On Lignite: Elder not better

by Bryan Walker on May 19, 2011

Since Don Elder thinks it inappropriate for the visiting James Hansen to comment on the morality of the proposed lignite development in Southland, let me, a fellow New Zealander, say that I find the morality of the development indefensible and all the special pleading offered by Elder doesn’t alter the case.

There is evidence that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity are already causing hardship to some poorer populations of the world. There is little doubt that they will deliver today’s young and their children a world under pressure from immense and adverse changes which few of us would wish on them. That’s the basis of Hansen’s forthright comments on the morality of continuing to burn fossil fuels. If you want a more eloquent statement than he is accustomed to make have a look at what Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder said at a panel he shared with Hansen at the 2010 PEN World Voices Festival. I quoted him at some length in this post, but the essence of his speech was in these words:

“You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself. This must obviously include your neighbour generation. It has to include absolutely everyone who will live on the earth after us. The human family doesn’t inhabit earth simultaneously. People have lived here before us, some are living now and some will live after us. But those who come after us are also our fellow human beings…We have no right to hand over a planet earth that is less worth than the planet that we ourselves have had the good fortune to live on.”

If the South Island lignite remains in the ground it will not add to the dangerous level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But, pleads Elder – and he no doubt represents a large section of opinion including, one presumes, Minister Gerry Brownlee – if we don’t use it to manufacture urea and diesel we will have to obtain the products from elsewhere in the world, and because they have to be transported here they may in fact carry a larger carbon footprint than if we manufactured them in Southland.  He provides no evidence that the lignite processes will in fact be less polluting in total than the imported materials are. He also assumes that environmentally gentler alternatives to the fertiliser and fuel will not be desired in the future as the country wakes up to the reality of human-cause climate change.

The kind of arguments Elder is putting forward can be pursued to the point where all the fossil fuels in the world are exploited, and at every point along the way similar casuistries will make it seem only sensible and reasonable that we should all be doing what we are doing and that it is even in the interests of the environment. I once wrote to the Minister of Energy and Climate Change in the previous government asking how the mining and export of coal could be justified in the light of the commitment to mitigate climate change. The answer was that the countries to which it is exported are responsible for the emissions, not us.  I was not surprised by the answer, but it still strikes me as washing our hands of the consequences of our coal mining, and fits the scenario of a world which carries on digging every last bit of fossil fuel from the earth and burning it, with seemingly reasonable explanations to hand all along the disastrous way.

The world can’t stop burning fossil fuels overnight. But it can start to wind them down. The development of Southland lignite is not necessary to bridge any interim as we move to a low carbon economy. Nor is coal mining for export for that matter. They are simply undertaken to make money. The human cost is ignored or denied. I think that can fairly be described as morally reprehensible.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Dappledwater May 19, 2011 at 8:20 pm

Looks like the morality issue has struck a raw nerve. I guess that shows the way forward eh?

Bob Bingham May 19, 2011 at 9:39 pm

Despite the delay in action by governments I have the distinct feeling that the real message is getting through. The destruction of the IPCC work by journalists and the subsequent misrepresentation of the emails from the East Anglian University seriously upset climate scientists and they have become much more out spoken about their work and its implications. There are much fewer denialist web sites and politicians such as Brash saying ‘ The science is not proven’ are looking more and more ridiculous. Politicians only follow the mood of the people and when enough people realise what is happening the mood will change quickly and politicians who are not active in cutting carbon emissions will be out in the wilderness.
This work by Hansen is a major contribution to changing attitudes.

Carol Cowan May 19, 2011 at 11:15 pm

Dr Hansen and Jeanette Fitzsimons both emphasized that one person CAN make a difference. We need to keep on in educating the public because there is a vast gap between what the scientists understand and what the public know.

Mark H May 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm

OK, lignite is particularly dirty stuff and maybe we shouldn’t touch it. But for the other coal reserves in NZ, surely, “…the countries to which it is exported are responsible for the emissions, not us,” is a reasonable answer. China will need to burn some coal for a while (or so Jim Hansen said in Wellington on Monday night). What’s wrong with NZ supplying it to them?

I enjoyed Jim Hansen’s lecture, and I think he was right to stress the issue of intergenerational justice and possibly right that a carbon tax is the best way forward (though I noted the warning on his title slide that on matters of policy this was only his opinion). But I left with no idea of how he proposed a carbon tax would work internationally.

McTaptik May 20, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Kudos to Don for fronting up at that event. Primarily it is the burning of coal for electricity that we need to target, AND secondly the use of shales, tar sands and lignites for liquid fuels.

However in the meantime building wind turbines or solar and nuclear plants requires steel, which requires high grade coking coal; and that is what NZ is exporting. NZ even imports lower grade coal from Indonesia to supplement Huntly.

Also there will be a growing population to feed, so lignite to fertiliser could well be necessary, and the rural economy is heavily dependant on diesel…

Hence the need stressed by Hansen for a politically robust tax. This will up the price of emissions intensive energy options at source, in a manner removed from the voter – such as a tax on petrol at the pump.

People will be looking to adapt to oil scarcity and oil scarcity will also create greater economic uncertainty. Energy is the base of the economy and if a tax is not widely supported it will not survive politically. Hence Hansen’s approach to return the dividend from the tax to people.

If we take a ‘just say no’ approach, will the lignite plant just get pushed through anyway? What conditions could be imposed instead to ensure that it is not being subsidised through the ETS and poor environmental standards around site remediation? How much of the carbon could or should be captured? Will the plant still be viable once all these conditions are in place?

But do we trust the current administration to facilitate the process?

One look at the ETS should answer that…

In which case we can very little confidence that a lignite plant will be subject to sufficient conditions and regulation.

So perhaps the answer to a lignite plant is “not until we can be assured of sufficient conditions and regulation”. The indicator of this could be scrapping the ETS and replacing it with Hansen’s tax and dividend suggestion. An administration that did that would go a long way towards gaining my trust.

Kiwiiano May 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm

“…the countries to which it is exported are responsible for the emissions, not us,”
On the contrary, it’s the people who buy & use the products made in those countries that must carry the burden of responsibility. That means us, for all those plasma TVs, 2nd hand cars and No 8 wire.
We can’t hold up our heads until we clamp down on all un-necessary release of carbon whether by driving smaller cars or not driving at all, building only wooden houses (and planting trees to compensate) and all the myriad expectations that life-as-usual can continue indefinitely.

Mark H May 24, 2011 at 3:07 pm

An interesting point, Kiwiiano. George Monbiot has been thinking along similar lines:


But still, China will be burning some coal for some time, and it would arguably be unreasonable for the developed world to expect them not to. So what, again, is wrong with that coal being imported from New Zealand?

Macro May 24, 2011 at 8:32 pm

“So what, again, is wrong with that coal being imported from New Zealand?”
Geological carbon once burnt and released into the atmosphere as carbon emissions takes tens of thousands of years until it returns to a geological state. To remove it and store it permanently at source, is either hugely expensive, hasn’t been achieved yet in any large measure, or is just inconceivably disastrous to the environment. Every ton of coal burnt simply adds to the build up of Atmospheric CO2 and the acidification of the oceans (which are even now more acidic than they have ever been in 25 million years). Coal is far worst than oil in this regard, so why are we even contemplating mining it? Leave it in the ground. And do we really need all that extra stuff from China anyway? We only want it because advertisers tell us that we do.

tom May 20, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Given the government’s reliance on rating Agency reports, Mr Elder may care to take in the highly respected Research Recap news of Credit Rating Agencies(all I seem to recall) switching away from coal-fired energy sources in the USA. Despite several of my own reservations – qv latest blog – the RAs do offer credible advice, else they’d lose more investors’ fees and revenues etc.

As to the point about Minister Brownlee, who despite his seeming professions to urgency, does have ample time in hand, I’d suggest he seriously consider the prospects of actually making fuels FROM carbon dioxide. Oh yes, indeed!

Mr February May 21, 2011 at 1:48 pm


I attended the Future of Coal symposium and I agree with your post. For those who want to know what was said, Claire Browning gives a very good summary at the Pundit blog. Audio of the presentations, including Hansen and Elder can be listened to at the Science Media Centre

Elder’s presentation, coming after Hansen, was a case of the ridiculous following the sublime. After his over view of climate change, Hansen spoke of the disconnect between the scientific understanding and the political rhetoric of governments and businesses. Elder’s pro-lignite, pro-mining, “Solid Energy is audited as sustainable” speech demonstrated Hansen’s point perfectly. The disturbing thing about this is that Elder’s narrative is no doubt accepted by the National Government and the business sector.

I rescued myself from depression about this when it occurred to me that Don Elder has a strong resemblance to John Clarke in his satirical dialogues with Bryan Dawe – particularly the The Front Fell Off interview.

Bryan Dawe. Dr Don Elder, thank for you being here to talk about coal, lignite and climate change.

John Clarke. You’re welcome Bryan. I think its really important that New Zealand has a good open discussion about our future. I am very open minded about this. So I came here, against advice that it would be 300 to one with a lot of unthinking NIMBY proponents. Its all too often that a debate is started, such as last year’s debate about further mining under Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act to grow the economy. And that debate just becomes dominated with unthinking slogans such as “No mining in National Parks”..

Bryan Dawe. But Dr Elder, the Government did in fact propose to remove protection from thousands of hectares within Paparoa National Park that is on top of a coal seam!

John Clarke. We were just trying to start a discussion! The response was unthinking slogans like “No mining in National Parks” and “Keep the coal in the hole”. To me that is the same level as “Leave the Asians in Asia”. It was meant to be a discussion.

Bryan Dawe. But Dr Elder, isn’t Jeanette Fitzsimons correct when she observes that seeking non-notified consents for your lignite briquette plant at Mataura shuts down any discussion or debate?

John Clarke. Well, she would say that! It’s ridiculous! We are just trying to get a resource consent. Everyone wants their consent not notified. Everyone gets their lawyers to write to the council. Its just the same as you getting a consent for your garden trellis!

Bryan Dawe. Dr Elder, Dr Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, points out that you refused to give her information on the carbon content of your lignite process. How does that help with the discussion?

John Clarke. Well, Bryan, that was commercially sensitive information. Dr Wright may have set a competing lignite to fuel plant. She has qualifications in physics and chemistry, you know.

Bryan Dawe. Dr James Hansen, of NASA, has just presented the climate change case for the rapid phase out of coal and non-traditional fossil-fuels such as lignite, tar sands and oil-shale. What is your response to this?

John Clarke. Bryan, I am glad you have asked that, as are no doubt half the people here who now agree with me. We need to understand that there are a couple of billion poor people in less developed countries – who have not enjoyed several generations of energy-intensive wealthy lifestyles as we have – who want lignite briquettes but can’t afford them. In light of that need, who are we in New Zealand, not to process the lignite into diesel and fertiliser that we can then substitute for imports from China?

Bryan Dawe. Dr Elder, won’t the development of a large scale lignite industry increase New Ziealand’s annual carbon dioxide emissions by 25%, depending on the number of plants? Won’t that contribute to global warming?

John Clarke. No Bryan, not at all. We have to think about this globally as Soild Energy does. We make the lignite into fuel and fertiliser in Southland. We stop importing fertiliser made from coal in China. Globally, there are less emissions as we have saved the transport emissions!

bill May 23, 2011 at 6:04 pm

John Clarke – now there‘s a great product out of NZ !

Bryan Walker May 21, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Thanks Mr February, not least for the interview which I greatly enjoyed. I understand the need to rescue oneself from depression.

Tom Bennion May 22, 2011 at 1:31 pm

I think it is a sign of hope that community leaders such as Don Elder get upset when challenged on this issue. It means that they take the issue very seriously and do feel personally challenged about it.

But if Dr Elder – with an engineering degree and Rhodes Scholarship (and three children) for goodness sake – cant see the current outright global emergency that exists – it makes you despair a little.

For example, based on scientific projections that Dr Elder would find overwhelmingly convincing and entirely trustworthy in an engineering context, the Arctic will be ice free for periods in summer from around 2014-16 and mostly ice free year-round possibly by 2030.

In my view the problem he faces is one that all of us have. We/I have ties to the current system that make us ready to distrust implications of the blindingly clear science, and anxious to find seemingly rational arguments to maintain our current lifestyles or modify them relatively minimally.

I suspect that, if Dr Elder forgot for a moment his current position and career and imagined he was that student just finishing his PhD, looking for work, and 3 small orphans had been recently put into his care, he would be first on the stage to thank Mr Hansen for his clear exposition of the science and the urgent need to restrict new coal ventures.

I think we have seen this phenomenon many times before. And we can learn from those past examples. One example I find useful to reflect on is the experience of Victor Klemperer. A Jewish Professor of Literature in Dresden in the 1930s, despite warning signs that in retrospect were dreadfully obvious, he simply could not bring himself to loosen his social ties and contemplate a radical new approach to living – in his case, emigration to the United States. He did not move for 2 reasons. First, the potential loss of status in the eyes of his colleagues and income were too devastating for him to contemplate (and he would have to give up his new status symbol – a car!) Second, he thought that the fact that he was a decorated WWI veteran, with an Aryan wife, would save him. Thankfully he survived (the bombing of Dresden saved him), and kept a diary in which he, a highly intelligent and thoughtful man, recorded his daily struggle with what we would now call cognitive dissonance.

The book is “I Will Bear Witness” and covers 1931-41. In my view, a great lesson for this moment.

Bryan Walker May 22, 2011 at 1:54 pm

An interesting analogy Tom. I read Klemperer with avid attention some years ago, though with more sympathy for his denial than I can rouse for those able and well-educated people who carry on as if climate change wasn’t anything to be concerned about. But maybe it is as hard to believe that our world is gravely threatened by climate change as it was for a thoroughly German man like Klemperer to believe that he would be liquidated by his own government because he happened to be Jewish.

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