Port Augusta, coal-fired power and the Xenophon deal

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Nick Xenophon and George Brandis (image by Adam Kennedy via

Port Augusta's plight has been known for years but the Coalition has made no plans to transition from coal-fired to renewable energy, writes Dr David Shearman.

IT IS SURELY a reflection on our broken political system and lack of energy policy that a Senate deal to approve tax relief for business was needed to bring hope to the unemployed of Port Augusta, which closed its coal-fired power station in 2016.

Closures are an issue of great concern to the medical profession and need immediate national attention.

The deal for Port Augusta was a $110m loan at three per cent to be provided for concentrated solar thermal energy, presumably by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and therefore likely to replace existing national projects.

The needs of Port Augusta have been fully known for six years, when the poor health of the community due to air pollution was highlighted in a proposal for transition to concentrated solar thermal (CST) power. This was a regional town where the coal-fired power station was a major employer and which had already suffered from the loss of railway employment.

So what Government plans have been made for the Port Augusta transition from coal-fired to renewable energy? There are none.

This indictment applies to all coal-fired power stations — an issue investigated recently by the Senate Committee where a dissenting Coalition report was produced.

In the 'Coalition Senators' Interim Dissenting Report', it is stated:

'The Coalition Senators recognise that the energy sector is essential to Australian's wellbeing and standard of living, and plays a pivotal role in Australia's ongoing prosperity.'

Yet this opening statement must be one of the most negative in Senate history and is followed with:

'The Coalition Senators do not support the recommendations contained in the final report. The majority report does not adequately or fairly reflect the evidence presented to the committee. Further, the Coalition Senators object to the ideologically driven conclusions which are counter to the Government's technology agnostic policy approach.'

Certainly, the government has an agnostic policy approach — it doesn’t have an energy policy and this statement is an affront to medical and social needs.

The human health recommendations in the report, which were rejected by the Coalition, were:

  • an independent assessment of the health impacts of coal-fired power stations;
  • a load-based licencing arrangement for coal-fired power stations that reflect the health impacts;
  • compliance with existing standards for air quality especially in the Hunter and Latrobe; and
  • a more rigorous assessment of power station emissions.

This rejection is an agnostic approach to responsibility. A significant proportion of the 3,000 deaths per annum are from air pollution caused by coal-fired power. These together with thousands with cardio-respiratory illnesses result in large health costs to the nation. The closure also confers poor health outcomes on unemployed workers and their families.

The medical history and closure of the Port Augusta power stations were detailed in an appendix to Doctors for the Environment Australia's (DEA) submission to the Senate Committee and evidence on the health implications of coal-fired power were detailed in Chapter 2 of the final report.

The Coalition has not taken on board the medical lessons learned from Port Augusta after appraisals by the community's health and medical organisations, namely an increase in lung cancer and an incidence of childhood asthma twice that of other regional communities. A community alliance of all groups, including business, unions and council was developed to work for the future. Input was sought from renewable energy experts and included relevant climate research on solar and wind solutions.

Many coal-fired power plants are reaching the end of their lifespans and are going to close rather than be refurbished. There is no national plan as to how this will be managed, in particular how social impacts can be mitigated and how upgrading energy infrastructure will be coordinated. The decision is ad hoc and largely at the discretion of private owners, therefore the timing is very uncertain. We need to have a plan or framework, backed up with regulations, to guide this transition, and it must run parallel with and be modifiable to current and future climate targets.

Illness, death and suffering from coal-fired power stations are preventable, and the medical profession is concerned and distressed by government indifference. Even the Coalition's support for compliance with existing air quality standards would have signified some degree of understanding and commitment.

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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