AGL's Liddell power station and the Turnbull Government's 'clean coal' lies

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announces delaying the closure of Liddell power station in Parliament (screen shot via abc.net.au).

Even AGL recognises its Liddell power station is neither "clean" nor "cheap", but the Coalition Government promotes such lies to preserve its own power over community health, writes Dr David Shearman.

OUR PACIFIC ISLAND neighbours are justifiably anxious about their impending inundation from sea-level rise and they plead with Australia for no new coal-mines.

The proposed extension of life for the Liddell power station was not an auspicious start to the Prime Minister’s meeting with Pacific Island leaders.

Nor would their anxiety be alleviated by the latest rise in Australia’s greenhouse emissions. But his reassurance to them, that his Snowy Mountains Hydro vision would help them, reminds one of the story-book pictures of Cook landing on palm-fringed beaches and offering useless coloured beads and trinkets to bemused natives.

It requires a lot of dedication for the Federal Government to avoid mentioning health. Avoidance is cloaked in the mantra of “coal is clean”, “clean coal”, “coal is good for humanity”, “coal is cheap” – all flying in the face of universally known evidence – and, therefore, fake "facts".

In the case of Liddell, it emitted 31,344 tonnes of sulphur dioxide in 2014-15 — an unacceptable act of pollution. In the atmosphere, sulphur dioxide travels great distances and undergoes chemical reactions to form sulphate particles, one of the components of fine-particle air pollution that has serious consequences for health.

In Sydney alone, pollution traceable to coal-fired power-stations causes 104 premature deaths per year and many more illnesses together with much human suffering. A rough calculation for an additional five years of life for Liddell indicates that this would result in around 80 extra deaths, though these would be reduced if reform of air-quality standards occurs.

So “health” must be voided or the farrago of evasion and untruths will be exposed and the edifice of economic prudence and need for baseload-power crumbles. Coal-fired power is neither cheap nor secure. In a severe heat wave, coal and gas-fired generators suffer "heatstroke" and become insecure and, indeed, energy security is best managed by technologists using a portfolio of several modalities of generation. Experts agree that the term "baseload" for coal is outmoded — its use in this context shows ignorance of the issue.

So, let us use the fact that “coal is bad for humanity” and relate the evidence, for there is plenty from impeccable economic sources.

William Nordhaus, one of the most respected economists in the U.S., found that, at best, coal-fired power generation has no economic value to the community and, at worst, the industry is a huge economic burden.

In 2011, the Nordhaus team studied the effects of six pollutants (sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds, ammonia, particles smaller than 2.5 microns and particles smaller than 10 microns) on human health, agricultural yield, visibility (atmospheric clarity), accelerated depreciation and human recreation. Nordhaus related air-pollution concentrations to human illness and death and estimated the economic loss from there.

Coal-fired power generation was found to produce damage from 0.8 to 5.6 times its value added. In other words, the damage caused is worth 80 per cent of the net value of the industry at best and 5.6 times greater at worst.

These findings have been confirmed by other U.S. economists, but no equivalent study has been commissioned in Australia. One wonders why. Collected evidence suggests the conclusions would be similar. The health costs of pollution in Sydney alone, to which Liddell contributes, are estimated to be $8.4 billion per annum. Much of the pollution in Sydney arises from coal combustion.

These findings have been explained to Australian governments on many occasions and presented in the media but without any response — yet many other developed countries have already acted upon such information.

Perhaps health is sacrificed and suffering is dismissed because health and suffering challenge the continued use of coal and this challenge, alongside the evidence that coal is a major cause of climate change, are not acceptable to our coal-promoting politicians. It seems rejection-of-facts is necessary to preserve power for a divided government rather than provide energy security and health for the community.

We have therefore drawn the analogy to medical negligence when we now have available the technologies without health harms.

It is difficult to observe without a sense of anger, the revolving doors of support, loyalty and false "facts" that spin between the Federal Government, the fossil-fuel industries and a powerful section of the media. This triumvirate of forces has led the Coalition Government into inappropriate invective on banks for not supporting coal development and attacks on renewable energy in defence of its coal-orientated ideology. There is a litany of irrational statements from the Federal Government and their media supporters.

Similarly, external health costs don’t seem to exist. Full cost accounting, which includes externalities as recommended by the Business Council of Australia, is, apparently, inappropriate for energy accounting. In contrast, we all know that health externalities are paid for by taxpayers in dollars for health services and by patients in suffering.

Interestingly, avoidance of health evidence has pervaded much of Australian thinking.

The Finkel Review had little on health despite its relevance being spelt out in a detailed submission from Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Many economists reside in silos, seemingly oblivious to impacts outside a budget — as shown by Frank Jotzo writing in The Conversation.

Humanity presently faces many threatening problems and the record of Parliament on energy-climate instils little confidence that they will be addressed. The stability of the world – and therefore humanity – is under threat, not only from climate change, but also from a host of interacting factors ranging from population growth, pollution of the land air and seas, food security, consumption of arable land, loss of ecological services to support food production and provide water resources and a rapid rise in environmental refugees.

These are complex issues, which each one of us struggles to understand but, collectively, governments, media and business have an obligation to understand the issues and explain them to the public as well as promote necessary action. To do this, the body politic must reform and educate itself or, increasingly, governance will be discredited and democratic process will founder. It is vital that the energy-climate debacle of the past decade be recognised, lessons learned and a rational, bipartisan approach be initiated.

Dr David Shearman AM is Honorary Secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia and Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Adelaide.

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