The Coal Truth

If all the coal in the Galilee Basin were burned, it would make it just about impossible to stabilize the global climate. Most attention has been focused on the Adani Group’s proposal for an integrated mine-rail-port project to develop its proposed Carmichael mine. There are however a string of would-be followers, including GVK Hancock and Clive Palmer.

The good news is that Adani’s March deadline for financial close, itself a deferral of earlier promises, has passed with no sign of anyone willing to finance the proposal. Even the Abbot Point terminal, which has long-term take-or-pay contracts with existing coal mines, is struggling to refinance its debt.

But there’s no room for complacency.
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Grattan unreliable on electricity networks

The Grattan Institute has just released a report blaming high electricity network costs on public ownership and excessive reliability standards. I commented on a draft of the report, but there wasn’t much change in relation to my comments.

My comments are over the fold. Let me offer the following, slightly ad hominem argument. Grattan has backed the National Energy Guarantee, a radical change in Australia’s energy policy, which was justified mainly by the occurrence of a single blackout in Adelaide. Yet it asserts (without any evidence I can see) that the responses to earlier blackouts in Queensland and NSW represent unjustified “gold plating”.

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Adani: Put up or pack up

That’s my suggestion for the way Bill Shorten can resolve his continuing problems over the Adani Carmichael mine-port-rail project. To spell it out, he should set a deadline (say June 30) for Adani to achieve financial close for the entire project, and commence construction. If the deadline isn’t met, Labor should oppose the project outright. This is only a marginal variant on the position of leading Adani supporter, Jenny Hill, who suggested a six month deadline in February. So, it gives plenty of cover for those who have supported Adani to fall into line.

The big risk is that Adani will somehow come up with the money to fund the project. As Tim Buckley has pointed out, Gautam Adani is, on paper, rich enough to pay for it out of his own personal wealth, but he shows no sign of doing so. The basic problem is that, while India may not achieve its stated goal of eliminating coal imports, the long term trend is clearly down. That’s only going to accelerate with the shift to renewables, in which Adani itself is a major player. While Mr Adani would rather keep the Carmichael project alive on life support, he’s unlikely to risk his own fortune on such a marginal project.

The end of Adani’s project will entail the end of the whole idea of developing the Galilee Basin. None of the other potential mines have any chance of starting if Adani fails. That leaves open the broader question of a moratorium on new coal mines, which Labor will need to address sooner or later. But the threat posed by the Galilee Basin coal is so great that it’s worth an inelegant compromise.

No new coal mines

It’s just been announced that Aurizon is not pursuing its application to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to build a rail line to the Galilee Basin, essentially because the company hasn’t been able to secure any commitments from putative customers (most obviously Adani and GVK Hancock but also Clive Palmer and others). This is great news. It’s now highly unlikely that coal mining in the Galilee Basin will go ahead any time soon.

Opening the Galilee Basin would have been a huge disaster, so it made attention to focus attention on Adani, as the leading proponent, and secondarily on Aurizon and GVK Hancock. But, with this threat apparently staved off, a more comprehensive policy is needed.

Fortunately, we already have one. The Australia Institute has, for some time, been proposing a moratorium on new coal mines. That allows for a gradual winding down of the industry and gives more protection to existing jobs than there would be if new, competing, mines were allowed to open.

Politically, there’s a precedent, with Labor’s “three mines” policy on uranium. That was a fudge, of course, but it was clearly within the export power of the Commonwealth and it didn’t create any big problems with sovereign risk.

Decarbonizing the economy is easy and cheap

Since I wrote my post on good climate news for 2017, a couple of news items have caught my eye

* Britain now generates twice as much electricity from wind as from coal, and around 30 per cent from renewables in total
* More than half the vehicles sold in Norway are now electric or plug in hybrid

My thoughts on these examples over the fold:

TL;DR version: These examples show that, at least for developed countries, massive reductions in CO2 emissions are feasible right now, with no discernible effect on living standards.

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Why “extremely unlikely” climate events matter

I’ve just been advised that my latest article “The importance of ‘extremely unlikely’ events: Tail risk and the costs of climate change” has come out online in The Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics. For those who can use it, the DOI is 10.1111/1467-8489.12238. For everyone else, here’s a link to a pre-publication version. The main points are

* The IPCC convention is to use the phrase “extremely unlikely” to refer to outcomes (in particular, values of climate sensitivity) in the range of 0–5 per cent.
* Most of the risks against which we act to protect and insure ourselves (for example, car crashes, premature death in any given year) are “extremely unlikely” by this definition
* Around half, or even more, of the expected welfare loss from climate change arises from the worst-case 5 per cent of high values for climate sensitivity.

Nothing really startling here, but it’s the other side of the coin to the contrarian suggestion that since there’s a 5 per cent probability that global warming will turn out not to be a problem, we should do nothing.