I am a big fan of Matthew Stevens who writes in the Fin. And he has a very scary piece this morning about the insidious and well-funded anti-coal campaign, the strategy for which was hatched several years ago.
I think one of the problems is that most sensible people have absolutely no truck with this stuff and implicitly recognise that fossil fuels are one of the main determinants of Australia’s comparative economic advantage, underpinning future growth in living standards. But, then again, no one speaks out and no one takes a strong stance against this lunatic campaign based on falsehoods and blackmail.
So Cats, what should be done?
Here is the story:
One September Sunday morning last year Lance Hockridge woke to find a group of strangers forming an angry protest outside his family home.
Hockridge is the chief executive of Aurizon. It is Australia’s biggest coal freighter. And the folks on Hockridge’s front lawn were there to tell him this is a very bad thing indeed. Not surprisingly, Aurizon collectively received this overreach of activism as something nigh on un-Australian. That message was passed on, in no uncertain terms, to the community of environmental lobbies with which the company maintains routine contact.
Aurizon told the anti-coal campaigners, too, that threats to blockade rail paths in the Queensland coal fields were not on. In the recent past anti-coal protesters had chained a metal box to a Hunter Valley pathway. That group was warned that illegal activity risking the safety of Aurizon workers would be pursued relentlessly.
Aurizon is one of a fairly diverse group within coal’s life cycle that are staring down a carefully faceted, occasionally very sophisticated, and increasingly well-funded campaign to redraft coalmining’s growth story in Australia. The theatre of this conflict now runs the gamut from the traditional and sometimes dangerous confrontation between activist and operator to the interplay between big coal’s boardroom and its owners and financiers.
Because they variously lend against big coal’s growth in Australia, our banking pillars too have fallen onto this radar of protest. ANZ and Westpac branches in Sydney, Melbourne and, on one occasion, in Byron Bay, have been visited by organised account closures in the name of ending financial support of coal.
Apparently Market Forces and 350.org are now planning a “divestment day” protest at branches of all four major banks on May 3.
What is strange about this is that new coal projects do not live or die on Australian funding. Projects of import are more often internally funded or secured by international capital markets. So this is all about the external optics and the campaigners’ long-term strategic positioning.
THE MISSION WHICH GAVE THE CAMPAIGN FOCUS
To a considerable degree the genesis of this, and so much more that is happening in the anti-coal campaign, sits in a strategy document distributed to a small green elite back in early 2012. TitledStopping the Australian Coal Export Boom, it announced a mission to raise at least $6 million to seed, organise and financially foster an acutely focused anti-coal campaign.
Two of the parents of this strategy of dislocation were former Greenpeacer John Hepburn and anti-coal lobbyist of renown Bob Burton. Among those named as key advocates of their plan were Environment Victoria campaign director Mark Wakeham and Lock the Gate Alliance co-ordinator Carmel Flint.
Each of them has ended up a foundation director in a little thing called the Sunrise Project. Its mission is to “educate, support and empower” communities to protect land, water and people from the impact of the fossil fuel industry. To that end it provides training, strategic support and small grants to community organisations. In describing its history, the Sunrise Project recalls efforts by Hepburn and Burton throughout 2011 to appreciate Australian coal’s then thoroughly inflated growth story.
“As a result of this research,” the Sunrise website reports, “they began developing a proposal to increase the ability of the community to hold the mining industry to account. A draft of this proposal somehow found its way onto the front page of The Australian Financial Review on the same day that UNESCO arrived to investigate the impacts of the coal and gas boom on the Great Barrier Reef. The document created a media storm.”
For that we can take a wee bit of the blame or credit, depending on where you sit. But what is so interesting about the strategy proposed by Burton and co is that so much of it has quietly played out just as promised.
An audit by the Queensland Resources Council of the key elements of the leaked Hepburn-Burton plan against outcomes two years on would suggest that a whole lot of what was proposed has become reality.
The 2012 strategy document, for example, promotes the financing of legal challenges to delay new mines and the expansion of coal ports and rail lines. Currently the long-proposed, but now financially challenged, Alpha coal project in the Galilee Basin sits under review in the Queensland Land Court, while the Abbot Point dredging permit has been challenged in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
TRANSLATING COMMUNITY CONCERN INTO ACTION
The 2012 strategy envisaged an alliance between unlikely partners in the quest to stop coal’s creep. The way the QCA sees it, that has happened with environmentalists standing firm with the fishing and tourism industry in the effort to translate community concern over the health of the Great Barrier Reef into resistance of plans to expand the capacity of coal ports and inner reef shipping channel.
Informatively, the QCA’s assessment highlights the funding links between the World Wildlife Fund and the Thomas Foundation.
Part of the 2012 strategy was to find partners with comparatively deep pockets to feed the anti-coal beast. The Thomas Foundation, the product of the beneficence Cellarmasters founders David and Barbara Thomas, has done just that.
At present, WWF is trying to raise $250,000 to sustain and increase its GBR campaign. The Thomas Foundation has promised to further its support of WWF here by matching donations on a $2 for $1 basis.
This represents a significant shift in the foundation’s original mission statement, which proposed spending $35 million over the decade to 2018 on grass roots conservation that was most focused on land acquisition through its opening years.
Another leg of Hepburn-Burton strategy was to “change the story of coal”. The target was to market coal’s unquestionable link with climate change along with more dubious (my view, not theirs) claims about the social and health effects of mining and transporting the stuff.
The Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss was named in the 2012 document as a member of strategy group for the loose organisation Hepburn and Burton appeared to be planning. As it is, there is no evidence of any link between Denniss and Sunrise Project. But, as QRC points out, the Australia Institute has since delivered two reports highlighting the economic cost of coalmining. The QCA claims both were financed by the Thomas Foundation through donations to WWF. The next point of coincidence between the 2012 strategy and live anti-coal tactics is the push to highlight the risk of coal investment among the sector’s operators, owners, service providers and financiers.
So it is that the senior shareholders of the likes of Aurizon, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and the four banks have been visited by a new breed of informed, financially literate community of coal doubters. Greenpeace, for example, has made a series of approaches to Aurizon presenting an alternative case for coal. Its not unreasonable thesis is that banking shareholders’ capital on the infrastructure to meet GVK’s Galilee expansion plans might prove a risk too far. Aurizon’s place as the world’s umbilical for Australian coal was subsequently challenged over an hour and more of questions at its annual general meeting last year. Shareholders of Australian coal’s biggest brother, BHP Billiton, were subject to an even longer, higher-level aural assault last November.
The hook at BHP’s meeting was Ian Dunlop’s anti-carbon fuel pitch for election to the board. But chairman Jac Nasser was pushed often and hard on the unavoidable paradox of BHP acceptance of carbon’s contribution to climate change and its expanding commitment to coal exports. To his credit, Nasser ended up announcing BHP’s commitment to fuelling the world and suggested those who didn’t like that idea might want to own shares in another business. What Nasser didn’t do was to lock down what was a grinding debate or to question its validity. There are legitimate questions to be asked about carbon fuels, their production and their export. Just as there are legitimate, fact-based and overwhelming realities that sit at the heart of the energy industry’s decision to resist and persist.