By Rosemary Penwarden

This week the government gave the thumbs up for Fonterra to keep burning coal for another 15 years, and for NZ Steel to continue burning it past 2050.

Our biggest polluters are still calling the shots on coal.

Wait. Isn’t it the government’s job to set policy for industry to follow, not the other way around?
Yes. Yet this week, as it released the Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP), there was an opportunity for the government to take meaningful steps toward reducing our reliance on coal.  But it didn’t.

We want to give big ups to those ministry folk who put the 343 page document together. All those words sound encouraging, but they don’t distract us from the reality that our civilisation and all that we hold dear on this planet are at enormous risk from global heating and this document is the government’s first response.

Urgent transformative change is needed. We can’t find that in the ERP.

We can’t even find the word “cow”, not even once. Where is the plan to deal with Fonterra, our biggest polluter? Where is the plan to radically transform agriculture, the cause of half of our entire emissions? Too many cows in inappropriate places like the stony Canterbury Plains have decimated Canterbury’s braided rivers, poisoned the native freshwater creatures, polluted aquifers and put human health at risk.

All of that is absent.

Cut the number of cows and you’ve gone a long way to solving the coal problem too, since 95% of the milk produced in NZ is dried, largely with coal, and exported, mainly by Fonterra. Then Bathurst can get on with moving their workers to meaningful jobs to build, not destroy, a low carbon economy.

But no, Bathurst is planning a new coal mine down south and their biggest customer Fonterra is ready-and-waiting. So much for letting the industry voluntarily phase out of coal. Strong government direction is needed – and that’s missing in the ERP.

Bathurst Resources Ltd (BRL) doesn’t have much of a track record. John Key was present to open its office in Wellington in 2012 – along with hundreds of protestors against its plans to mine the Denniston Plateau. But it’s not even a New Zealand company, after delisting from the NZ stock exchange three years after opening here, supposedly due to the dismally low share price.

Bathurst had to apply to the Overseas Investment Office to expand its Canterbury Coal Mine. The OIO gave it that green light, despite the fact it had breached a raft of consents by already expanding into unconsented territory. That closed last year after a dispute with ECAN over the consents that would have seen protracted legal processes Bathurst clearly couldn’t afford.

An Extinction Rebellion blockade highlighted that it had extracted five times more coal than its consent allowed.

Don’t expect this company to do the right thing for the planet.

As for the farmers, they’re on the front line, acutely affected by the changing climate. Farmers in the Waikato have been suffering from a severe drought – a longer drought than normal, they say. Normally the rain has come in by now, but not this year, one of the hottest and driest summers on record, caused at least in part by climate change.

Those farmers are now getting a handout from the government to support them through this difficult period. Support is needed – most importantly to transition away from the carbon-intensive system that is making the tough times more frequent.

The last thing farmers need is their industry’s refusal to change. But thanks to massive lobbying from the agriculture sector farmers are still excluded from the Emissions Trading Scheme and so have not paid a cent towards the ERP.  No Matter! On the very day the government lets them off the hook for paying the cost of their pollution, it was announced the taxpayer would be footing the bill to help them deal with the impact of climate change. You can’t make this stuff up.

NZ Steel

In another nod to industry the ERP allows NZ Steel to keep burning coal up to 2050 – this despite the push elsewhere towards low carbon steel manufacture and NZ Steel referring to steel-without-coal a “holy grail still at least a decade away”. One decade = 2032, not 2050.

Here are three points about steel:

  1. You can make steel without coal, you just need the political will. Sweden’s Hybrit, with help from the EU Innovation Fund, will have commercially available coal-free steel by 2026. Sweden’s high percentage of hydroelectricity makes it a sitter for this kind of innovation – sound familiar? Even NZ Steel’s parent company Bluescope is working on low carbon steel manufacture in Port Kembla, Australia. It’s high time coal industry lobbyists stop denying the obvious (no, the world does not need your West Coast coking coal!) and get on with helping coal workers into much needed jobs to help secure all our futures.
  2. The cool thing about steel is its 100% recyclability. We do OK in Aotearoa, recycling around 80% of our steel even though it has to be shipped overseas, but there is so much more that we can do in the recycling department. However, as with so many other manufacturing industries here, government must learn from the industry experts in order to make useful policy choices. For example, due to all sorts of technical reasons including the unique way NZ steel is made using thermal rather than coking coal, it currently makes sense to recycle But with low emissions inserted into company’s bottom line in place of profit we have a new, exciting story to tell. Yes please!
  3. Stop using so much steel in construction. It’s been called “the concrete of the future” – Cross laminated Timber (CLT), developed at Canterbury University, is cost competitive to concrete and steel in low rise buildings (up to six stories) . One cubic meter of CLT can absorb one tonne of CO2. What’s stopping us?

Genesis Energy

Genesis is our other biggest coal user. It’s embarrassing that Genesis Energy still uses coal. CANA shamed them into stopping importing Indonesian coal 2014 when coal workers were being laid off down the road at Rotowaro.  Yet today Genesis, a 51% government owned company, is importing record amounts of coal.

We won’t go into the tangled mess behind what is now an electricity system that makes enormous profit off the backs of our forefathers’ publicly built electricity network. But Huntly coal has to go. My friend, currently working on huge wind and solar projects in Australia said our electricity system would be so easy to fix – he means make entirely renewable. In his view we don’t need Lake Onslow. Replace Huntly coal with planned, managed, distributed electricity. However, it looks as though the neoliberal capitalist model is sacrosanct. The market rules. But if we’re serious about the climate emergency a coherent public electricity utility has to be our priority.

Summing Up

A 2037 date to end coal in NZ is not fast enough. It ensures our biggest polluters get to continue dumping millions more tonnes of coal into a choking atmosphere than their fair share. CANA’s proposed date of 2027 to end coal use, instead of the government’s 2037, gives industry plenty of time to ensure that all workers involved in the mining and transport of coal get the training and support to transition into jobs needed for adapting to a climate changed economy – and there are plenty.

CANA’s 2014-15 report Jobs After Coal notes that Coal miners’ transferable skills are essential for helping build the economy we desperately need if we are to survive – like fixing our low lying railway network, building flood defences where possible in our low lying coastal cities, reorganising the way we grow food and so many other areas.

We would love to bring you good news folks! Well, climate change bumped Ukraine off top place in the news last week.

TBH, while the government gives the thumbs up to Fonterra in the ERP we have to give the ERP a great big thumbs down.

Our thumbs up goes to the climate activists who shut down Bathurst’s Takitimu coal mine recently, injecting colour and creativity into the heart of Mordor for an entire day.


Rosemary and the CANA team