Last week was a bad week for coal mines on the West Coast.
Early in the week Solid Energy announced 24 workers would lose their jobs from the Stockton mine, and by the end of the week Bathurst announced that it is putting the Denniston mine on hold, laying off 12 workers – terrible news for those workers and their families.
At the heart of this is the same issue that sent Solid Energy under: plummeting coking coal prices – a price that has continued to fall, and was again cited as the reason for Solid’s new layoffs.
Over on the Denniston Plateau, Bathurst’s woes have stemmed, in the first instance, from the long-signalled closure of the Holcim plant in Westport, its biggest client. Bathurst has had to seek domestic buyers for its high grade coking coal, because of the low international price.
As the country reeled with the news last week that Solid Energy had gone into administration with a $300m debt, another event was happening in the Pacific that puts the debate in a context that it too seldom receives in New Zealand.
On Thursday, Kiribati Prime Minister Anote Tong wrote to world leaders calling for a moratorium on new coalmines.
“Kiribati, as a nation faced with a very uncertain future, is calling for a global moratorium on new coal mines. lt would be one positive step towards our collective global action against climate change and it is my sincere hope that you and your people would add your positive support in this endeavour,” he wrote.
“The construction of each new coal mine undermines the spirit and intent of any agreement we may reach, particularly in the upcoming COP 21 in Paris, whilst stopping new coal mine constructions NOW will make any agreement reached in Paris truly historical.”
UK Economist Sir Nicholas Stern agreed: “The use of coal is simply bad economics, unless one refuses to count as a cost the damages and deaths now and in the future from air pollution and climate change,” he told Reuters (Stern’s full statement here).
In June, Pope Francis said in his encyclical that the use of “highly polluting fossil fuels needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”
First the treasure. The document sets it out in dollar terms. I’ll mention only the fossil fuels here. They estimate the potential value of the resources as $109 billion for coal, $248 billion for lignite, $187 billion for oil and $45 billion for natural gas.
Then the question of responsible extraction. The document is concerned with the environmental effects. There are plenty to be concerned about, but in this post I’ll focus on greenhouse gases, which the document addresses in a short section headed “Can We Manage Greenhouse Gas Emissions?”
A full page feature recently appeared in the Waikato Times in which Press journalist John McCrone interviewed Solid Energy CEO Don Elder on the Southland lignite proposals. It was a thoughtful piece of journalism, and I wish I could provide a link to it but it doesn’t seem to have appeared on the Stuff website. It provided a good overview of the thinking behind Solid Energy’s pursuit of lignite development, along with objections levelled against it. I’ve already written on the question but it’s important enough to keep returning to.
Lignite is big. Briquetting should be under way next year in a factory which has been consented by Environment Southland. Hospitals, commercial greenhouses and Fonterra are expected customers. But that’s just a groundbreaker. On the drawing board is a phase two briquetting plant that will be ten times larger. Continue reading “Thinking Old-Style Big”
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.”