Coal: brown or black – depending on the type – stuff from the ground that New Zealanders have a love/hate relationship with. Without it thousands of jobs would go or have to change, but is the environmental cost worth it?
The coal trains that rumble down the West Coast railway line from a host of mines on the West Coast heading for Lyttelton carry an impressive tonnage of coal. Each wagon can take 43 tons of coal, and there might be up to 50 on a single train. The yard in Lyttelton where they empty their loads for transport to China or Japan is just as impressive. But I wonder some days how well we know the cost of our coal?
I will start with the environmental cost. This might seem blatantly obvious, but it is not entirely so. We talk about the horrendous effects that open cast mining will have on the landscape and it is true there are few things more unsightly than an open cast mine. It is true it is hugely damaging for the local ecosystem, contributes to atmospheric pollution and is also blamed for a significant contribution to the green house gas emissions that are being linked to climate change. Regardless of ones opinion on climate change there are other problems arising from the obsession with coal that need urgent attention. One of these is the acidification of the ocean, which if left to continue will have profound effects across the entire marine ecosystem. This is a problem perhaps more urgent since conclusive evidence is already coming out of its occurrence.
Now, let me be clear. It would be great if we could get ourselves off coal and and we as a nation and the world at large both certainly need to reduce our emissions from carbon based fuels considerably – climate change or not. However, in New Zealand the one large coal fired power station that we have at Huntly produces about 9% of New Zealand’s total electricity generation. Its coal comes from local sources. Not far away is another power station, the mothballed Meremere power station, which also ran on coal. Aside from needing to help the town of Huntly survive – it suffered when Meremere was mothballed because of asbestos and other occupational safety and health issues – we need to be prepared to make an investment in alternative energy that as yet no New Zealand Government has been willing to.
Then there is the social cost. The loss of appetite in China for coal is biting deeply into the West Coast of New Zealand which has traditionally been a province of extraction industries such as logging and mining. The disaster at Pike River where 29 miners died when the mine exploded, combined with the slowing global economy has left a bitter taste in the mouths of Coasters. Although the Government has said it would implement most of the Pike River findings, the fact that a Mines Inspectorate has not yet been created, the fact that 29 bodies – if there was even that left behind – are still in the mine raises questions for a community that needs closure, but cannot get it until the remains of the dead come home.
Coal will be around for awhile longer yet. It is an uncomfortable fact that even if New Zealand were to go completely clear, the rapid growth in Indian and Chinese emissions would quickly erode any meaningful gains made from cleaning ourselves up. Perhaps climate change is not the appropriate approach to the conversation that needs to be had about coal. I can see a day before climate change becomes a catastrophic issue when other environmental and social considerations will take precedent.
Before then quite a few more coal trains will rumble down the railway line to Lyttelton.