Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Turnbull's coal pitch is a Trojan Horse for gas

  • 23 February 2017


Australia's most politically contentious rock is back in the limelight after Prime Minister Turnbull spruiked 'clean coal' power stations in early February, and Treasurer Scott Morrison brought a lump of the stuff to pass around parliament.

It was juvenile, but effective: here we are again, still talking about coal weeks later, when the real energy policy battle is over gas. But that's how it goes — a pitch for a new coal-fired power station in Australia is actually a clever exercise in repositioning gas as a greener fuel.

I'll get to that in a moment, but first let's put this furphy to rest. 'Clean coal' isn't clean, it's just slightly less filthy.

The fossil fuel lobby introduced the oxymoron 'clean coal' years ago as a marketing slogan for carbon capture and storage, a technique to take the pollution from burning coal and store it underground. Now the term has been reapplied to describe more efficient coal power stations that operate at higher temperatures.

So 'clean', in this case, is a byword for 'emissions intensity'. The 'dirtiest' coal power station in Australia is Hazelwood in Victoria, with an emissions intensity of about 1400kg per megawatt hour. A black coal power station in New South Wales emits about 900kg per megawatt hour.

The Minerals Council's new report says these fancy new power stations — the best in the world, remember? — emit 740–800kg per megawatt hour, which is only slightly below the average for the entire electricity grid (820kg), but heaps more than gas (400-600kg). Wind and solar, in comparison, are squeaky clean (0kg).

The inherent dirtiness of coal power stations makes them risky investments. They have a lifespan of 30 to 50 years, and the overarching goal of the Paris climate agreement is reaching global net zero emissions in the electricity sector by 2050. Over that timescale, climate policies that penalise polluters have to be factored in, which could leave new coal power stations as stranded assets in decades to come.

For this reason and others, industry lobby groups and big energy companies quickly rebuked Turnbull's 'clean coal' pitch.  


"In this case, the government talks about coal for two months, and then, when they switch to spruiking gas, everyone's view of gas is in comparison to coal, not in comparison to clean energy like wind and solar."


The CEO of the Australian Energy Council, a lobby group for large energy generators, said the industry had no plans to start