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PNG politicians push coal as Pacific islanders rail against climate change

 Catherine Wilson | Mongabay | 12 March 2019

  • Politicians in Papua New Guinea have thrown their support behind a plan to power the country’s development through coal.
  • The plan to establish coal mines and power plants gained prominence following a publicity tour hosted by rugby stars and sponsored by Australian mining and energy firm Mayur.
  • Mayur’s proposal for a project combining coal, solar and biomass energy remains stalled, pending approval by the country’s newly restructured energy utility.
  • The project faces opposition both locally and in other Pacific island states, where climate change-driven sea level rises pose a serious threat.

Politicians in Papua New Guinea are ratcheting up their support for a new foray into coal mining and power generation, even as neighboring states call for a global reduction in carbon emissions to stave off a catastrophic rise in the sea level.

PNG’s mining minister, Johnson Tuke, recently hailed the prospect of a new coal industry to boost government revenue and public access to electricity, following visits to coal mines and power stations in Australia. PNG has no coal mines or coal-fired power plants; in Australia, 60 percent of grid electricity comes from burning coal.

But the burning of coal is one of the largest contributors to human-driven climate change, setting PNG up on a collision course with smaller Pacific island states, such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, where rising sea levels threaten coastal communities and undermine water and food security. Leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum — which comprises 18 states, including PNG, Australia, Kiribati and Tuvalu, among others — emphasized during their annual summit in Nauru last year that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific.”

“This move by the PNG government is a total negation of the plight that the small island states in the Pacific are facing due to the negative impacts of climate change,” says Tafue Lusama, a climate change activist and leader of the Tuvalu Christian Church. “For one of our own brother countries in the Pacific to turn its back on our struggles is [an issue] that needs serious pleading and dialogue.”

A young boy looks at the mud, contaminated by salt water, that used to be a garden on Iangain Island in Papua New Guinea. Pacific Island leaders have identified sea level rise as one of the primary threats facing the region. Image © Greenpeace / Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert.

Australian extractive and energy company Mayur Resources has plans to construct a mixed coal power station in the eastern PNG port city of Lae, in the province of Morobe. Mayur, which has a major stake in coal exploration in neighboring Gulf province, signed a memorandum of agreement last October with the Lae city authority and the Morobe government to build an “Enviro Energy Park.” The project, which aims to use solar energy, coal and renewable biomass sourced within the country to generate electricity, has received environmental approval and is backed by Mining Minister Tuke, Energy Minister Sam Basil, and Lae MP John Rosso.

Mayur says coal is needed to help provide cheap, reliable electricity, and will help boost living standards and economic growth.

“We, as a 100 percent PNG industrial minerals and energy-focused business, are passionate about injecting all forms of energy that are cheaper and better environmentally than what PNG currently has, that also generates local industry and displaces imported energy fuels, such as heavy fuel oils and diesel, that drain PNG’s wealth,” Paul Mulder, Mayur Resources’ managing director, tells Mongabay.

Although the country produces and exports natural gas, refined and crude petroleum accounted for 11.2 percent of PNG’s total imports in 2017, costing the country nearly $400 million.

“If PNG ever wants to get to Australia’s level of prosperity, it will need to install 20,000 megawatts,” Mulder says. “PNG is not even managing 100 megawatts being installed per year. PNG political leaders have to somehow explain that it will take PNG 200 years from today to achieve the same living standard as Australia. This does not even cater for the huge population growth over the next two centuries which PNG will have… I am sure there is not one politician, not one business owner or one resident who wants to wait that long.”

Rain clouds in the mountains along the coast south of Lae. Image © Markus Mauthe / Greenpeace

PNG has one of the world’s lowest electrification rates: only about 13 percent of its people have access to mains electricity. Rugged forest-covered mountain ranges and scattered islands make grid-based power distribution a logistical challenge. This lack of access to electricity, widespread in rural areas where more than 80 percent of the country’s 8.2 million people live, contributes to the country’s low human development; an estimated 40 percent of people live below the poverty line.

Nevertheless, the PNG government is yet to issue any coal mining licenses and the proposed Enviro Energy Park remains in limbo without a power purchasing contract.

Mayur was invited by state-owned PNG Power Ltd. to submit a proposal in 2015, but the proposal has yet to be assessed by the power company’s board. PNG Power underwent a major restructuring in 2018, and with the new management came new priorities. In February, PNG Power’s acting managing director, Carolyn Blacklock, told the Post Courier newspaper that the utility now plans to increase the use of renewable energy without coal, and that a competitive, public bidding process will be required before any new projects are commissioned.

“It is not a planned activity of PNG Power and is not being considered,’ Blacklock said of Mayur’s 2015 proposal.

“Mayur has been waiting three years since its PPA [power purchasing agreement] submission,” Mulder said. “It could have already built the two 30 MW units of power generation on the Western Tidal Basin in Lae, providing businesses with extremely cheap steam and generating very reliable power with solar, coal and biomass that would already be saving PNG Power tens of millions of kina.”

Pita Meanke leans against a palm tree as high waves surge past a sea wall and into his family’s property in Betio Village on Kirabati’s Tarawa Island. PNG’s push for coal power has raised opposition from other Pacific island countries who fear inundation due to rising sea levels. Image © Greenpeace / Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

There could be changes in the country’s power industry with a new National Energy Bill currently being finalized. If passed, this would mandate a National Energy Authority to enforce safety and quality standards in the industry, encourage more power companies to operate, and increase competitive electricity pricing.

But there is still opposition from civil society, even after Mayur arranged for Australian rugby legends Sam Thaiday and Darren Lockyer (who is employed as the company’s business affairs manager), to visit PNG earlier this year and talk up the coal industry. Local environmental group Nogat Coal PNG and landowners in Morobe province’s Markham Valley, the site of a potential biomass energy project, say coal has no place in the country.

The Australian-backed case for coal faces wider opposition. Many leaders across the Pacific view the developed nation’s refusal to transition away from coal and reduce its carbon emissions — which reached a record high of nearly 530 million tonnes in March last year — as contributing to their potential demise due to climate change.

“As I always say in my advocacy works around the globe, and especially to big industrialized countries, your actions and decisions now will catch up with you sooner than later,” Lusama says. “For what we are facing today will only accelerate according to such ignorant decisions, and by the time you feel the wrath of the devastating impacts of climate change, it will be far too late to do anything.”

The mouth of the Bairaman River, where it meets the sea in East New Britain province. Image © Paul Hilton/Greenpeace

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Small Pacific country roasts Australia over its coal mining policies

Barbara Dreaver | TVNZ | 10 March 2019

One of the smallest countries in the Pacific has given Australia a roasting over its coal mining policies.

The low lying island of Tuvalu faces the full impact of climate change, and given the Regional Pacific Forum meeting is to be held there, fireworks are likely.

It wants firm action from Australia on its coal mining policies.

“I would implore and impress on the leaders of Australia to reconsider their coal mining policy and the $64 million dollars they are getting from selling their coal,” says Tuvalu’s prime minister, Enele Sopoaga.

It’s a big call for financially strapped Tuvalu to tell Australia to keep its aid.

“There is no point in giving ODA (Official Development Assistance), we appreciate it of course but giving it at the same time as continuing polluting the atmosphere and increasing the cost of adaptation I think just doesn’t work well,” Mr Sopoaga says.

But Tuvalu has a trump card. Its tiny shores will be hosting and driving the upcoming forum.

The small island states will be expecting to have their voices heard and with Frank Bainimarama attending for the first time in years, Fiji won’t be sitting on the side lines either.

As a world driver on climate change action, this could be an opportunity for Fiji to flex its muscles.

Despite a lot of diplomatic healing in recent times, Fiji’s prime minister still wants New Zealand and Australia out of the forum.

New Zealand First’s Winston Peters says much time has been spent resetting New Zealand’s relationship with Fiji.

“We are talking about a very expanded partnership going into the future, understanding it’s just not the interests of Fiji that we are talking about or the interests of New Zealand we are talking about but indeed our whole neighbourhood,” he said.

The whole neighbourhood will converge in Tuvalu in August and with 18 Pacific leaders at the table, it knows it has a captive audience.

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Toxic black snow covers Siberian coalmining region

Activists say ‘post-apocalyptic’ scenes in Kuzbass highlight manmade ecological disaster

Marc Bennetts | The Guardian | 15 February 2019

Residents of a coalmining region in Siberia have been posting videos online showing entire streets and districts covered in toxic black snow that critics say highlight a manmade ecological catastrophe.

In one video, filmed in Kiselyovsk, a town in the Kuzbass region, a woman drives past mounds of coal-coloured snow stretching to the horizon, covering a children’s playground and the courtyards of residential buildings. The scenes in the footage were described as “post-apocalyptic” by Russian media.

The coal dust that turns the snow black in the Kuzbass comes from numerous open pit mines that environmental activists say have had disastrous consequences for the health of the region’s 2.6 million people, with life expectancy three to four years lower than Russia’s national average of 66 for men and 77 for women.

Cancer, child cerebral palsy, and tuberculous rates in the Kuzbass region are all above the national average.

“It’s harder to find white snow than black snow during the winter,” Vladimir Slivyak, a member of the Ecodefense environmental group, said. “There is a lot of coal dust in the air all the time. When snow falls, it just becomes visible. You can’t see it the rest of the year, but it is still there.”

Despite political tensions between Moscow and London, Russia is the leading supplier of British coal imports. Russian mines supplied around half of the 8.5m tons of coal shipped into Britain in 2017, with up to 90% of it coming from the Kuzbass region. Coal is used in Britain for a range of purposes, including the manufacture of cement and steel and in power stations, which the UK government is committed to phasing out by 2025.

Some Russian environmental activists are calling on Britain to boycott Russian coal. “The best way to put pressure on them is to stop buying coal until they improve the situation,” said Slivyak.

The dust contains a variety of dangerous heavy metals, including arsenic and mercury, environmental activists say. Environmental problems are exacerbated by the practice of loading coal on to open train cars for export, with wind and rain depositing dust on towns and rivers along the rail tracks.

Critics say Russian authorities turn a blind eye to routine violations of safety norms and regulations, with open pit mines often located dangerously close to towns and villages. Andrei Panov, the deputy governor of the Kuzbass region, said coal-burning factories, transport-related pollution and unspecified businesses were possible causes of black snow.

The number of environmental protests, which were previously almost unheard of in the Kuzbass, are on the rise, with dozens reported in recent years as locals use the internet to organise.

Officials in Mysky, a town in the region, were mocked recently for painting black snow white in an apparent attempt to improve the appearance of a children’s snow-slide.

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Court rules out Hunter Valley coalmine on climate change grounds

A judge has rejected the Rocky Hill coal mine at scenic Gloucester Valley in the Upper Hunter because of its ‘visual and social impacts’. Photograph: David Angel/Alamy Stock Photo

Judge rejects Rocky Hill mine near Gloucester, NSW, because of its impact on the town and ‘dire consequences’ of increasing emissions

Michael McGowan and Lisa Cox | The Guardian | February 7, 2019

The controversial Rocky Hill coalmine in the Hunter Valley will not go ahead after a landmark ruling in the land and environment court on Friday that cited the impact it would have had on climate change.

Chief judge Brian Preston dismissed an appeal by Gloucester Resources, which was seeking to overturn a New South Wales government decision to reject an open-cut mine because of its impact on the town of Gloucester, north of Newcastle.

The EDO joined the case last April, arguing on behalf of its client, Groundswell Gloucester, that the mine’s detrimental impact on climate change and on the social fabric of the town should be considered as part of the merit appeal.

David Morris, the chief executive of EDO NSW, called the decision “momentous” and said it would be “profoundly influential” in the approval of future fossil fuel projects.

“It’s very difficult to see how any future coal project avoids the judge’s finding about this being the wrong time for it,” he said.

In his judgment, Preston explicitly cited the project’s potential impact on climate change, writing that an open-cut coalmine in the Gloucester Valley “would be in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

“Wrong place because an open cut coal mine in this scenic and cultural landscape, proximate to many people’s homes and farms, will cause significant planning, amenity, visual and social impacts,” he wrote.

“Wrong time because the GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions of the coal mine and its coal product will increase global total concentrations of GHGs at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally agreed climate targets, is a rapid and deep decrease in GHG emissions. These dire consequences should be avoided. The project should be refused.”

In a “first of its kind” hearing, the EDO had argued that the mine should be refused in part because of its impact on Australia’s commitments to the Paris climate agreement.

In his judgment, Preston noted that while there was “no proscription” on the approval of new emissions sources such as coalmines under the agreement, approval of the project “cannot assist in achieving the rapid and deep reductions in GHG emissions that are necessary” to meet the goals of the agreement.

“It matters not that the aggregate of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions may represent a small fraction of the global total”, he said.

“The global problem of climate change needs to be addressed by multiple local actions to mitigate emissions by sources and remove greenhouse gases by sinks.”

He rejected GRL’s argument that the project should be allowed because emissions from the mine would be abated by other emissions reductions schemes as “speculative and hypothetical”.

“There is no evidence before the court of any specific and certain action to ‘net out’ the GHG emissions of the project,” he wrote in his judgment.

“A consent authority cannot rationally approve a development that is likely to have some identified environmental impact on the theoretical possibility that the environmental impact will be mitigated or offset by some unspecified and uncertain action at some unspecified and uncertain time in the future.”

The judgment also rejected the mine on the grounds of its visual impact and the social impact of factors such as dust and noise on the surrounding community.

Morris said the ramifications would be felt by state and federal ministers and other decision makers who assess fossil fuel projects.

“This is necessarily a case-specific judgment. It relates to this coalmine proposed in the Gloucester Valley,” Morris said. “It is persuasive, influential but it is not binding on any future decision.

“But it will weigh heavily on the minds of decision makers.”

He said the judge’s comment that the mine was being proposed at the “wrong time” was “applicable to every fossil fuel project that’s proposed in this country and internationally going forward.”

Morris said Australia was increasingly approaching a moment when approval of a fossil fuel project could be considered “unreasonable”.

“And unreasonableness is a ground of legal challenge,” he said.

Climate Council chief executive Amanda McKenzie also welcomed the decision.

“The NSW Land and Environment court has effectively ruled that coal – just like tobacco and asbestos – is bad for us,” McKenzie said.

“I’m thrilled to see the law catching up with the science.

“If I was proposing to build a coal mine right now, I’d be feeling pretty nervous.”

NSW planning minister Anthony Roberts was asked for the government’s reaction to the court’s decision.

“That is the legal process and we respect the court’s decision,” he said.

A spokesman for the NSW planning and environment department said the department was pleased the court had agreed with its recommendation on the proposed coal mine. He said the decision supported the current process of assessing developments on a case-by-case basis.

In 2017, the independent planning commission rejected the mine because of its proximity to the town of Gloucester, its visual impact, and contravention of the city’s zoning plans.

“The judgment confirms the Department of Planning and Environment was correct in its decision to recommend refusal of the application to the Independent Planning Commission, and the Commission was correct to refuse the application,” the spokesman said.

“This decision shows NSW has a robust and transparent planning process that is delivering the best outcomes for the whole community.”

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K400M Lae Coal Plant In Jeopardy

Benny Geteng | Post Courier | February 7, 2019

THE proposed K400 million coal-fired power plant to be built in Lae is in jeopardy as PNG Power Limited is not considering the power option put forward by developer Mayur Resources.

PPL acting managing director Carolyn Blacklock, when responding to questions posed by the Post-Courier in regards to the power purchasing agreement sent by Mayur to PPL and how the PPL is handling the proposal at present, said PNG Power is not considering the Mayur proposal.

This means the bid to have the coal power plant in Lae is in limbo since the PPA approval will grant Mayur the green light to go ahead with the project construction phase.

Ms Blacklock said PNG Power has a clear IPP Policy that supports competitive bidding of planned generation, transmission and distribution investments.

“It is not a planned activity of PNG Power and is not being considered,” she said.

Mayur managing director Paul Mulder said PNG Power is under obligation to assess the power purchasing agreement (PPA).

“The PPL board has the obligation to assess our bid and make recommendations this year,” he said.

Energy minister Sam Basil had earlier written to PPL board chairman Peter Nupiri in October to request PPL board to assess Mayur’s proposal since their bid was solicited by PNG Power through a letter by Chris Bais (PPL director strategic planning and business development) in 2015, granting Mayur leave to send a PPA proposal for assessment.

Mayur Resources submitted a proposal that is still yet to be assessed by the PPL board.

This now contradicts Ms Blacklock’s response since according to Mr Basil’s letter, until the review of Mayur’s proposal is assessed, then he will accept the PPL’s board decision.

The coal power plant in Lae is to be spearheaded by Mayur Resources Limited and is expected to utilise coal seams extracted from the seas of Gulf province and is anticipated to generate revenue for Lae City Authority and the Morobe provincial government.

Mr Basil, Lae MP John Rosso and Morobe governor Ginson Saonu have backed the proposed project to be built in Lae .

It is expected to generate K4m annually to the provincial coffers, among other benefit

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Aussie Coal Use Impresses Tuke

Benny Geteng | Post Courier | February 1, 2019

MINING Minister Johnson Tuke is impressed with coal-powered technology used in Australia and has indicated strong backing of the Lae coal-powered plant project.

Mr Tuke’s trip to one of Australia’s coal mines in January assured him that the similar technology that will be used by Mayur Resources for the K400 million proposed project for Lae will be beneficial.

He said globally, coal is a resource of immense proportions and PNG has never mined coal, while neighbouring countries, especially Australia and Indonesia, continue to reap the rewards of this commodity by exporting and empowering their people with far higher living standards than what we have in PNG, while using inferior coal quality compared with our PNG coal.

“This coal has remained in the ground and until recent years this was the same story for gas, which now is a thriving LNG sector,” Mr Tuke said.

“If you look at Australia, they are benefiting by creating large revenue from coal exports and domestically, coal still provides more than 60 per cent of all their electricity generation. Coal is forecast to be Australia’s largest export earner at AUD$58.1 billion (K137.5bn) in 2018-19, this one commodity is two times PNG’s GDP for the entire country per year.

“That’s K138 billion and while we may not have this volume to export or use internally, even imagine if a coal industry could add K1-2 billion to government revenue. Gulf Province is endowed with extensive far cleaner coal seams than what Australia uses and you can even touch it at the surface.

“I saw houses around the power plant, I saw clean water, I saw abundant fish life in the cooling water channel leading into Lake Macquarie, I saw trees and parks, and no black smoke, only very minor clean filtered steam from the power plant.”

He said Vales Point (NSW, Australia) operating coal power plant produces 1330 megawatts, 2 two times bigger than PNG’s total installed electricity and that is 26 times bigger than what is proposed in Lae.

Mayur Resources managing director Paul Mulder said the proposed coal powered plant in Lae is similar and will rid Lae city of its blackout situation once given permission to supply power on the Ramu Grid.

He said power supply will be on 24 hours — 7 days a week, 100 per cent continuous supply for Lae city.

Mr Tuke said that people should not be blind to what is happening outside PNG in neighbouring countries.

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Rugby League stars’ promotion of coal in PNG questioned

Brisbane and Queensland rugby league player Sam Thaiday. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Radio New Zealand | 23 January 2019 

Questions have been raised in Papua New Guinea over the visit by Australian rugby league stars to promote coal development in the country.

The Australian company Mayur Resources has an environmental permit to mine coal in PNG’s Gulf Province, and is proposing a coal-fired power plant in Lae.

It’s recently deployed a second former league star, Sam Thaiday, to PNG in a promotional capacity.

Former Australian captain Darren Lockyer is Mayur’s head of Business Affairs.

Christian Lohberger of Nogat Coal PNG, which opposes Mayur’s plans, said the league stars, and Lockyer in particular, are idolised in PNG.

“Even though they’re just footballers, when they talk and say stuff, people listen. So I guess it’s a smart move by Mayur to bring them on board. But I don’t know if it’s really ethical that they should be using Papua New Guineans’ love of rugby league to promote something that’s not really connected.”

Mr Lohberger said that the proposed plant would create significant pollution and cause harm and death to local communities.

However, PNG’s Minister for Energy Sam Basil is supporting the coal project, saying it would open up access to cheaper energy that has long been lacking in the country.

Mr Basil has voiced concern that the current power plant in Lae uses imported heavy fuel oil and is cost inefficient.

He said that PNG should explore as many local energy options as possible, given the country’s range of natural resources.

However the plant backers have not secured a local customer or off-taker for the power produced at the plant.

The main power supplier in the country, PNG Power, has been reluctant to buy electricity from coal sources.

Mr Lohberger said he understood PNG Power was waiting on a pending World Bank report on a comprehensive electricity generation cost strategy, which could affect a decision on linking up with Mayur’s plant.

“I would say with the way global trends are going, the surge in renewable energy, and the fall in prices of solar and wind and hydro, that any report that takes a look at power prices is not going to be favourable to coal,” he explained.

But global shifts away from investment in fossil fuels, due to pressing climate change issues, are not deterring the minister who has cited PNG’s neighbours’ energy policies.

Mr Basil said that with both Australia and Indonesia heavily reliant on coal power, PNG should not deprive itself of a home-grown asset.

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