Fonterra’s coal-fired climate folly

By Jeanette Fitzsimons

Cross-posted from Coal Action Network Aotearoa 

Why would Fonterra spend several million dollars on a process lasting nearly a year, seeking planning consent for a huge new milk drier that it knows will never be built? Perhaps that’s not a lot of money to them – after all, one million is only three months’ salary for their CEO.

Fonterra’s proposed Studholme project, just outside of Waimate in South Canterbury, would see two new spray driers powered by two immense coal boilers – one 65MW, the other 50.

one lump or twoThis is the biggest new coal burning project in the country, with the hearing happening just as our Minister for Climate Change is about to travel to New York to sign the Paris agreement where we undertook to reduce our greenhouse emissions a totally inadequate 11% below 1990 levels. (It’s even more inadequate when creative accounting turns this into more like +10%).

Fonterra is already the second biggest coal burner in the country and grew its coal use by 38% between 2008-2013. They pay lip service to climate change but in practice are totally wedded to coal.

This new plant, if it is built and runs at capacity, would produce some 100,000 tonnes a year of greenhouse gas emissions (similar to its Darfield plant), plus the much more global warming potential of the methane and nitrous oxide from the more than half a million new cows that would be required to supply the milk.

But that isn’t the reason the plant will never be built. In New Zealand, increasing greenhouse gas emissions are never a reason for anything the dairy industry or Government does – they just aren’t on the radar.

Coal Action Network (CANA) put a major effort into submissions with two expert witnesses at the hearing in Waimate last week. We argued, supported by dairy economist Peter Fraser, that there is no milk available now to supply this behemoth and that, contrary to Fonterra’s submissions, milk supply is dropping and farmers are shedding cows.

2170256011_a387bced12_zThat’s not rocket science, given the price farmers receive for their milk solids has plummeted to $3.90 from a high of $8.40. Fonterra says it expects, supported by no evidence at all, that historical growth of 4-5% a year in South Island milk production will resume soon. It offered no evidence of what sort of price rise would be needed for farmers to add more cows or undertake very expensive land conversion, and no evidence that prices would rise at all.

It fell to CANA to bring the only economic evidence on this to the hearing. Peter Fraser, an economist with experience in Treasury, MAF and several positions in the industry, argued convincingly that the new driers would need up more than half a million new cows to supply the milk to run them at capacity; that his best estimate was that prices would recover to ~$5 +/- $1, and that new dairy farms needing irrigation were not economic at less than $6.50 and, in many cases, much more.

Further, the EU farmers – whose quotas have just been removed – are planning to meet any growth in demand that does occur and the cost structure of intensive dairying in NZ is now higher than theirs. We are no longer the low cost milk producer feeding on grass. If prices do rise substantially, the US is poised to enter the market ahead of us.

(On the other hand if we are wrong and prices do rise and the extra half million plus cows do materialise, we have an unmitigated disaster in Canterbury with the human equivalent of those cows and their water impacts being equivalent to plonking a city the size of Jakarta on the Canterbury plains.)

Peter’s evidence is why I am sure this plant will not be built. So why are we going through this charade?

Even though Fonterra does not have a great reputation for strategic thinking (they are still making low value commodities like milk powder when successful companies are adding value and paying their farmers much more), they have heard Peter’s analysis before and it is hard to believe they are incapable of understanding it.

I can see two possibilities:

  1.  Fonterra needs to portray the image of a successful and expanding company to keep investor confidence. Its debts are currently roughly equal to its assets so it is in a parlous financial state. If they do grow milk supply the farmers with new cows will have to buy shares to be able to supply Fonterra, and this will help the company get out of its mess. Perhaps they really think wishing will make it so?
  1. In case we are all wrong and milk supply does expand, if they already hold a consent for a processing plant no-one else will try to capture that milk as they couldn’t catch up and build a new plant first. So it may be an anti-competitive move.

Neither of these is a good reason for spending nearly a billion dollars it doesn’t have and going further into debt, for milk that nobody can afford to produce.

Edendale

Waimate is left expecting jobs and economic development, and so is not pursuing any other strategy. This state of affairs could last ten years before the resource consent would lapse. But the jobs and development will never materialise. This is known in the trade as “planning blight”.

In this case, whether Fonterra run its new factory partly on wood waste is irrelevant. But most of the discussion focussed on that, rather than the lack of milk. That elephant in the room, like climate change, is just too big to be on the radar.

Correction:  this blog was orrected on 20 April to change the “million cow” figure to “half a million” – see Peter Fraser’s comments under the original blog on Coal Action Network Aotearoa.

 

1 thought on “Fonterra’s coal-fired climate folly”

  1. I agree the economic case for this new coal fired plant looks dubious. Maybe this is Fonterra just locking in a system that they “might need” or maybe it’s partly because Fonterra are essentially a large monopoly, and have simply become arrogant and dismissive of criticism.

    The water pollution thing is concerning as well. However this is a matter for better government standards and penalties, which looks unlikely with this government. I note that nitrates are now implicated in various diseases / health issues, and not just growth of algae.

    However the main issue to me is the climate change aspect. The emissions trading scheme obviously isn’t strong enough to deter this coal fired plant. In fact the ETS appears generally useless.

    But presumably Fonterra buy carbon credits from forestry? Now this forestry plan just doesn’t appear viable to me either. Yet the ETS places huge reliance on these forests.

    In a theoretical free market and ETS system, forests will theoretically find some sort of equilibrium, but I don’t believe it will ever work that way in the real world. No country is going to allow the sort of scale of new forests that would really start absorbing carbon, as they infringe on other land uses like farming, and also timber supplies.

    Countries have increasing populations so are understandably concerned about maximising farmland. I have nothing against forests but I think its a feel good thing that wont have any big affect on climate change. I think the people who designed the ETS cynically know this, and its just another way of deferring real reductions to fossil fuel use, without actually leading to big new forests either. Call me a cynic if you want.

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