Digging up the past

A train hauling wagons filled with coal from the Takatimu mine, in Southland, passes through...
A train hauling wagons filled with coal from the Takatimu mine, in Southland, passes through Dunedin on its way to Temuka, from where it will be delivered to Fonterra's Clandeboye dairy factory. PHOTO: Gregor Richardson
No-one thinks coal is good for the environment. So, why is a coal-heavy, national mining forum about to be held in Dunedin? Bruce Munro takes a look. 

It was good, honest, hard work, coal mining.

Fred Uren was 20 years old when he started at the Lockington Mine, in Kaitangata, in 1956.

At first he worked above ground. Then he was running the rope at the bottom of the drive. But most of his years there were spent 200m underground, in a 3m-by-3m tunnel, working the coal face.

Fred Uren (82), of Kaitangata, was a coal miner at the Lockington mine until it closed in 1970....
Fred Uren (82), of Kaitangata, was a coal miner at the Lockington mine until it closed in 1970. Photo: Bruce Munro
Truckers and others working at the mine were paid a day wage. But not those at the face, the miners. They were paid according to how many box loads of coal they could carve out of a solid seam in a shift.

Working in the dark, a light attached to their hats, Uren and a mate would use compressed air drills to bore holes deep into the coal face. Then they would pack the holes with gunpowder they bought themselves, and it would be wired, capped and detonated by the shot fires, the men ticketed to do that work.

As the dust was still settling, Uren and his offsider would be in at the coal with pick and shovel, filling as many wheeled boxes as they could before drilling and blowing the next section.

"It was hot, heavy work," Uren recalls.

But it earned a decent wage for himself and his family. And on top of that, being a coal miner was contributing to the development of New Zealand.

From 200m beneath the earth, mining coal seams formed by heat and pressure over hundreds of millions of years, he and fellow miners, in Kaitangata and elsewhere around the country, were helping heat homes and power industries here and overseas.

In 1963, when Uren was in his youthful prime, the Lockington mine's main contract was with New Zealand Cement Holdings' Milburn cement works, at Green Island, Dunedin. Milburn had supplied the cement for infrastructure projects including construction of the Roxburgh Hydroelectric Dam as well as many of the country's roads and bridges.

Virtually no-one, Uren and fellow miners included, suspected what carbon emissions from fossil fuels, such as coal, were doing to the earth's atmosphere.

In September and October of that year, on the other side of the globe, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who a New York Times reviewer described as having "a curiously arresting mumbling, country-steeped manner", a young man who had recently legally changed his name to Bob Dylan, was penning what would become an enduring, archetypal protest song, The Times They Are a-Changing.

Come gather 'round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You'll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you

Is worth savin'

Then you better start swimmin'

Or you'll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin'.

More than half a century later, times have certainly changed for coal.

Joyce Beck, of Kaitangata whose father was a coal miner in the township. Photo: Bruce Munro
Joyce Beck, of Kaitangata whose father was a coal miner in the township. Photo: Bruce Munro

It is fast becoming a dirty word. A sooty, dirty, atmosphere-polluting word.

This week, climate scientists announced sea level rise caused by climate heating could be much worse than previously estimated. The report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said future sea level rise "poses serious threats to the viability of coastal communities".

Until now, the official word was that melting of ice at both poles could cause up to one metre of sea level rise by the end of the century. But the new estimates say the worst case scenario could be double that. Such an eventuality would displace hundreds of millions of people around the globe.

The most important gas contributing to the greenhouse effect, which is heating the planet and melting the ice, is carbon dioxide (CO2).

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, humans have increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by a half. It has grown from 280 parts per million to 415 parts per million. We have done that by burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal, which release the heat-trapping CO2 into the atmosphere.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of potentially catastrophic effects if global heating exceeds 1.5degC above pre-industrial levels.

Last week, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres visited New Zealand as part of a Pacific tour drawing attention to the role of coal in the climate change crisis already threatening low-lying nation states.

Guterres called for a ban on new coal-fired power stations and urged nations to adopt more ambitious emission reduction targets. But emissions continue to rise. And coal is leading the charge. It accounts for about a third of all energy used worldwide. It is the single biggest contributor to human-induced climate change, responsible for 46% of CO2 emissions worldwide.

Last year, coal-fuelled power plants emitted their highest level of CO2 on record.

Rosemary Penwarden places pins on a map to show proposed and existing coal mines in the South...
Rosemary Penwarden places pins on a map to show proposed and existing coal mines in the South Island. Photo: Gregor Richardson
If all of the 1200 planned new coal-fired power plants are built globally, their gas emissions could cause temperatures to rise by more than 5degC by the end of the century, causing catastrophic, cascading environmental, social and political effects.

Come writers and critics

Who prophesize with your pen

And keep your eyes wide

The chance won't come again

And don't speak too soon

For the wheel's still in spin

And there's no tellin' who

That it's namin'.

For the loser now

Will be later to win

For the times they are a-changin'.

Coal has been mined in New Zealand since the 1840s.

Today, the country has a couple dozen underground and opencast mines scattered around the West Coast, the Waikato, Otago and Southland.

Last year, 3.2 million tonnes of coal was produced here. Most of it came from Stockton, on the West Coast, and Rotowaro, in the Waikato.

About half of the coal is exported for use in steel making. Domestically, is it used for steel making, power generation, other industrial uses such as dairy processing in the South Island, some horticulture, hospitals, schools and to heat homes.

In the 2017-2018 financial year, coal earned the Government $6.26 million in energy resource levies and $1.75 million in royalties.

Coal production is well down on the 5.7 million tonnes mined in 2006. But it could climb again.

Starting on Monday, a three-day New Zealand Minerals Forum will be held in Dunedin.

Of the dozens of speeches, panels and presentations, 40% will be at least partially about coal. A quarter will be all about coal.

Programme session titles include "New Zealand coal and international growth opportunities", "The future of underground coal mining in New Zealand", "Advanced Materials From New Zealand Coals", a panel discussion on "The Coal User/Climate Change Dilemma" and the launch of a book titled "The Geology And Resources Of New Zealand Coalfields".

No-one thinks coal is good for the environment. The climate warnings are dire. The targets are clear. So, what is going on?

Come senators, congressmen

Please heed the call

Don't stand in the doorway

Don't block up the hall

For he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled

There's a battle outside

And it is ragin'.

It'll soon shake your windows

And rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin'.

Dr Megan Woods is Energy and Resources Minister. Photo: ODT files
Dr Megan Woods is Energy and Resources Minister. Photo: ODT files
Dr Megan Woods, Minister of Energy and Resources, is giving a ministerial address at the forum on Tuesday morning, according to the online programme.

Except, it turns out Dr Woods will be in Canada, at a meeting of politicians with clean energy mandates.

"My colleagues David Parker, Andrew Little and Shane Jones will, however, be there on my behalf," Dr Woods said in an emailed reply to questions.

The Government was "showing leadership and taking action on climate change", the email response asserted.

This was shown by the absence of new oil and gas exploration permits, by the Zero Carbon Bill that had been introduced to Parliament and by the recent announcement of two clean energy programmes.

"The Government has set ambitious goals around transitioning to a low carbon future," the response stated.

"We're aiming for 100% renewable electricity in a normal hydrological year by 2035, and to have net zero carbon emissions by 2050."

But the question remained unanswered, why is this Government allowing coal mining, given coal's role in climate change?

After some delay, there was a response to this question too.

The Government is working up a "Resources Strategy" that will include the minerals sector, Dr Woods said. It will be driven by the objective of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

"We acknowledge it must be a just transition," she says.

"That means a planned and deliberate transition over the coming decades, rather than an abrupt and unplanned one overnight.

"There will always be people who will want us to go faster or slower in moving away from particular fuels - but this has to be carefully planned."

Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

And don't criticize

What you can't understand

Your sons and your daughters

Are beyond your command

Your old road is

Rapidly agin'.

Please get out of the new one

If you can't lend your hand

For the times they are a-changin'.

Offering opening remarks at the forum, at 8am, on Tuesday, will be Chris Baker, chief executive of Straterra, New Zealand's minerals sector industry organisation.

Forum organisers are feeling "a wee bit under the hammer", Baker says.

"A number of organisations are intent on `Stop the Forum'."

Chris Baker is chief executive of Straterra, New Zealand's minerals sector industry organisation....
Chris Baker is chief executive of Straterra, New Zealand's minerals sector industry organisation. Photo: Supplied
The reality is that coal will be needed for decades to come, Baker says.

Thermal coal, of the type used for heating homes and in milk powder production, can be phased out more quickly than high-grade coking coal used in making steel.

"The most optimistic view is the technologies that allow steel to be made at scale without coking coal ... are decades away.

"As long as we can get access to the resources - and our current Minister of Conservation is doing her best to prevent that - we will be mining coking coal well past 20 years."

Baker rejects the suggestion that if an Emissions Trading Scheme will speed transition to clean energy then a ban on coal would be even better.

If we don't produce products using comparatively less dirty coal-driven processes, then more harmful producers will just step into the gap, he says.

"If you forced Fonterra to stop using coal tomorrow, they would be significantly less competitive ... We would lose money and jobs and that production would just be replaced by probably less environmentally efficient production elsewhere."

Is that approach justifiable, given the environmental damage coal is doing?

Taking the moral high ground will not make any difference to the planet, because other, bigger players are not taking that approach, Baker says.

New Zealand has to stay in sync with what is happening internationally or the only result will be that we are economically disadvantaged.

"I would be looking very carefully at the impact of policies in terms of the economic impact as well as the environmental.

"If we followed what Extinction Rebellion want, the solution would be worse than the problem."

Baker says he is not sceptical about climate change.

"Fossil fuels, we are burning them, and that is increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere and that has a warming consequence."

But the degree of impact is yet to be seen, he says.

"I know there are many scientists who say the chance of catastrophic climate change is very low. And there are others who say it is high."

Ultimately, the use of coal should be treated as a technical problem, not an ethical or moral one, Baker says.

"I'm much more confident than a lot of people ... that we'll develop technical solutions."

The line it is drawn

The curse it is cast

The slow one now

Will later be fast

As the present now

Will later be past

The order is

Rapidly fadin'.

And the first one now

Will later be last

For the times they are a-changin'.

Rosemary Penwarden was at yesterday's second School Strike 4 Climate in Dunedin. The young people were calling for the Minerals Forum to be called off. Penwarden, a member of the Coal Action Network (Can) was lending vocal support.

Tomorrow, she is helping run a public coal information open day, being staged by Can, at the Age Concern rooms, in the Octagon, Dunedin.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Penwarden plans to be part of "a coalition that has formed to oppose the Minerals Forum". She would not say exactly what protest action was planned.

But coal has to go, Penwarden says forcefully.

"We have listened to the climate scientists. It is the highest of the emitters. So, it has to go first."

Saying if we don't mine coal someone else will, is not good enough, she says.

"That's a total cop-out. We have to be responsible global citizens."

Penwarden says an expansion of coal mining does not make economic sense.

"It's a boom and bust industry. It's not a good industry for workers or communities.

"I'm really disappointed that this industry - I'm sure they've all got children and grandchildren - I think it's time they got the dollar signs out of their eyes ... and started thinking about our collective future."

On a global scale, New Zealand is not a big coal producer. That gives us an opportunity to be a global leader by having a just and swift phase out of coal, she says.

"It's really important that people understand we can't continue to sit back and allow the expansion of coal in New Zealand to happen. Let's make New Zealand an inspiration for other countries."

In Kaitangata, Uren is not really aware of the hubbub over the Dunedin Minerals Forum.

He is sitting in the lounge of fellow Kai' resident Joyce Beck, whose father, like Uren and his father, was also a coal miner.

Is there a way to effectively filter coal dust coming out of chimneys?, he wonders aloud.

He and Mrs Beck agree that coal is a proud part of the town's history, but should not be its future.

Renewables are the answer, they say.

"I think we should be going to solar power ... and we should be doing more wind farms," Mrs Beck says.

"We've got a huge coastline, with lots of wind, in obscure places.

"And why aren't we harnessing the tide?

"These things aren't going to cause the atmosphere any problems, any pollution."

"Yeah," Uren nods.

"That's true."


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