Children, unlike dogs, are little sponges crafted by Nature to prioritise and absorb the key knowledge needed for later life. That’s why toddlers yet unable tie their shoes find it easy to master the rudiments of language and syntax. Shoes are practical and do wonders for a well-cut suit, but an adult can get by at a pinch without them. The ability to tell the doctor about frostbitten toes and other ailments is a rather more important skill in the grand scheme of things.
But dogs, as a species they’re a different matter entirely. This is wisdom I acquired, appropriately enough, as a very small boy, when a kind and elderly neighbour took the trouble to explain why Norman, his little shih tzu, wouldn’t fetch, roll over, shake hands, play dead or demonstrate any talent beyond eating, defecating, sleeping and, every so often, bursting into episodes of pointless yapping. “Son,” old Mack began, “Normie can find his food bowl. He is as smart as he needs to be.” After reading Waleed Aly’s latest epistle in the Fairfax press, it seems the same rule applies equally to certain columnists.
Aly’s theme is the death of coal, and he assures us in that patented, portentous and patronising way of his that the future is all very dark for the black stuff. Remaining Age and SMH readers find this patter most re-assuring, much as followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi were eager to lose themselves in the mantras he conjured for their enlightenment and gave them to repeat. For some — far too many, alas — there is much comfort in the mindlessness to be drawn from an endless invocation of empty words.
As to facts, who needs them? Aly certainly doesn’t. Like Normie the simpleton shih tzu, the thoughts he shares are as smart as they need to be, which isn’t very smart at all when you consider that Fairfax’s target demographic these days consists of share-house students, bristling lesbians, green ranters, social justice virtuecrats, neo-wowsers, light-rail fetishists, gender-fluid bicycle fanciers and representatives of all those other claques and cliques former Age and SMH advertisers do not want in their shops and stores under any circumstances. For this audience Aly delivers a column inspired by the closure of Victoria’s Hazelwood power station, which until this week supplied 22% of the state’s electricity. Rather than address the RET and the market distortion it has imposed, not to mention rent-seeking wind farmers and solar scammers, he directs our gaze across the Pacific to Donald Trump’s America, where the purported lesson is that coal will soon be as dead as the dinosaurs of which it is said to be composed.
Renewable energy is also growing rapidly as technology makes it easier to generate more of it … Coal power stations were closing before President Obama’s clean power plan was even announced. By the time Obama was elected, the number of coal workers had already halved since the 1970s. The trend is therefore clear, and much broader than anything Obama inflicted.
Aly has found his readers’ bowl and, as with an earlier assurance that being blown up by one of his more ardent co-religionists is a mere “irritation”, has filled it with yet another dog’s breakfast of reeking slop. Fairfax readers will enjoy it, of course, much as dogs are always keen to inhale the ripe aromas of each other’s bottoms. Sharper readers will catch the whiff of familiar untruths, garnished as always with conspicuous omissions, that have grown rancid in the course of frequent packaging and re-packaging.
First, as the Washington Post recently explained (but Aly barely mentions), US coal-fired plants have been closing because natural gas makes them uncompetitive.
The 2,250-megawatt [Navajo Generating Station outside Page, Ariz.] has faced increasing financial pressure in the face of record-low natural gas prices, which have made it more expensive to produce electricity at the facility than to purchase it from cheaper sources.
This has no relevance to the Australian situation, where state governments have banned gas exploration and thereby promoted shortfalls in domestic supply. Compound that with an over-abundance of green sentiment, and it all goes a long way toward explaining why our gas is expensive and America’s isn’t.
And yes, coal-industry employment in the US has declined precipitously, just as Aly asserts. But it hasn’t been declining only “since the 1970s”. Rather, the shrinking has been underway since 1920, when coal kept some 785,000 people employed, as opposed to the 102,000 working in the industry as of 2015. Those figures come from the Brookings Institute, which Aly should know all about, as it was only in December that he shared an ABC microphone with a Brookings boffin for a discussion about Trump and what the result of last November’s election would likely mean. One imagines that, by Aly’s reckoning, Brookings is a reliable source. After all, it made Julia Gillard one of its “distinguished fellows”, so no nest of fusty conservatives.
But Aly’s shtick is to serve up the muck his readers favour, so there was no need for him to do a little more googling before putting pen to paper. Pity, that, because the Gillard-friendly Brookings folk might have set him straight. As Brookings co-authors Devashree Saha and Sifan Liu explain in paper published as recently as January, it is neither green thinking nor coal’s alleged non-viability that has zapped US coal-industry jobs but advances in extractive techniques and technologies. Saha and Liu spell it out in terms so simple even a Fairfax editor might come close to grasping their point, especially if the char lady happened to be passing through his office at the time and could spare a moment or two to explain what the word “automation” means.
By 2015, coal mining had shed 59 percent of its workforce, compared to 1980. During the same period, coal production grew by 8 percent, to about 897 million short tons in 2015 (23 percent below its 2008 peak). At the same time, coal mining productivity jumped from 1.93 short tons per miner hour in 1980 to 6.28 short tons per miner hour in 2015. (emphasis added)
Saha and Liu also provide a handy chart
and they detail some fascinating trends and figures:
One of the early harbingers of automation in coal mining was the shift from underground coal mines in the Appalachian region to the open pit mines of the West (especially in Montana and Wyoming). Surface mining—also known as mountaintop removal mining, in which miners use controlled explosions to open mountains and mine the newly exposed coal seams—is less labor-intensive and more automated than traditional underground mining.
Between 1980 and 2015, underground mining’s share of total coal production dropped from 41–35 percent, while surface mining production increased from 59–65 percent. Coal companies in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming can extract more than 11 times as much coal per employee hour as coal companies in the Appalachian Basin.
All of the above, you might think, explains why the US coal-industry workforce is shrinking, also refuting the tossed-off nostrums Aly heaps in his readers’ dish en route to the column’s climactic sentence:
[Coal] is a dying industry for reasons that aren’t merely environmental. They’re commercial as well. And while climate denialism is one thing, this commercial denialism is quite another because in the long run, it screws the very people it claims to be protecting.
“Screws” ’em, eh, with “commercial denialism”?
Well let’s just wait until summer, when the blackouts come, and we’ll see then who gets screwed by a genuine variety of “commercial denialism” — the sort that has hugely inflated by government policy and edict the cost of an easily obtained commodity ideal for firing boilers and making lots of cheap and useful electricity. It won’t be Aly who gets screwed, of course. Even if written in pencil by the light of candle and delivered via darkened streets on a bicycle, Fairfax will still be running his columns. The Age and SMH don’t have too many readers left, but their editors, even if they know nothing else (least of all a story worth reporting), appreciate how much their audience enjoys a lovely bowl of green nonsense.
Mind you, when things do go dark, Aly might find it both convenient and diplomatic to explore another topic. Just like the imaginary threat of CO2, there will always be those phantom legions of Islamophobic hijab-tuggers to fall back on.
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online. He enjoys air-conditioning on hot days, but has accepted that he will need to hire a punkah wallah for Melbourne’s next summer.