Things that make you go "wow"

MONEY and coal always make a funny mix and while not as incompatible as oil and water there have been events over the past week that have caused Hogsback to pause, take a deep breath, and say “wow!”

Tim Treadgold

The biggest “wow” moment, oddly enough related to a proposal developed in Norway, a country rarely associated with coal. A plan has been hatched there to make money from coal in a most unusual way – by leaving it in the ground.

Other money-and-coal incidents were closer to home and involved a mix of politics, economics and the law. Here those three elements have been drawn together by a common thread – the love-hate emotions that go with coal mining.

Norway first because it is the real surprise event in this grab bag of coal-related matters.

What a Norwegian economist has proposed, in a paper that won him a $US15,000 prize, is for rich countries to buy coal assets around the world and then lock them away, refusing to mine the coal in the name of lowering carbon emissions.

University of Oslo researcher Brad Harstad won the prize from the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists for a paper titled Buy coal! A case for supply-side environmental policy.

For anyone who thinks this sounds like an odd proposal, or who suspects Hogsback of smoking something excessively aromatic here is a link to what Harstad has proposed

For readers who cannot be bothered with a research paper that stretches economic credibility to the limit here’s a synopsis:

  • rich countries concerned about carbon dioxide emissions should try a different approach to finding a solution as government policies such as those advocated at United Nations climate change forums have not worked
  • rather than trying to limit demand for fossil fuels by pushing up prices, the concerned rich countries should buy the fossil fuels, such a coal and tar sands, at the source and refuse to mine the material
  • by withdrawing coal and other fossil fuels from the market consumers will be encouraged to use low-carbon alternatives

For originality Harstad deserves a compliment. He also perhaps deserves a second prize for one of the most impractical suggestions floated since Edward de Bono, the man behind the concept of lateral thinking, suggestions using Marmite as a way to solve troubles in the Middle East.

That fabulously off-the-wall idea was based on a theory that people in Arab countries ate unleavened bread which is low in zinc and a zinc deficiency makes people aggressive. Marmite, and the Australian equivalent, Vegemite, a full of zinc so (he really did say this) a higher intake of the stuff would calm stroppy Arabs.

The next unfortunate money-and-coal moment was the charging of anti-coal protestor Jonathan Moylan with a breach of the Corporations Act.

Moylan undoubtedly did a damned stupid thing in January when he filed a false report at the stock exchange claiming banks had withdrawn their support for Whitehaven Coal. That report triggered a temporary run on the stock.

Most people in the coal industry would prefer the matter be forgotten. They do not want to see Moylan become a martyr for anti-coal crusaders, which is what will happen if he receives even a fraction of the potential 10-year jail sentence hanging over his head for what was actually a daft, but rather clever stunt.

The third money-and-coal moment came with the return of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister and his selection of Mark Butler as Environment Minister.

Almost unknown outside the inner circles of Labor Party politics, and the union movement where he was an official for 15 years until his election to Parliament in 2007, Butler is the man who will make all final decision on all matters relating to coal and the environment.

First cab off that rank was a request that he sign off on the final approval for Whitehaven’s Maules Creek project. This development has spent the past three years trapped inside the perpetual motion machine of the state and federal approvals process.

Until yesterday, Hogsback had expected Butler to baulk at making his first job as Environment Minister the granting of approval for what has been a politically controversial coal mine, especially as there is another document on his desk called “Labor election strategy 2013”

By approving Maules Creek, presumably with the blessing of his boss, the recycled Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, Butler has thumbed his nose at the environmental lobby and given the coal business a much-needed boost.

Hopefully, it is an example of Butler displaying his trade union background and recognising that his decisions are as much about protecting jobs of average workers as they are about recognising the importance of the coal industry to the Australian economy.

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