Opinion: What do Labor’s denialists know that the world’s biggest energy companies don’t?

By Bernard Keane

Monday November 16, 2020

Joel Fitzgibbon (Image: AAP)

Last week should have been a target-rich environment for Labor.

There was the government’s reluctance to say anything about Trump’s attempted coup.

There was Four Corners‘ exposure of Alan Tudge and Christian Porter, and David Crowe’s revelation of Rachelle Miller’s complaints about Tudge and Michaelia Cash.

There was Morrison’s slashing of the JobSeeker supplement. And the AFP Association delivering a ferocious assault to Christian Porter’s joke of an integrity body, pointing out there was one much tougher rule for police and one much softer rule for politicians.

Instead, Joel Fitzgibbon made sure the whole week was about him and his slightly premature departure from the Labor frontbench, over Anthony Albanese, and the bulk of the party, getting sick of his constant disruption in the interests of fossil fuel companies.

It even managed to set leadership hares running — something admittedly not difficult for a press gallery that will take personalities over policies, and a leadership yarn over the climate crisis, every single time.

But political journalists aren’t making up Fitzgibbon’s behaviour, nor that of some Labor MPs who have also bought the fossil fuel company line, nor that of union opponents of effective climate action, the mining divisions of the CFMEU and the AWU.

As the Liberals demonstrated before the last election, profound divisions and leadership spills are no impediment to holding office. But the sabotage of what under virtually any other circumstances should have been a strong week for Labor augurs ill for a party that must work in the political shadow of the pandemic, and a government spending a quarter of a trillion dollars in economic pump priming.

What’s all the more extraordinary are the small stakes at play in this issue. This is not a great brawl over industry policy and the role and form of industrial protectionism. This is a brawl over an issue that has already been decided, by the industry itself.

Thermal coal is in its death throes, here and elsewhere. Not a week, sometimes not even a day, goes by without further evidence that thermal coal has little present and no future.

Just this week, Appalachian coal major Contura Energy — itself the product of a bankrupt predecessor — paid another company $50 million to take its Cumberland mine in Pennsylvania off its hands, along with the massive reclamation costs that come with it.

Reclamation costs are going to be a huge issue as we work through the death of thermal coal — large companies will be eager to be rid of the costs of restoring landscapes mutilated by, in many cases, decades of mining, and may look to bankruptcy as a mechanism to hand the costs off to taxpayers.

US coal giant Peabody, which operates in the Hunter Valley, has already flagged it may re-enter bankruptcy given its $1.6 billion debt.

Meanwhile, Siemens Energy and Toshiba have both announced they are abandoning the production of coal-fired generators — not merely in response to investor pressure but the reality of a diminishing market for coal-fired plants. Toshiba instead is ploughing hundreds of trillions of yen into renewable energy.

That investment reflects one of the core falsehoods peddled by opponents of climate action on both sides of politics — that it’s either jobs or effective climate action. As the massive increase in renewables investment demonstrates, energy is an enormous opportunity for “jobs and growth”.

Smart politicians, like NSW Liberal Matt Kean, get that it’s less about the death of thermal coal and more about the birth of a renewables-dominated energy market.

Dumb politicians and union leaders spit the dummy — and hand the climate denialists on the other side of politics a win.

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