Lignite is at the New Zealand coal-face of the environmental crisis. It is well and truly on the agenda with top climate scientist James Hansen, currently touring NZ, urging us to keep the coal in the hole. State-owned Enterprise Solid Energy and the L&M Group are currently either planning or at the permitting stage (behind closed doors, no less) to mine lignite coal in Southland with a view to converting it to diesel, urea and heat. The Government needs to step in and stop it.
It is estimated New Zealand has about 6.2 billion tons of economically recoverable lignite. The trouble is, lignite is the most inefficient and among the worst polluting types of coal there is. Nonetheless, Solid Energy and the L&M Group are pushing their proposals to mine it, ignoring a critical report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Environment that claims that the mining just isn’t worth it.
We are dismally failing our current climate targets and allowing lignite conversion to go ahead will signal to the world we ‘give up’ on emissions reductions and our valuable clean, green brand. At the 2009 Copenhagen Conference, New Zealand pledged to cut its emissions back to between 10% and 20% of our 1990 emissions yet if the proposed lignite mining goes ahead, our emissions look set to rise 30% above our 1990 levels. Lignite coal trashes our clean green brand and international climate treaty credibility.
It’s not just the climate that could end up the loser if these proposals go ahead it could also be the taxpayer. Under the National Government’s Emissions Trading Scheme, the plans could potentially cost the taxpayer up to $275 million a year, from carbon credit subsidies state-owned Solid Energy would receive. Over its lifetime, the cost of just one lignite-to-diesel plant is likely to be in the billions, clearly bad for the Government’s books and bad for ‘locking in’ polluting industries.
I sometimes wonder if Solid Energy is the only Government agency that understands peak oil and the increasing volatility and oil prices we are likely to see over the coming decades. Unlike the Government that has no plan, Solid Energy is going ahead with coal-based oil alternatives no doubt to take advantage of higher future energy prices. But instead of investing in renewable, sustainable energy alternatives that are greener, cheaper for taxpayer and will last us forever, we’re prepared instead to invest billions in sub-standard fossil fuels. With lignite mining, we’re just scraping the bottom of the barrel for anything we can find, and, consequentially, are coming up with the dregs. The lignite has environmental costs, fiscal costs, but also significant opportunity costs: the capital invested in these projects should be going to clean-tech, green-tech projects.
Coal is the fuel of the past, and lignite is the worst type of coal. Instead of hanging on to it and squeezing it dry to try and drip every cent from it, we should instead look to the future and spend our money on sustainability. Let the lignite be, it’s right now doing a good job propping up some fabulous farmland. Let it stay in the ground and let us invest in the future of energy and the future of the environment.