ve come up with a unique solution to the problem of free speech. We’re proposing new penalties for protesters who attempt to shut down coal-fired power stations. Two years’ jail and a $28,000 fine should convince greenies not to kick up a fuss. Of course, Australia has a fairly robust democracy, which means we’re limited in how we can clamp down on civil disobedience. The Australian public gets all uppity about police brutality. But if you’re buying the coal for use in a developing country, you could probably ask the military to just bash the protestors instead. Citizens in my country won’t support new coal-fired power stations. Is there any way to convince them this is a good idea? We don’t recommend challenging their views directly. The argument can easily become bogged down in "facts". At the Brumby government, we know facts are dangerous to promoting the interests of industry. That’s why we prefer to manipulate the public subtly and indirectly. What we do in Victoria is simply call brown coal something else. We’d been trying to set up a new brown coal-fired power station in the Latrobe Valley for ages, but the public wasn’t buying it. So a little while ago we decided to establish a company called Dual Gas to oversee the project. This allows us to refer to the power plant as Dual Gas, even though it uses brown coal. Neat, huh? Can’t remember who came up with that idea, might have been Batcho. Anyway, it’s a corker. You might want to try it in your own country. The other thing we do is call our plants "clean coal". Of course, they’re not "clean coal" because that would involve capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground. Bugger if we know how to do that. But we’ve found that if we mention "clean coal" enough times, it tends to stick in people’s heads and, eventually, they start to believe it. Read this next sentence. Clean coal, clean coal, clean coal, clean coal, clean coal, clean coal. Now when we say "coal", what's the first word that pops in your head? Exactly. Greg Foyster is a Melbourne-based writer. He was involved with Environment Victoria's campaign against the original HRL power plant proposal and is the former environment columnist for Voiceworks magazine.

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12 thoughts on “Buy our brown coal! Now cleaning up on eBay

  1. Keith is not my real name

    This listing (330368317982) has been removed, or this item is not available.

  2. Biskit

    I managed to get a screen shot before the listing was pulled:

  3. Brett Gaskin

    Brilliant – more please sir.
    If you need any help with those dastardly facts, contact News Ltd – they can provide a fully integrated fact ignoring service. For political facts, please contact Denis Shanahan. For climate change facts, please contact Andrew Bolt. For general facts, please contact Planet Janet. You won’t be disappointed, and don’t forget to ask about the new “Bull – you are!” service for turning unpleasant facts back onto your opponents.

  4. Colin Jacobs

    I don’t think eBay likes fraudulent auctions. Guess the auction didn’t even last until the daily mail went out!

  5. gregf

    *********************MEDIA RELEASE*****************************


    BrumbyGovt is pleased to announce a new Private Public Partnership (PPP) to replace the previous deal with eBay.

    Interested parties can now negotiate to buy Victoria’s 13 billion tonnes of unallocated brown coal through a Craigslist advertisement.

    A coal industry crony says the government remains committed to exporting brown coal – despite the environmental consequences.

    “No amount of public disapproval or common sense will deter us from cashing in on this fossil fuel while we can,” the crony said.

    Victorian brown coal is also available for private sale. Email [email protected] for enquiries.

  6. gregf

    *************MEDIA RELEASE************************


    BrumbyGovt apologises for not giving a link in the previous post. The Craigslist advertisement can be accessed at

    “We hope this does not affect potential sales of brown coal,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Embarrassing Cock Ups.

  7. Greg Angelo

    The ecological economics of burning brown coal is well understood. The carbon dioxide emissions per kilowatt hour of electricity generated from this source are amongst the most “productive” on the planet ie you generate more carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour by burning brown coal than just about any of the fuel you can think of. That is the bad news. The good news is that there is plenty of it if you do not mind the externalities.

    The only reason the government gets away with burning brown coal is that the majority of people don’t care. Notwithstanding the claims about global warming, the average Victorian citizen would rather have a warm house in winter, and a cool house in summer and ignore the impact on the environment. The Brumby government is critically dependent on a few country seats so nothing will be done to upset the voters around Portland or the Latrobe Valley.

    The other overworked statement is sustainable. This mantra like clean coal is repeated over and redeemed. Sustainable means to be able to be operated in perpetuity. In no way is burning coal sustainable but if you say it often enough the label sticks.

    The Dual Gas project is interesting. Is only a pilot plant which if it achieves its stated aim will generate electricity from brown coal with a similar efficiency to black coal to offset the 40% disadvantage currently suffered by brown coal.

  8. Roger Clifton

    Defenders of the status quo could very reasonably reply, what are you going to burn instead?

    So let’s answer it, what are we going to replace brown coal with? We are cheating our grandchildren if we replace this hydrocarbon with any other hydrocarbon, including gas .

    Respondents to Crikey articles speak vaguely of “renewables”, waving the word around as though it is holy, that by its utterance we are washed of our carbon-emitting sins.

    Do you mean wind plus coal? Or solar plus coal? Or geothermal plus coal? If we are to get to zero carbon emissions by the year 2100, none of those options should being considered in 2009.

    So what is going to provide Victoria with up to 10 GW of electricity on a still, cold night?

  9. John Bennetts


    Tried an extra blanket?

    I’m not really sorry for the flippant response, however simply turning off all the power sources that are out of favour is not the way to go – the nights would indeed be cold.

    How about some signs of progress? Admit that wind does indeed tend to drop at peak times (eg morning and evening), so it is not in any way a sufficient solution. Ditto solar PV, tidal (NIMY issues here), Wave (Too small, unsightly, unproven…), Hot rocks (Cooper basin’s current problems, unproven, tends to be far away from transmission lines), nuclear (Illegal at present. Who wants to change federal law?) and the list goes on.

    It’s not much of an answer, but CCGT (Combined Cycle Gas Turbines) are both carbon-effective wrt coal – both brown and black – and are current technology, off the shelf. Support CCGT by renewables (Solar, either type) and/or a mix of the other unreliable but proven alternatives and we are on the way.

    Now, where in either the Government’s or the Opposition’s positions do these strategies get traction?

    10GW tomorrow, we cannot do. How about 11GW in, say, 10 years, with about 25% of the current carbon cost? That is indeed possible and practical – at a price.

    The last GW is for battery driven cars using high density battery storage of one of the available styles. Pick one from 4 or 5, the top being H2 and fuel calls.

    Perhaps we need to put up with coal in all of its ugly forms for a bit longer, while the infrastructure, markets and populace develop an understanding of the values and limitations of the emerging technologies. In other words, run the existing carbon-heavy plant while they are replaced by the new stuff for both electricity and land transport.

    There’s really no other option.

  10. Evan Beaver

    Goodness I’m tired of the throw away comments people make about renewables that are just not rooted in fact.

    I’m going to correct some of the propoganda above, mostly using links.

    “wind does indeed tend to drop at peak times ”

    p7. “Data from the BoM shows that Victoria has higher average wind speeds in mid afternoon over summer when demand is highest”

    “Ditto solar” Presumably you’re suggesting that solar drops in the afternoon? That doesn’t make sense on any level. Insolation is most directly related to the angle that sunlight hits the receiver. Tracking, even single axis trackers fix this. For fixed receivers, it is possible (as is being done in Blacktown Solar Cities project) to fix the receiver to pick up most light in the late aftenoon.

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