Hogsback reports from the anti-coal war

“KNOW your enemy” is a piece of advice attributed to the Chinese general and scholar, Sun Tzu, which Hogsback believes will now form the basis of the Australian coal industry being able to better plan for the future.

Tim Treadgold

Until a few days ago, coal was in a quandary, not knowing who was a friend in Australia and who was an enemy.

More importantly, by not knowing the enemy, coal has been unable to organise its affairs, and public image, in a coherent way.

Criticism, when it came, was from all directions. Sometimes the federal government rubbished coalmining. Sometimes it was the union movement. Often it was the environmental movement.

Now, with the publication of a leaked dossier on a how a group of well-funded environmentalists plan to use Australia’s courts to frustrate, delay, and “stop” the coal boom, the enemy has been flushed into the open – and everyone with a view of coal will be forced to state clearly where they stand.

That final point is critical, because until now too many people have been having a $1 each way, one minute praising coal as being vital to Australia’s economy, they next saying it had a finite future, or should be phased out, or taxed to death.

The dossier, allegedly prepared by a coalition of activists that includes Greenpeace and founder of the Wotif website, Graeme Wood, along with international cash donations, is a crystal clear declaration of war that would have amused Sun Tzu because once you know your enemy you can defend, or go one better, counter attack.

What happened, for anyone who has been asleep for the past few days, is that the anti-coal coalition used a visit to the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland by the World Heritage Committee to mount a publicity campaign and start a fund-raising push.

PR stunts included the usual slogan painting and drum beating but the fund raising was different because it included the launch of a campaign called “stopping the Australian coal boom” and is reported to have sprung from an associated campaign aimed at killing the coal seam gas industry.

Banging bongo drums, waving banners and painting slogans on the side of the occasional coal ship is one type of campaign. A full-blooded assault, backed by a proposal to use the courts to “disrupt and delay” projects is entirely different.

Planning to use Australia’s complex and multi-layered legal system is both a comment on how slow-moving the system is, and how effective it can be in jamming up development, or in achieving your objective by legal means.

Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton understand precisely how effective because they have spent the past 10 years (and more) using legal defences to prevent rival iron ore miners gain access to the railway and port systems in WA.

In a way, it might even be argued that under Sun Tzu’s “know your enemy” edict the anti-coal crusaders are taking an example used by their enemy and seeking to apply it to their advantage.

Whatever the starting point of the debate about using the courts to kill the coal industry (and CSG) the publication of the dossier means that influential people will be forced to take sides.

Green Party leader Bob Brown was always going to agree with the coal stopper. He has even offered to make a donation to their cause.

The problem for Senator Brown is that he has publicly hitched himself to a campaign which could soon find itself in court, facing an allegation of abusing the legal process because no matter how cute it might sound the courts take a very dim view of being used for secondary purposes.

Xstrata boss Peter Freyberg gave a hint about how the coal industry might fight back by suggesting that tying up the courts with legal challenges to mine expansion projects could be an abuse of process.

A leading lawyer, Stephen Estcourt, went one step further, telling the Australian Financial Review newspaper that there was a risk that green groups could be found to be interfering with a company’s contractual relationships, adding that “the public disclosure does put them at risk”

Those final words from Estcourt highlight how The Hog sees the dossier and the way in which it has drawn the anti-coal forces into the open, exposed their tactics, and gone a long way to forcing people in government who are sitting on the fence when it comes to coal to declare openly where they stand.

The coal industry’s view of its enemies has just become a lot clearer, and that means a counter-attack will be that much easier.

As Sun Tzu might have said: “let the game commence”

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