climate denialism
Then treasurer Scott Morrison brandishing coal in the House of Representatives in 2017 (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The Morrison government’s shortlist of new power projects is an unusual form of pork-barrelling. It started off as an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recommendation to fund the entry of new dispatchable power into the east coast energy market to undermine the dominance of the three big power companies — i.e. having been told of the virtues of privatisation and markets in electricity for decades, taxpayers now have to fork out to fund a new entrant to provide some of the competition they’d been promised originally.

The Turnbull/Morrison government saw in that a way to fund new coal-fired power stations to placate the fossil fuel fetishists within the Coalition. That was all fine and dandy until the Wentworth and Victoria showed supporting coal was now about as popular as the plague. The initial rush to pull together a shortlist of coal-fired power projects to which the government could contractually commit before the election suddenly slowed to a halt while the Coalition brains trust worked out what to do. Then Barnaby Joyce and some Nationals arkked up, demanding new coal-fired power plants regardless of the objections of elitist latte-sipping inner city Liberals.

Morrison’s shortlist is thus a political document, but one designed to placate contradictory political needs. There’s gas, and pumped hydro, and one solitary coal-fired power station, which just happens — purely coincidentally of course — to be part-owned by prominent Coalition donor Trevor St Baker. 

But in the manner of John Cleese’s waiter assuring Terry Jones’ Mr Creosote in The Meaning of Life, Morrison, who just a few short months ago was holding a lump of coal triumphantly aloft in parliament, insists the Vales Point upgrade is only a little tiny bit of coal, “one very small project which is a coal upgrade project”. 

Wafer thin, monsieur.

That was not going to be enough for the LNP, because Morrison then announced an entirely separate program “to address supply and affordability issues specifically for high energy-intensive and trade-exposed customers in north and central Queensland”. Hey, the Coalition has winged it on energy policy for a decade — why stop making it up as you go along now? 

The Government will provide $10 million over two years for the program, which will fund a business case that will focus on short and long-term customer energy requirements … The program will develop a detailed roadmap and identify viable locations for firm generation including coal, gas, pumped hydro, and biomass opportunities, including Collinsville and Gladstone. The Government will conduct detailed evaluation and feasibility of projects … not limited to a new HELE coal project in Collinsville …

According to the government’s own documents, a coal-fired power station there would face huge problems. But perhaps that was the point — people with functioning brains within the government know that coal-fired power will be knocked out by even a half-arsed feasibility study, but wanted to announce it because they know the Nats aren’t the sharpest — and certainly not the best-informed — tools in the shed. That appeared to work, because Barnaby Joyce tweeted in delight “So we have got ourselves a Coal Fired power station for Qld. Very good”.

But here’s where it gets more serious. It’s possible that a reelected Coalition government, especially one with Barnaby Joyce restored to the National leadership and a generation of moderates gone from the ranks of the Liberals, might indeed end up funding a new coal-fired power station in central or north Queensland. Bad for the planet, of course; bad for all Australians, particularly bad for our kids. But even worse for the communities of north Queensland.

Coal-fired power stations are killers, inflicting death and illness on the communities around them from particulate pollution. A study of NSW’s coal-fired power stations last year by a University of Newcastle academic found that, “air pollution from the five NSW power stations is estimated to lead to 279 deaths or 2,614 ‘years of life lost’ every year for people aged 30 to 99. Each year, this pollution also causes 233 babies to be born weighing less than 2500 grams and causes 361 people who would not otherwise develop type 2 diabetes to develop this disease.” 

Vales Point was equal worst.

You could dismiss that study. But then there’s the North Carolina meta-analysis last year looking at thirty years’ worth of studies into the health impacts of coal-fired plants around the world that found “the people living in close proximity to coal-fired plants had higher rates of all-cause and premature mortality, increased risk of respiratory disease and lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, poorer child health, and higher infant mortality”.

“Close proximity” in some cases meant 500 kilometres away.

A study from January this year found a strong link between use of coal-generated power and lung cancer across Europe and Asia. A recent US study linked exposure to pollution from coal-fired power plants to heart disease. These are only the most recent studies. The impacts will vary according to the plants, their age, and the kind of coal they burn. But deadly impacts there are, even in Australia.

It’s a peculiar kind of boondoggle — spending billions of dollars to build something that could sicken and kill large numbers of people in the surrounding communities. That is what the Nationals want, and what Morrison is promising to consider.