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AGL is leading the way in harmful coal pollution

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With sinking coal profits and a position as one of Australia's leading polluters, energy giant AGL is rethinking its business strategy, writes David Ritter.

AGL IS ONE OF Australia’s largest energy companies with a marketing budget to match, so that money can be chucked at everything from sports teams to community festivals. But all of the spin and sponsorship hides a grim truth. In the villainous league of Australia’s worst coal-burning polluters, AGL is the number one offender — literally, the worst of the worst.

AGL makes the single biggest domestic contribution to driving global warming of any Australian business. The company operates some of Australia’s most notorious coal-burning power stations, including the Latrobe Valley’s Loy Yang A and the Hunter Valley’s Liddell Power Station.

And in the Coal Impacts Index published earlier this month, it was again AGL that was at the very rock bottom.

The Coal Impacts Index draws on publicly available but hard to access official government information sources to provide a searchable, user-friendly resource for communities experiencing deadly coal pollution. It looks at a range of health impacts from coal-created air pollution and the pollution record of the major coal power stations.

The health impacts of coal are truly appalling. Not only does coal pollution impact our lungs, but can reach into our brains, our bloodstream and can harm the unborn in the womb, contributing to premature births and lower birth weights. The legacy of reckless coal pollution includes premature babies, asthmatic kids, sick families and struggling senior citizens.

Australia has weaker laws on coal-burning pollution than the EU, the USA and China. But even these unacceptable standards have proven too much for the coal-burning power sector. Analysis of five years of reports on compliance with environmental protection licences from coal-burning power stations in NSW and Victoria shows a total of 145 breaches, with all but one coal power station recording at least two breaches.

The whole coal-burning power sector has a terrible compliance record, but it is AGL that is the most serious culprit, responsible for almost three-quarters of all pollution breaches reported in NSW and Victoria over a five-year period. Air pollution from AGL operated power stations is directly harming people who live and work in the Latrobe Valley and the Hunter — the very communities on which the company depends.

The Coal Impacts Index should raise serious questions for CEO Brett Redman and the Board of AGL and for coal executives and investors around Australia. The very least that every business owes to the people who live within their areas of operation is to follow the law — but all too often, AGL can’t even do that.

If the company is to have any long term future, AGL needs a credible roadmap out of the deadly business of burning coal. Instead, AGL is attempting to stay in the pollution game, planning to run the ageing, unreliable and dirty Loy Yang A coal-burning power station until 2048 — a timeline that is incompatible with the Paris climate goals for limiting dangerous climate change.

Being stuck on coal is also increasingly incompatible with commercial viability, too, with multiple reports in recent weeks describing AGL’s poor business performance. In recent weeks, AGL has written down the value of its production assets by $2.7 billion. The company also posted its interim financial results, which saw a net loss of $2.3 billion for the six months ended December.

In response to these strikingly poor results, AGL has promised shareholders an “urgent strategy rewrite”. The new approach should spell out the company’s expeditious exit from fossil fuels. Any attempt to dig in further with coal would be a total failure to see the writing on the wall.

If AGL wants a future as an energy provider, it is time to shift to cheaper, more reliable sources like solar and wind, backed by battery storage.

All around the country, state governments have made huge clean energy commitments, embracing the cleaner, safer, more prosperous future of renewable energy. It would be bad business, immoral and out of keeping with community expectation for AGL to attempt to stick with the deadly filth of coal pollution.

If AGL really has a ‘passionate belief in progress — human and technological’ as Australia’s biggest domestic climate polluter claims on its website, then the time has come to abandon coal. In 2021, coal is to energy what the slop bucket and dunny cart are to sanitation — stinking, bad for everyone’s health and technologically obsolete.

David Ritter is CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, adjunct professor at Sydney University and an honorary fellow of the Law Faculty at the University of Western Australia. You can follow David Ritter on Twitter @David_Ritter.

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