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Coal’s Control of Government

Many thanks to PhD candidate Sonya Duss, from the Fenner School of Environment & Society at ANU, for this article. A referenced version of this article is downloadable via the adjacent link.

Coal is implicated in a range of controversial issues, leading many people to the conviction that we really need to ‘do something’ about coal. An appreciation of the long-term history of coal and the more specific story of coal in Australia is crucial.

Today we are accustomed to the abundant energy from millions of years worth of photosynthesis providing electricity at the flick of a switch and allowing us to jump in a car or an aeroplane on a whim. Through coal’s important role of providing carbon and fuel in the production of steel (600kg of coal is used to make 1 tonne of steel), coal is also important in much of our material infrastructure.

Coal was the first fossil fuel to be used on a significant scale and represented a major energy transition. While coal had probably been used sporadically for 2-3000 years in various places around the world, it took centre stage of the British Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. In the midst of the revolutionary changes, James Cook, an apprentice in the North Sea coal trade, captained the voyage of HMS Endeavour, a refitted coal carrier, to the southern seas and Australian shores. Less than twenty years later, in 1788, the First Fleet arrived. So, from the very beginning of permanent white occupation, Australia experienced a ‘compressed, double revolution’ of colonisation and industrialisation, with coal a vital resource.

By chance, the British located their settlement of Sydney near the centre of a vast coal basin. In the first decades of British settlement in Australia, coal was mined by convict labour. The coal mines were the place of punishment ‘for the most turbulent and refractory characters’. The government retained control of the coal mines in the new colony until 1828 when, amidst much controversy, the Australian Agricultural Company (AAC) was granted land in the middle of Newcastle and the monopolistic control of coal in the colony. The AAC eventually lost its monopoly privileges in 1847 and in the next couple of years government policies were dramatically changed in line with the conviction that ‘the interests of the Colony would be best served by affording the utmost encouragement to the raising of coal’.

Governments throughout Australia’s history maintained a strong interest in coal and coal-fired development. In the settlements of Western Australia and Victoria attractive rewards of land and money were offered for those who could locate the valuable coal seams. Instructions for the siting of Adelaide included that it should be in ready access to a coal seam.

More dramatic instances of government support for the coal industry emerged in the 20th century, with governments commonly siding with mine owners in the frequent and sometimes fierce industrial disputes. During the 1949 coal miner’s strike Prime Minister Ben Chifley ordered 2 500 armed troops into the coal pits to carry on the work to provide coal for Australian electricity and industry as part of ‘Operation Excavate’. Besides being a fascinating exposé of post-war politics, the government’s reaction to the 1949 miner’s strike provided important lessons about our relationship with coal. Chifley’s response was not just in defence of an industry, but of the ‘prevailing system of society’, of which coal was a fundamental prop.

From the 1950s, there was a break from previous patterns. Open-cut mining became more common, requiring greater upfront capital investment and producing a much changed working environment, including greater mechanisation and increased safety. In this new mode labour costs were relatively minor; between 1950 and 1966 employment in NSW coal mines decreased by 40% while output doubled. These new levels of efficiency put Australia on a trajectory of ever greater production and exports.

Australia is now the fourth largest coal producer in the world behind China, the USA and India. Of the known recoverable resources, Australia has 10.6% of the world’s black coal and 8.9% of world’s brown coal and at current rates of extraction these are expected to last 111 years and 539 years respectively. With over three-quarters of electricity derived from coal, Australia is behind only Poland, South Africa and China. However, most of the growth in coal production is accounted for by increasing exports.  Australia is currently the world’s largest coal exporter and produces more than half the coking coal traded on the international market.

Responding to monumental economic growth in China and India, Australia’s coal production is predicted to substantially increase over the coming decades, including a doubling of coal exports. However, concurrent to these massive growth projections, coal is emerging as a major field of conflict and controversy. There is disquiet at every stage of the coal cycle, but perhaps most prominent are the local and global consequences of coal combustion on human and planetary health.

Through its role in global energy provision and steel production, coal is at the heart of industrial civilisation as we know it. So, in responding the substantial concerns around coal we would do well to ask ourselves what it is we are objecting to, what we are trying to change, and what alternatives we are proposing.