Dethroning King Coal – from West Virginia to Durban

Cross-posted from Climate and Capitalism

This multiple set of interlinked climate-energy-economic travesties can only be reversed by grassroots and labor activism

by Patrick Bond

South Africa’s crust was drill-pocked with abandon since Kimberley diamonds were found in 1867 and then Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) gold was unearthed in 1886. But the world’s interest in how we trash our environment perked up again last week for two reasons:

  • the shocking revelation that acid mine drainage is now seeping into the Johannesburg region’s ‘Cradle of Humankind’, home of hominid fossils dating more than three million years, where our Australopithecus ancestors’ earliest bones are now threatened by the area’s pollution-intensive mining industry; and
  • hot contestation of new United States financing for South Africa’s proposed Kusile power plant, which will be the world’s third largest coal-fired facility.

In parallel battles, though, the beheading of King Coal is underway in West Virginia, where nine days after the January 3 cancer death of heroic eco-warrior Judy Bonds, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overturned the Army Corps of Engineers’ prior approval of Spruce No. 1 mine, the world’s largest-ever ‘mountaintop removal’ operation. Coal companies have been blowing up the once-rolling now-stumbling Appalachians. In order to rip out a ton of fossil fuel, they dump 16 tons of rubble into the adjoining valleys.

After an avalanche of pressure by mountain communities and environmentalists, the EPA ruled against the “unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas.” According to leading US climatologist James Hansen, quoted in Bonds’ New York Times obituary last week, “There are many things we ought to do to deal with climate change, but stopping mountaintop-removal is the place to start. Coal contributes the most carbon dioxide of any energy source.” The EPA also took a stance in late December to belatedly begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Through activism and legal strategies, US communities and the Sierra Club have prevented construction of 150 proposed coal-fired power plants over the last couple of years, a remarkable accomplishment (only a couple got through their net).

But in South Africa, the fight is just beginning. The national government in Pretoria and municipal officials in seaside Durban will continue invoking several myths in defense of coal, Kusile and the ‘COP17’, the November 28-December 9 climate summit officially called the ‘Conference of the Parties 17’ (but which should be renamed the Conference of Polluters). Here are some strategies of the SA state and big business meant to blind us:

  • in Durban, aggressive ‘greenwashing’ will attempt to distract attention from vast CO2 emissions attributable to South Durban’s oft-exploding oil refineries and petrochemical complex, Africa’s largest port, the hyperactive tourism promotion strategy (in lieu of any bottom-up economic development), unending sports stadia construction and unnecessary new King Shaka international airport, electricity going to the very dangerous Assmang ferromanganese smelter (the city’s largest power guzzler by far at more than a half-million megawatt hours per year), sprawly new suburban developments, and inefficient electricity consumption and transport because of state failure to provide adequate renewable energy and mass transit incentives;
  • ‘offsets’ for a tiny fraction of Durban’s emissions will again be fatuously marketed to an unsuspecting public, as during the 2010 World Cup, including mass planting of trees (though when they die the carbon is re-released) and municipal landfill methane capture – even though the increasingly-corrupt offset industry and European carbon markets which market our emissions credits are now ridiculed across the world, and in economic terms are failing beyond even the most pessimistic predictions;
  • whacky, unworkable ‘geo-engineering’ strategies are going to multiply, such as biomass planting to convert valuable food land into fodder for ethanol fuel, or mass dumping of iron filings in the ocean to create carbon-sucking algae blooms, or ‘Carbon Capture and Sequestration/Storage’ schemes to pump power-plant CO2 underground but which tend to leak catastrophically and which require a third more coal to run, or the nuclear energy revival notwithstanding more shutdowns at the main plant, Koeberg (five years ago the industry minister, Alec Erwin, notoriously described as ‘sabotage’ a minor Koeberg accident that cost the ruling party its control of Cape Town in the subsequent municipal election); and
  • South African ‘global climate leadership’ will be touted, even though Pretoria’s reactionary United Nations negotiating stance includes fronting for Washington’s much-condemned 2009 Copenhagen Accord, which even if implemented faithfully, by all accounts, will roast Africa with a projected temperature rise of 3.5°C.

As even the government’s new National Climate Change Response Green Paper admits, “Should multi-lateral international action not effectively limit the average global temperature increase to below at least 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the potential impacts on South Africa in the medium- to long-term are significant and potentially catastrophic.” The paper warns that under conservative assumptions, “after 2050, warming is projected to reach around 3-4°C along the coast, and 6-7°C in the interior” – which is, simply, non-survivable.

If President Jacob Zuma’s government really cared about climate and about his relatives in rural KwaZulu-Natal villages who are amongst those most adversely affected by worsening droughts and floods, then it would not only halt the $21 billion worth of electricity generators being built by state power company Eskom: Medupi is under construction and Kusile will begin soon. Pretoria would also deny approval to the forty new mines allegedly needed to supply the plants with coal, for just as at the Cradle of Humankind and in West Virginia, these mines will cause permanent contamination of rivers and water tables, increased mercury residues and global warming.

More evidence of the Witwatersrand’s degradation comes from tireless water campaigner Mariette Liefferink, who counts 270 tailings dams in a 400 square kilometer mining zone. With gold nearly depleted, as Liefferink told a Joburg paper last week, uranium is an eco-social activist target: “Nowhere in the world do you see these mountains of uranium and people living in and among them. You have people living on hazardous toxic waste and of course some areas are also high in radioactivity.”

The toxic tailings dams are typically unlined, unvegetated and unable to contain the mines’ prolific air, water and soil pollution. Other long-term anti-mining struggles continue in South African locales: against platinum in the Northwest and Limpopo provinces, against titanium on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast, and against coal in the area bordering Zimbabwe known as Mapungubwe where relics from a priceless ancient civilization will be destroyed unless mining is halted (as even the government agrees).

There’s another reason that the power of what is termed the Minerals-Energy Complex continues unchecked, even as treasures like the Cradle – and also the priceless Kruger Park’s surface water plus millions of people’s health – are threatened: political bribery. In addition to supplying the world’s cheapest power to BHP Billiton and Anglo American Corporation smelters by honoring dubious apartheid-era deals, Eskom’s coal-fired mega-plants will provide millions of dollars to African National Congress (ANC) party coffers through crony-capitalist relations with the Japanese firm Hitachi.

Last year, Pretoria’s own ombudsman termed the role of then Eskom chairman and ANC Finance Committee member Valli Moosa ‘improper’ in cutting the Hitachi deal. As a result, even pro-corporate Business Day newspaper joined more than 60 local civil society groups and 80 others around the world in formally denouncing $3.75 billion World Bank loan to Eskom which were granted by neoconservative-neoliberal Bank president Robert Zoellick last April.

Other beneficiaries of Washington’s upcoming trade finance package for Eskom include two desperate multinational corporations: Black & Veatch from Kansas and Bucyrus from Wisconsin. The latter showed its clout last October when in order to fund machinery exports to the huge Sasan coal-fired plant in India with US Export-Import Bank subsidies, the Milwaukee firm yanked members of Congress so hard that they in turn compelled the Bank to reverse an earlier decision not to fund Sasan on climate grounds.

But now, after the EPA’s slap-down of Spruce No. 1, Bucyrus must be really nervous. Forty years ago, John Prine wrote the haunting song ‘Paradise’ about the strip-mining of his Kentucky homeland, with this verse describing a creature known as ‘Big Hog’:

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

Big Hog was a Bucyrus-Erie 3850-B dragline shovel. With West Virginia coal companies no longer buying these monsters, the company is fanatical about overseas sales. As a result, last Thursday, two dozen of us gathered by Friends of the Earth and Sierra found ourselves shouting slogans against Eskom and Bucyrus outside the Ex-Im Bank’s Washington headquarters.

The Milwaukee corporation rebutted that Ex-Im financing was justifiable because of a Johannesburg Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) partner plus Wisconsin steelworkers jobs, even though this means that South African counterparts – especially a Joburg company, Rham, that will apparently fire scores of local employees – lose out. Bucyrus’s 2010 contract to supply Eskom with coal mining equipment became a scandal subject to a parliamentary investigation last September. Given the Witwatersrand area’s historical world leadership in mining equipment, businesses there claim there’s no obvious reason why local firms cannot supply Eskom at much lower cost (one third of Bucyrus’ in that particular case).

Most importantly, the poor will repay this finance at a time South Africa has become the world’s most unequal society and unemployment is raging. For Eskom to cover interest bills on Medupi and Kusile loans requires a 127 percent electricity price increase for ordinary consumers over four years. This has already raised power disconnection rates for poor households, and on Monday, Durban police made 25 arrests of shack-dwellers for electricity theft.

This multiple set of interlinked climate-energy-economic travesties can only be reversed by grassroots and labor activism. At the Durban COP 17, don’t expect a global deal that can save the planet, given prevailing adverse power relations. Instead of relying on paralyzed politicians and lazy bureaucrats, South Africa’s environmental, community, women’s, youth and labor voices will be demanding serious action to address the greatest crisis of our times:

  • major investments in Green Jobs would let metalworkers weld millions of solar-powered geysers, for example, thus allowing Eskom to switch off power to BHP Billiton’s aluminum smelters and to halt new powerplant construction without net job loss;
  • new public transport subsidies should reconfigure apartheid-era urban design and pull us willingly from single-occupant cars;
  • an employment-rich zero-waste strategy would recycle nearly everything and compost our organic waste so as to eliminate methane emissions at the remaining landfills;
  • more direct-action protests against major emissions point sources – Eskom, Sasol (apartheid’s wicked coal-to-oil company), the Engen refinery in South Durban and the new Durban-Joburg oil mega-pipeline, for instance – should better link micro-environmental struggles over local air, water and land quality to climate change;
  • more ambitious Air Quality Act regulations would label – and then phase out – carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gas ‘pollutants’, as with the US Clean Air Act;
  • government planning and utility board decisions would halt willy-nilly suburbanisation and ungreen ‘development’; and
  • instead of North-South financing via destructive carbon markets, the demand for ‘climate debt’ would permit the flow of strings-free, non-corrupt and effective adaptation funds.

Through urgent adoption of genuine post-carbon strategies like these, by the time the COP17 rolls around, the world could see in Durban a state and society committed to reversing climate change.

But get real. Since none of these will be considered much less implemented by the current ruling crew, instead we’ll see a mass democratic movement rise, aiming to do to the climate threat what we did to apartheid and the deniers of AIDS medicines: defeat them at source, when respectively, old white politicians and their international business buddies, and Thabo Mbeki and Big Pharma, had to stand back and respect a new morality, a new bottom-up power.

(Durban-based academic Patrick Bond’s book The Politics of Climate Justice will be released later this year, and recent articles are posted at http://ccs.ukzn.ac.za/default.asp?4,80.)

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