21 May 2011

The future of coal

Last Tuesday (17 May) I attended the Institute of Policy Study's Future of Coal symposium. 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 The Science Media Centre has also summarised the presentations. Environment Commissioner Jan Wright's speech is on her website.

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 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!

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