By Rosemary Penwarden

The decision by ECAN and WDC to allow Fonterra to keep on expanding, adding a new 30-tonne/hour coal-fired boiler to their Studholme milk processing plant near Waimate, reminds me of my Dad’s driving.

Fonterra Quit CoalWhen I was a kid we occasionally drove from Wanganui to Lower Hutt to visit cousins. With Dad behind the wheel it was Lower Hutt or Bust. Even a toilet stop required dire ultimatums to get the car to slow.

When Mum was behind the wheel, variables were appraised, the big picture assessed and the agenda adjusted accordingly. More often than not, that meant stops at every vegetable stand, regular side-of-the-road picnics and occasionally, much to Dad’s chagrin, detours to a stream for a quick dip before hitting the road again.

On a hot summer’s day, regular release of seven kids from a stuffy car was a smart move. Mum’s final detour involved a drive up Haywards Hill right on dusk, to behold the wondrous lights of Wellington.

Dad’s unwillingness to veer off the main road reminds me of our current dominant agricultural economic model, stuck on a familiar road with no apparent willingness to assess the big picture.

Fonterra’s new 35 year Studholme permit, for example, takes us beyond the time climate scientists tell us we need to have stopped, globally, all burning of coal, oil and gas.

We should have stopped to assess the big picture way back down the road, but here we are in 2016 approving a plan to plonk another 270,000 cows into South Canterbury/North Otago. These numbers were spelled out to the Commissioners at the Studholme hearing in Waimate by Peter Fraser, CANA’s (Coal Action Network Aotearoa) expert witness.

The big picture goes something like this: Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett under increasing pressure to ratify the Paris Climate agreement; scientists re-adjusting sea level rise predictions way beyond those used in Fonterra’s application (IPCC’s 4th Assessment (2007)); wildfires again ravaging Western USA; heat waves again killing hundreds in South Asia; May breaking yet another “hottest ever” record; and carbon dioxide levels reaching 400 ppm in Antarctica. We could go on, but unlike the Commissioners, you get it.

The two biggest impacts of the new Studholme permit, climate change and dairy expansion, have been disregarded in their decision.

Like Dad, the Commissioners have stuck to The Plan: Growth or Bust. Despite overwhelming numbers of submissions opposing the expansion they chose to ignore the warning signs right outside the Waimate Community Centre window; a countryside already super-saturated with dairy herds and their effluent (15 times more poo per cow than a human), climatic disruption already costing farmers, and global economic uncertainty already affecting our commodity-heavy economy. Car-sickness and toilet stops disregarded.

It was always good news when Mum managed to get Dad to pull over. Our good news is that CANA and others who opposed the Studholme expansion like Wise Response, Action Station and Ora Taiao (Climate and Health Council) have had an effect. Citing strong public opposition Fonterra changed their proposal to one, not two new coal boilers. Under pressure they have admitted the need to transition away from coal and have had to very publically keep up their spin around burning “up to” 20% biomass in the new (coal!) boiler – the most inefficient way to burn biomass.

But despite all this the Commissioners’ attention to the road in front means they’ve ignored the big picture – and the kids in the back seat. What about some fresh air and a stream to wade in? What about their future? Because right now we’re heading to around 4 degrees of warming, and that future isn’t pretty.

Each year, as climate change worsens, opposition to coal and dairy expansion will only grow. Even now it is clear Fonterra’s social licence is eroding fast. Fonterra have been given ten years to act on this proposal and so could, in theory, still be burning coal in 2061. What will that do to New Zealand’s reputation in a post-two degree world?

Dad liked driving, but Mum was really in charge. CANA don’t believe the Studholme expansion will actually go ahead. The commissioners think they’re in the driver’s seat but they are not paying attention. Mother Earth is really in charge.

While I preferred Mum’s driving I will always remember Dad with great fondness. I doubt that future generations will feel the same about those in the driver’s seat today.