Old King Coal


When The Canberra Times revealed in February that a report by CSIRO scientists questioning the cost and efficiency of clean coal technology had been suppressed because it was not in the best interests of the coal industry, it confirmed what many scientists had long suspected that when it comes to CSIRO energy research, the coal industry is King.

‘The reality is that the research of most of the CSIRO is completely distorted,’ says Dr Mark Diesendorf, a senior lecturer at the University of NSW’s Institute of Environmental Science, and a former CSIRO scientist.

Those in the know have described the report as the ‘smoking gun’ of a debate that has seen the CSIRO accused of kowtowing to the fossil fuel industry, derailing valuable renewable energy research in favour of so-called ‘clean coal’.

At its heart the CSIRO is still a public research institution, funded by taxpayers and commissioned to research for the public good. The organisation is to receive a record $2.8 billion over the next four years an increase of almost 20 per cent from the previous four years.

But increasingly, sections of the CSIRO are being forced to generate a significant percentage of their funding from industry.

When a Senate Estimates Committee questioned CSIRO Energy Technology Chief Dr David Brockway over the suppressed report, he admitted it was ‘not necessarily unusual’ for such reports to be withheld from public release.

‘Some reports are maintained for the [industry]partners alone,’ he said at the hearing. He argued that when industry bodies had contributed to the cost of research it was CSIRO policy that the results be considered intellectual property.

Funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Coal in Sustainable Development (CCSD), the report raised questions about a new method of carbon capture being tested by the CSIRO, claiming it was ‘seriously limited by problems’ and ‘unlikely to be favored commercially.’

Dated October 2006, the report was publicly released soon after the Senate hearing in February this year.

The CCSD has 19 funding partners including Australian Coal Research, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto Energy and Wesfarmers Premium Coal. All are members of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network (AIGN), a highly influential group of fossil fuel businesses and associations who represent the interests of the fossil fuel lobby.

As coal industry influence has increased within the CSIRO, it appears to have been at the expense of renewable energy research.

During the 1980s, the CSIRO were world leaders in renewable energy research such as solar thermal, wind and bio-energy technologies.

But in early 2006, Chief Executive Geoff Garrett announced that the CSIRO would be scaling back its renewable energy research in favour of clean coal technologies such as coal gasification, post-consumption carbon capture and sequestration.

Just months later, a draft copy of an August 2005 CSIRO report, which described solar thermal technology as ‘the only renewable technology that can make deep cuts in greenhouse emissions’ was leaked to The Canberra Times. Before the leak, sources claimed the report had been ‘passed around like a political hot potato’ with no date set for its release. It was eventually released to the public later that year.

More recently, in May, Dr Diesendorf and his colleague accused the CSIRO of using push polling tactics to undermine public confidence in solar energy, during a survey commissioned by the NSW Minerals Council and the Australian Coal Association. The survey was intended to evaluate public perceptions and support for low greenhouse gas emission technologies such as solar, nuclear and clean coal. But Dr Diesendorf believes that the survey questions were deliberately formulated to create the impression that the environmental and human costs of solar and wind technologies were equivalent to those of fossil fuels.

He said to do so was ‘laughable’. ‘The whole [survey]was completely misleading and dishonest.’

Over the 2005-2006 financial year, just over 16 per cent of all CSIRO energy funding was spent on clean coal research and development compared to 14 per cent for renewables. This was a difference of almost two million dollars.

But the CSIRO are not entirely to blame and in fact all those interviewed were quick to point out that the CSIRO was between a rock and a hard place in terms of funding. Last year, federal funding of scientific research and development was at its lowest level in 25 years, and according to the CSIRO Staff Association, even this year’s record $2.8 billion record will increase baseline funding by less than two per cent.

Starved of government funds, the CSIRO has been forced to ‘partner or perish’ and to court industry in order to cover costs. The coal industry has happily complied.

Of the 16 per cent spent on clean coal research last year, over a third was contributed by fossil fuel businesses through research partnerships such as the CCSD and the Centre for Low Emissions Technology in Queensland. (The Centre includes among its industry partners Australian Coal Research and power plant operators Stanwell Corporation and Tarong Energy.)

Including the CCSD, the CSIRO currently participates in three Cooperative Research Centres for coal or fossil fuels as well as their own Energy Transformed Flagship, a national research partnership dedicated to developing low emission technologies.

Given that industry often has a clearer idea of the costs and applications of research, it seems logical that they should have some say in the development of a national research agenda. But what is worrying is that these same industries and the people behind them also dominate the CSIRO.

Chairman of the CCSD, Russell Higgins, is also Chairman of the CSIRO Energy Transformed Advisory Committee and the director of the Australian Pipeline Trust, which transports almost 40 per cent of Australia’s natural gas. He is also a former secretary of the Department of Industry.

The Chair of Port Waratah Coal Services, Eileen Doyle, is on the CSIRO board. Until earlier this year, another member was former head of BHP’s petroleum division, Peter Wilcox.

Members of the Australian Greenhouse Network also litter the Energy and Transport sector advisory council, the committee responsible for determining the research agenda of the Energy Technology division.

Currently four out of the ten members of the council, including the chair, are from the fossil fuel industries, including the Energy Supply Association of Australia (ESAA), Chevron, Loy Yang Power and the Australian Coal Association (ACA). Of particular note are Ian Nethercote, Chief Executive of Loy Yang Power, the second-largest coal-fired power station in Australia and chairman of the ESAA, and Mark O’Neill, Executive Director of the ACA.

Both were recently identified by former Howard Government advisor and whistleblower Guy Pearse in his book High and Dry as being members of the ‘Greenhouse Mafia,’ a group of fossil fuel lobbyists with a disproportionate amount of influence over Federal greenhouse policy.

‘You see it everywhere you look’ says Pearse of the Greenhouse Mafia’s influence on climate change policy.

Overrepresented in government advisory committees, lobby groups and research programs, Pearse argues that it is their presence in, or connection to, company boards and think tanks that has allowed members of the Greenhouse Mafia to infiltrate every source of scientific, economic and political greenhouse advice available, with the sole intention of protecting fossil fuel interests at all costs. And it would seem that the CSIRO is no exception.

But despite these allegations, Dr Brockway maintains that the CSIRO is an independent organisation, and that industry partnerships facilitate better practical outcomes. ‘The benefit of involving industry in [these]projects is that they provide a pathway to aid the adoption of new technologies [such as carbon capture],’ he said.

But the result, says Professor Philip Jennings, a professor of Energy Studies at Murdoch University, has been the creation of a ‘climate of fear’ among scientists at the CSIRO.

Jennings says he has been told countless times by scientists at the CSIRO of the constant pressures of working in such a demanding and highly regulated atmosphere.

‘They are working in an environment where they have to be extremely politically correct and have to do what their political masters want and what the coal industry wants because basically they are their biggest sponsors’ he said.

Reliance on coal industry funding has meant more pressure for scientists to align their research interests with those of industry, and to withhold any conflicting results.

‘[They] have to be so careful about what they say and even what they research for fear of offending their funding agencies’ he said.

These fears are well founded. In February last year, ABC TV’s Four Corners broadcast claims by several leading climate change researchers that they had been censored and ‘gagged’ from commenting publicly on climate change policy.

The effect of these industry demands on scientists is something that Dr Ian Smith well understands. The former Assistant Chief of the Coal and Energy Technology division (now the Energy Technology division) of the CSIRO says it was the constant pressure of this industry influence, and the burdens it placed on scientists to produce commercial rather than fundamental science, that drove him to take early retirement in 1995 after more than 30 years with the organisation.

‘I got to the situation where my main effort was to secure funding [and]to deal with the internal and external politics this created, and over time it just became less and less rewarding’ he said.

By the time he left the CSIRO, he estimates that the proportion of divisional funding that came from industry was about 40 per cent.

‘It doesn’t seem like much, but you spent much of the [other time]doing background work, writing research applications, attending to politics and so on, so much of the other 60 per cent money and time still went to supporting [industry]’ he said.

The constant pressure to secure funding and commercialise research meant competition for resources was intense and political tensions were common. The short-term nature of these commercial projects forced many experienced scientists to leave once their contracts expired. This high level of turnover continues today. In a May 2006 article in The Australian, it was estimated that over 500 staff have left since 2001, and most of the divisional chiefs in place at the time have since quit or retired early.

But what Dr Smith says he regrets most is the detrimental effect this industry funding has had on what he terms the ‘underlying yeast of science’. As core government funding has faltered, basic science for the public good has been sidelined and replaced with industry projects with purely commercial applications. As fundamental science has declined, so it seems that scientific independence has been compromised in favour of applied science done for the benefit of private industry.

‘The problem we have is that if you put a CSIRO stamp on something, the public takes away the impression that [the results]are somehow objective and independent, and this is just no longer the case’ says Pearse.

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