The big yellow grader, one last time

Adani is getting on with the job of building its Carmichael coal mine as opponents prepare for a renewed campaign of protests.

That’s the lead in this SMH story about the Carmichael mine. But the picture released is the same yellow grader that’s been there for months.

This is a puzzle. On the one hand, Adani’s pronouncements exude confidence that the mine will be shipping coal within a couple of years. That was reinforced in a recent interview with Gautam Adani himself.

On the other hand, the company is showing no signs of urgency about getting to work. They’ve advertised only four jobs on their portal this month, after cutting lots of staff last year. And there’s been no announcement regarding contractors, consulting engineers and so forth, even though all their previous partners have either been sacked or walked away.

Given the subsidies Adani has recieved in India, the project might just be financially viable. But if so, why isn’t the corporation rushing to get it done while the political stars are aligned.

Adani again

In pointing out that Adani’s Carmichael mine wasn’t viable without government help, I focused on the possibility of a concessional loan from Australia’s Export Finance Insurance Corporation. As commenters have pointed out, Adani (a prominent crony of Indian PM Modi) looks like being able to charge above-market prices for electricity in India. I’m not clear whether this helps much to make the Carmichael project viable. Over the fold, an exchange I had with Charles Worringham.

In other news, it seems likely that Adani will move fairly slowly even after the environmental clearances come through. They’ve announced on their Facebook page that they are filling “more than 50” positions for pre-project work, and there are a dozen or so HQ jobs listed on their jobs portal. That’s a long way short of their announcements in January that they were ready to start digging the moment they got the go-ahead.

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Explaining Adani: why would a billionaire persist with a mine that will probably lose money?

That’s the title of my latest piece in The Conversation, republished on the ABC website. Possible answers

So what could be going on? Perhaps Gautam Adani is willing to lose a large share of his wealth simply to show he can’t be pushed around. Alternatively, as on numerous previous occasions, his promises of an imminent start to work may prove to be baseless.
The third, and most worrying, possibility is that the political pressure to deliver the promised Adani jobs will lead to a large infusion of public money, all of which will be lost.
The $900 million Adani sought from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility in 2017 would be enough to keep the project going for a couple of years, without the need for Mr Adani to risk his own money. It now appears that a similar sum might be sought from the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation.

Australia isn’t doing its part for the global climate …

… Sooner or later we’ll have to pay our share. That’s the headline for my latest piece in The Guardian. The more important message is in the “standfirst” text that runs before the article proper.

The cost of responding to climate change is trivial compared with the benefits

To spell this out, here are the concluding paras of the article

The good news is that the cost of an emergency response, while large compared with an efficient policy, will be very small in relation to an economy with an annual output, by 2030, of $2tn a year or more. To see this, we can turn to the estimates prepared for the government’s election campaign by Brian Fisher of BAEconomics.

These worst-case numbers, higher than the costs of the most radical emergency measures, amount to around $50bn a year, or 2.5% to 3% of national income. That’s a lot of money – like adding a new program on the scale of the NBN or the submarine contract every year for five to 10 years.

At the same time, it’s small enough that it would barely be noticed against the background of the general fluctuations in the economy. The average household has lost far more from the wage stagnation of the last decade. As far as the government budget is concerned, the likely impact is comparable to that of increasing health expenditures arising from our increased life expectancy and the development of new treatments.

More importantly, the cost of an emergency response to climate change is trivial compared with the benefits of stabilising the global climate at a level that is livable for humans and the natural environment. We are currently shirking our contribution to this global public good, and free riding on the efforts of others. But sooner or later we will have to pay our share.

Coal finance drying up, one country at a time

In the wake of last Saturday’s defeat, it’s important to remember that Australian politics is just one of many fronts in the struggle to stabilize the global climate and, in particular, to decarbonize electricity supply as rapidly as possible.

An important step in this process has been the push for financial institutions of all kinds: banks (public and private), pension funds, insurers and insurance brokers, corporate financial advisors and so on, to break with fossil fuels, starting with coal-fired electricity and thermal coal.

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Adani’s moment of truth

The political campaign against Adani’s Carmichael mine has failed. That’s a big shift from the last Queensland state election, where the state government gained support in the south-east and held on to it in North Queensland. Obviously, Bob Brown’s convoy was counter-productive, perhaps disastrously so, and this failure will undermine any future direct action campaign in the region.

Given the election outcome, the approvals made by the Federal government will stay in place, and the Queensland state government is under immense (I would judge irresistible) pressure to expedite the remaining processes.

But we have been here before. Most of the approvals[1] needed to begin work were completed in 2016, at a time when both the Queensland and Federal governments were highly supportive (Anna Palaszczuk cut the ribbon at the opening of Adani’s Townsville regional HQ in 2017). At the time, I wrote

In summary, we appear likely to find out what happens when a dog catches the car it has been chasing. Adani and its backers have been denouncing green tape and “lawfare” as the only obstacles to the bonanza they have on offer. Now, the legal and administrative obstacles are gone, so they have only to line up the money, rehire the contractors and announce the starting date. My guess is that this will never happen.

That’s still my guess, three years later. The economics of the scaled down project still don’t stack up, and the problems with finance and contractors are even greater now than in 2016. However, there’s nothing more I can do to influence the outcome, so we will just have to wait and see.

Update: I meant to add that, if the project does go ahead, it will almost certainly involve a substantial injection of public money, which will not be recovered. Adani has plenty of form in this respect.

fn1. Obviously, not all of them. But if Adani had wanted to start work in 2016, they could have done so, and, given bipartisan political support, would certainly have found a way to deal with any remaining clearances. In fact, they announced they would be starting work then, and reannounced it in 2017.

How much will it cost to deal with climate change? Not much at all

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Inside Story, along with the short version of my answer. The long answer is that, even with dubious modelling choices and extreme parameter assumptions, Brian Fisher of BAEcon* comes up with estimates of about 2 per cent of GDP, trivial compared to the potential cost.

So, he uses the same presentational trick he’s been using since the first ABARE modelling exercise back in 1996, turning an annual flow into a present value over ten years to make it look bigger.

The truth is that the economic impact of reducing emissions by 45 per cent relative to 2005 levels by 2030 will be so small as to be lost in the noise of statistical revisions and exchange rate effects. By contrast, the costs of doing nothing about climate change are already visible and are only going to get bigger.

Considered in terms of opportunity cost, action to mitigate climate change is a no-brainer, which is why so much intellectual and rhetorical energy has to be used to mount any kind of case against such action.

  • BAEcon is a play on the title of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, precursor of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics (ABARE) where Brian was Director and I was Chief Research Economist in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s now ABARES having absorbed the Bureau of Rural Sciences.