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Apr 20, 2010

Minister for coal out of step with climate change action

Darren Lewin-Hill led a group of four local climate campaigners meeting with their federal MP, Energy and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson. They weren't encouraged by his rhetoric.

You could say we’d hit the jackpot – four local climate campaigners scoring a meeting with their federal MP, who also happens to be the energy and resources minister in the Rudd Labor Government.

Martin Ferguson holds the eminently safe but greening Victorian seat of Batman. A couple of weekends earlier, an Earth Hour demonstration at his Preston office had called on the champion of emissions-intensive fossil fuel exports and power generation to switch to renewables. Australia is heavily dependent on coal for its domestic energy supply, and is the world’s largest coal exporter.

Now Ferguson was sitting across the table from us, a minder scribbling quietly beside him. He said the Government would take the emissions trading scheme to the Senate again in May, but it would fail and Labor would face the next election without a price on carbon.

What of the Greens’ proposal for an interim, two-year carbon tax? Ferguson offered two main objections: a lack of certainty for business, and the blunt statement that there would “never be a settlement” with the Greens on this issue.

While some business uncertainty is surely a reasonable price to avoid the certainty of climate impacts, Ferguson’s blanket exclusion of a climate settlement seems at odds with claimed negotiations between climate change minister Senator Penny Wong and Greens Senator Christine Milne. In the week following our meeting, in fact, The Age quoted Greens leader Bob Brown as being “in a mood to do a deal” on the ETS.

Nothing, however, would be good enough for the Greens, Ferguson claimed – climate change was, for them, a political question, while for Labor it was an economic and environmental one. He had no reply to the argument that the Greens would be hard-pressed to reject for political motives any plan that actually reflected the climate science, in stark contrast with the measures currently proposed by Labor.

While there was some enthusiasm when the talk switched to renewables, Ferguson said coal “would be with us for both our lifetimes”, with no option, it seemed, to leave it in the ground – an imperative of the strongest current science on solving the climate crisis.

He asserted, instead, that carbon capture and storage (CCS) was a “proven technology”, challenged only by the “cost of deployment”. This contrasted with large-scale concentrated solar thermal (CST) technologies already working in Spain and the United States. Solar, according to Ferguson, needed to be “proved up”.

Yet for James Hansen, the world’s leading climate scientist, clean coal is an “illusion”. In September 2009, ABC TV Four Corners also questioned the beleaguered technology in its program. A few days after our meeting, it also aired ‘A Dirty Business’, a program exposing the health and environmental impacts of coal mining in the NSW Hunter valley. Without the elusive prospect of CCS, coal is more than twice as carbon-intensive as gas, which itself is more than 30 times more carbon-intensive than CST.

Despite the profound challenges of such a massively carbon-intensive energy source, the Government’s current ETS proposal includes $1.5 billion compensation for the coal industry and $7.3 billion for fossil-fuel electricity generators. To these billions of public funds can be added the slated $47-billion, five-year investment in an obsolete power grid that, according to Fairfax green business writer Paddy Manning, “entrenches electricity generation from fossil fuels and will only accelerate climate change”.

Though disagreeing with Manning’s analysis, Ferguson admitted that $100 billion would likely be needed “just to keep where we are” with the current power network – more than a Zero Carbon Australia 2020 plan would spend over 10 years ($92 billion) towards a renewables-friendly smart grid.

Strangely, Ferguson seemed also to draw support for his multi-billion-dollar fossil-fuel grid from evidence at the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission about the role of faulty power lines in the Black Saturday fires. A safe grid is, of course, a necessity, but one geared to fossil fuels would only promote global warming and a consequent worsening of bushfire risk in Australia.

By this stage, however, Ferguson had relaxed. He sat back in his chair, smiling. Here, after all, was the minister for the prevention of blackouts, standing against those he claimed would flick the switch on the super-polluting Hazelwood coal-fired power station tomorrow, without any plan for the workers or for keeping the lights on.

Darren Lewin-Hill met with Ferguson on Friday, 9 April 2010 with representatives from Darebin Climate Action Now, organisers of the meeting, and of the Earth Hour event at Ferguson’s electorate office.

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30 comments

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30 thoughts on “Minister for coal out of step with climate change action

  1. Mark Duffett

    If you’re going to quote James Hansen as an authority on clean coal, you really ought to give his opinion on nuclear vs solar (and wind) as well. On that score, I think you might find Martin Ferguson is part of the solution, and I suspect you, Mr Lewin-Hill, might be part of the problem.

  2. Michael

    Darren when exactly does this madness end?

    When do you just take a tablet, go for a long walk and rethink your life’s objectives?

    In case you haven’t noticed, there is a small natural phenomenon taking place just North of UK.

    An unstoppable phenomenon that is spewing 100 times the amount of CO2 (solid & gaseous) into the atmosphere, that mankind will produce in the next 20 years.

    In other words the Northern Hemisphere is drowning in atmospheric CO2 and your describing the weather bureau’s meeting room.

  3. Stafford van Putten

    Michael, seriously, where are you getting your information?

    Aside from the numerous other sources of info available, here’s one:

    The Guardian
    “According to the Environmental Transport Association, by the end of today the flight ban will have prevented the emission of some 2.8m tonnes of carbon dioxide since the first flights were grounded.
    The volcanic eruption has released carbon dioxide, but the amount is dwarfed by the savings.”

    Here’s event a pretty picture

    Anyway, distractions aside, thanks Mr Lewin-Hill for bringing detail of your interview with Mr Ferguson to an audience. However a transcript of the interview would also have been appreciated. (you know how it is, earn our respect by showing us respect…)

    “He sat back in his chair, smiling.” Because, despite the arguments of people such as yourself, climate scientists, and even prominent economists, he knows he is a lot closer to winning the battle over lay people’s hearts and minds than you are. Why he wants to “win” in such a terrible way, with so much at risk is beyond me.

  4. Michael James

    Well guys, this may come as a bit of a shock to you and your sense of your all important place in the world, but from his side of the table you are nothing but yet another group of lobbyists.

    In fact, from his side of the table you are not even a particularly useful set of lobbyists, you are not bringing new investment, new jobs or other tangibles to the table.

    Instead you are telling him to tear up an industry that underpins the prosperity of much of Australia, employs tens of thousands of (mostly unionised) workers and is vital to our continued future as a rich, industrialised, western nation.

    As scientists and engineers have stated for two generations, renewable energy is no replacement for base load power, solar, wind, thermal, geothermal, tidal etc are interesting adjuncts to a power grid, but you need base load power.

    That means hydro (limited and of variable reliability here in Australia due to drought), gas (an increasing percentage of the national grid is gas fired), coal (which we have in abundance, together with the infrastructure to support it) and nuclear (at which the green lobby sticks it fingers in its ears and starts saying nah-nah-nah-nah-nah every time it’s mentioned).

    All in all, I am surprised he gave you the time he did, but then Ferguson has a reputation for being polite, even to time wasters.

  5. Michael

    Staff you are utterly clueless.

    2.8m tones of CO2 saved? Wow! Terrific!

    Can you imagine how much CO2 has spewed out of an eruption that covered all of Europe & part of Russia?

    Mate if every airplane in the world took off at midnight and kept flying for 100 years they would not come close the exhaust emanating from Iceland.

  6. Mark Duffett

    Stop digging, Michael not-James. Follow the hyperlink Stafford has provided, and those therein, whereupon you can see for yourself exactly how wrong you are, and why.

  7. Stafford van Putten

    MICHAEL, thanks for calling me clueless. You won me over with that, I now am a devout follower of your path…

    Or, perhaps you will look into the fact that not all emmissions are the same when it comes to their impact on the greenhouse effect. Some are made of small particles, others are made of large particles, some are light and some are heavy. Some are made of reflective material, others are not.

    MICHAEL JAMES, Serious failure of the imagination.

    Basically, what you’re saying is that this is the way it has been for years, we’re wealthy and happy because of the way things are, and nothing should change because change will only present us with negative outcomes. When you’re onto a good thing, stick with it, eh… No matter the consequences?

    *Sigh*

    I dont have time to annoy you with all the problems with your comment, however, here’s a future possibility that might give your imagination a boost.

    Ever thought that the tens of thousands of Aussies who work hard in our mines might actually have their jobs threatened within 10-15 years by robotic automation? (consider the injury prone mining environment and how bad the PR is when fatalities happen)

    Also, explain to me how geothermal power (whilst by no means perfect) does not represent a 24h source of electricity? In doing proper research so you will either enlighten me, or yourself. Either would be appreciated.

    MARK, cheers for that

  8. Malcolm Street

    Michael,

    Dr Karl on Sunrise a few days ago, when asked about effects on global warming, IIRC put the CO2 output of the volcano at c. 14,000 tonnes per day, vs millions of tonnes saved from grounded airliners.

  9. zut alors

    @ STAFFORD VAN PUTTEN

    That’s a cogent point you make about robotic labour.

    How tiresome it is to constantly hear ‘jobs’ parroted as an excuse for plundering resources, landscapes, environment, societies. Some people appear not to understand there will be employment associated with renewable energy.

    I sometimes ponder if the USA had channeled the exorbitant cost of the Iraq war into researching a sustainable alternative energy source to oil they may have been in a position by now to tell the Middle East to shove their black gold where the sun don’t shine. Political leaders mostly think like unimaginative stymying fogeys.

    No innovation, just the same old, same old.

  10. Michael

    Mal

    You did say Dr Karl, yes?

    You do know that his qualifications as a climate scientist are derived from the same education that made him a GP, yes?

    Mate use Google instead of Channel 7 for your info in future, yes?

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