Coal sector muscles up to activists

Coal industry hits back at opponents, uses tools employed by anti-coal activists.

Australia's coal industry is hitting back at its vocal opponents and returning fire with the tools used by anti-coal activists as it steps up its campaign to gain support for the struggling sector.

The industry, which has ­increasingly become a target by activists determined to close coalmines, has taken the unusual step to publicly muscle up in its fight with the green movement and launch an active campaign.

The Minerals Council of Australia, backed by the world’s largest coalminers, such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Glencore, will today launch a website -- Australians for coal -- to give a voice to the sector.

Brendan Pearson, chief executive of the Minerals Council, said the website was an ­opportunity for the silent majority to have a say and not let what he says are the small number of noisy extremists get free air.

“A small number of fringe ­activist groups are doing their level best to undermine the sector,” he said.

“We are not prepared to sit idly by and let policymakers get the mistaken impression that their views are reflective of the broad mainstream of Australian society.”

The website will provide information on the sector, its contribution to jobs and the economy, and provide an avenue for people to email their local members of parliament to show support for the sector. An industry source said it was a similar tactic to what the green movement was using against the ­miners.

The Australian understands that the website is part of a multi-million-dollar campaign that will include television advertising, an enhanced social media program and increased political engagement.

The website launch follows the MCA’s recent engagement with Australia’s most influential superannuation funds to pitch the case for coal.

As well as industry funds ­including Australian Super and Uni Super, the campaign has ­targeted investment managers Colonial First State, investment bank Goldman Sachs and the Australian arm of the world’s biggest asset manager BlackRock, as well as ratings agencies.

The move to engage with funds was in response to green groups pushing investors to dump their holdings in coal companies. The Greens have been demanding that the $96.6 billion Future Fund get out of coal.

Australia’s largest coalminers have all been hit by increased ­opposition, which has seen ­extensive protests at new developments and mounting legal cases to stop expansion plans.

NSW’s Hunter Valley has been the scene of a battle ­between Anglo American and local horse studs that oppose the miner expanding its Drayton coalmine.

Also in NSW, Rio Tinto’s Warkworth mine has had its expansion plans knocked back by the Land and Environment Court and it also lost an appeal against that ruling.

Both miners have submitted modified expansion plans in an attempt to gain approval by the NSW government.

Harry Kenyon-Slaney, chief executive of Rio Tinto’s energy product group, said the situation at its Mount Thorley Warkworth mine was seen as a red flag against investing in Australia.

“This is a mine that has been part of the local community for more than 30 years, and for which we’re trying to secure ­approval to continue operating on land we own and within our existing lease,” he said.

“It’s now been more than four years and counting, with still no long-term security for the mine and its 1300 workers.”

BHP is facing opposition to its proposal to develop the ­Caroona coal project on the Liverpool Plains in NSW, with farmers staunchly opposed to it going ahead.

It last week kick-started the environmental approval process for the contentious Caroona thermal coalmine, 40km southeast of Gunnedah, submitting documents to federal and state governments showing it could produce 10 million tonnes of thermal coal a year, or more than 5 per cent of Australia’s current exports.

BHP’s coal boss, Dean Dalla Valle, said the global miner did not have an issue with activism, adding that diversity of opinion made companies better.

“Where it gets off the rails is when people take illegal activity and injure businesses. That is where it needs to be resolved,” he said.

Mr Dalla Valle said that the miner was working through the processes for Caroona, outlining that he believed the “processes” were good for the miner.

“They are scientifically based, factually driven … put facts on the table and if people want to put counter views up they need to do it in a similar manner,” he said.

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