Sharing Responsibility

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I’ve been an environmental campaigner for many years and have long had reservations about the wisdom of continuing to rely on coal for energy when the destructive effects of doing so are well-understood, and when there are so many preferable alternatives. To my mind, the coal mining industry is hard-pressed to justify its continued existence, let alone expansion.

So you can imagine my horror then when I inherited some shares in the Australian coal mining company Centennial Coal.

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Just before I acquired the shares, I had read about a courageous activist, Peter Gray, who was taking the Minister and Director-General of the NSW Planning Department to court in order to challenge the Environmental Assessment Impact Statement for the proposed Anvil Hill coal mine in the Hunter Valley.

‘Centennial Coal?’ That name looked familiar. ‘Oh no,’ I groaned, as recognition dawned that they were the owners of Anvil Hill. I wanted to sell the shares, but first, perhaps I could agitate for change from my unique position as a shareholder.

Soon after, I received a letter from Centennial’s Managing Director urging shareholders to write in support of the Anvil Hill project to the Department of Planning, which was still accepting submissions on the project. ‘Your support will both assist Centennial and ensure a sustainable coal industry,’ he wrote.

I did write a letter to the NSW Planning Department as a shareholder, but argued that the Anvil Hill project be scrapped because of the greenhouse contribution of burning coal. I felt that Australia should be starting to reduce its dependence on coal, whether for local use or export. I sent a copy of my objection to the Managing Director, saying that I meant him no disrespect, but that my letter was probably not what he had in mind. I urged him to steer ‘our’ company on a more ethical and socially and environmentally responsible course.

To emphasise my point, in November I embarked on a pilgrimage to Centennial Coal’s Annual General Meeting in Sydney. I donned a dull grey suit and jewelry, courtesy of my local op shop, and the most excruciatingly painful semi-high heeled shoes. I envied the comfortable clothing of the colourful crowd of protesters gathered outside the Menzies Hotel in Carrington Street.

‘Do you have children?’ one young woman asked.

‘Yes, I do,’ I said.

‘Well, what do they think about climate change?’ she asked.

‘They’re very worried about it, and so am I,’ I answered.

‘Well, what are you doing with shares in this company?’ she asked, perplexed.

‘Good question,’ I answered, ‘I can’t tell you now, but you can be sure I’ll pass on your concerns at the meeting.’

Once inside, I was directed to a downstairs room. Not long after, the Chairman began his welcoming speech, there was a noisy ruckus coming from a side exit. Lots of demonstrators wearing ‘Save Anvil Hill’ T-shirts had broken into the room. One demonstrator grabbed the microphone, and began reading from the Stern Report. Two people held a banner in front of the projection screen, to good effect. Another protestor filmed the shareholders.

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There was a lot of booing and hooting from the shareholders, particularly from those in the front. Security personnel hustled most of the demonstrators out, but one man was tackled roughly to the floor. I got up from my chair and stood near him. Another woman and I complained about the level of brutality. ‘Get those thugs out of here,’ I finally shouted to the Chairman, indicating the security people. Some people shouted at me: ‘They are plain-clothed police!’

I shouted back ‘Well get them out. This is a private meeting!’ People laughed.

After many chaotic and some funny incidents, the meeting was restored to order. The Chairman and Managing Director presented PowerPoint slides and graphs with lots of information about production, sales and profit. They glossed over the environmental impacts of the proposed Anvil Hill mine, saying coal produced there will result in a negligible (less than 1 per cent) contribution to global greenhouse gas which seemed to me to be quite a lot.

I then asked my question:

Mr Chairman, I’ve been paying attention to your address today, and it seems that going by the amount of time devoted to the issues of the social and environmental impact of CO2 released from burning coal, I would have to say that they look like low priorities for you. I am a would-be ethical investor. I believe we are now in the grip of global warming, and that scientists are in agreement that it is man-made. How can your company continue to attract my investment?

Also, what measures have you put in place to protect the company from future civil action based on the company’s contribution to greenhouse gas-induced climate change? I understand that litigation over such matters has already taken place overseas.

The Chairman replied, ‘Well, if you’ve invested in coal that is the business we’re in. You must have known what you were getting into.’ He then wondered aloud: ‘Now, global warming: is that a natural phenomenon, or does it result from man’s activities?’

I recalled a letter sent by a representative of the UK’s esteemed national academy of science, the Royal Society, to oil company ExxonMobil, taking it to task for funding groups that deny the human role in global warning.

The Chairman denied that the need to reduce greenhouse gases was given a low priority, pointing out that Centennial Coal contributes funding to an industry body that is researching carbon geo-sequestration and ‘other things’ to satisfy not just shareholders, but customers as well.

What he didn’t say was that, according to the World Coal Institute, the technology to capture and store carbon pollution from a coal-fired power station on a large scale will be operating at only a handful of sites around the world in 14 years time. Right now, the efficacy of such projects is unknown. Coal from Anvil Hill mine will be exhausted in 21 years time, so it would only be able to make use of the technology, assuming it is successful, for the last few years of its life.

The Chairman didn’t answer my question about litigation straight away, but remembered later. He said it was hard to see how the company could be sued. ‘We are fully complying with the law. Unless a law is made retrospective, that is which is unlikely. I don’t know of any court anywhere that has upheld that sort of legal challenge.’

Another shareholder questioned the action (by Peter Gray) in the NSW Land and Environment Court, wondering if it would either stop the Anvil Hill project altogether, or impose conditions that would reduce the mine’s profitability. The Chairman replied that a decision was imminent, and that he was totally convinced the court would decide in favour of the company.

However, the landmark decision handed down by Justice Nicola Pain a few days after the meeting proved him wrong. Her decision said the climate-change impacts of new industries, including burning coal extracted from NSW mines, (and specifically, the Anvil Hill mine) would have to be considered by the State Government. The NSW Government has announced it will not appeal the decision.

As I left the meeting, an elderly couple approached me, thanking me for my questions, and admitting that their concern about global warming was making them rethink their investment in Centennial Coal.

The way that public opinion is going, I would say that Centennial and other Australian coal mining companies will soon be forced to re-think too, but they might need a lot of encouragement before they adopt a truly responsible position.

New Matilda

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