What big coal’s happy-clappers missed about Vietnam’s growing coal headache

Bob Burton, Renew Economy, 27th April 2015

FRA240513coal_fct450x277x66_t620Last week the PR crew at the Minerals Council of Australia’s (MCA) – which represents coal companies including BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Peabody Energy and Adani –  cranked out two Tweets pointing to an article hyping Vietnam as an exemplar of why the world’s poor need coal.

However, the MCA was seemingly unaware that just days beforehand a protest against a new coal plant had resulted in a national highway being blocked for 30 hours and prompted the Deputy Prime Minister to castigate the power plant operator for the pollution it caused.

The MCA’s Tweets sought to peddle the shop-worn storyline that more coal will be the salvation of the energy poor. “Love or hate coal, it has become the go-to source of energy for the developing world because it is cheap & abundant,” crowed one. “Great read from Robert Bryce (@pwrhungry): Keeping the Poor in the Dark,” gushed the other, though it sported a dead link.

Both Tweets pointed readers to an August 2013 article in the conservative magazine National Review by Robert Bryce, a ‘senior fellow’ at the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing US think tank.

The Manhattan Institute is one of the regular voices in the pro-coal industry echo chamber in the US, including being referred to in Peabody Energy’s Advanced Energy for Life campaign run by the controversial PR firm Burson-Marsteller.

Bryce has carved out a role for himself as a coal booster, defender of the oil and gas industry and a critic of renewables including with opinion columns in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Washington Post and as a regular commentator on Fox News.

In September 2014 Bryce visited to Australia to speak at Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute and the following day deliver the HV McKay Lecture at an event in Melbourne organised by the conservative think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), which has also been funded by the fossil fuel industry. The MCA were even so impressed with Bryce’s Australian speeches that they posted transcripts of both of them on their website.

In his National Review article, Bryce railed against environmental groups which had successfully lobbied the US Export-Import Bank against providing funding for the proposed Thai Binh 2 coal-fired power station in northern Vietnam.

After extolling the virtues of coal – including the usual ‘cheap, abundant, reliable’ mantra that is the central to the coal industry’s PR pitch – Bryce fulminated against critics of coal:

“That electricity is essential to modernity is incontrovertible. The rich countries of the West developed their economies by producing electricity from coal. Now the rest of the world wants to do the same. And yet, the environmental elites are determined to prevent that from happening.”

At the time that Bryce wrote the article, the Thai Binh power station and other projects in Vietnam’s coal-fired power station building boom were inching forwards.  Like the coal boom elsewhere, some of the projects proposed in recent years have been cancelled, some have been commissioned or are under construction, while others are in limbo.

For the export coal industry, what happens in Vietnam is one of the few potential bright spots in an increasingly gloomy global seaborne coal market. In recent years Vietnam has been a minor coal exporter. However, as new coal plants are commissioned, coal imports are set to rise.

The pollution the coal lobby didn’t see

When the Minerals Council of Australia took to Twitter to hype Bryce’s 2013 article it seems they were oblivious to that fact that just days before thousands of residents had blocked a national highway in a protest against pollution from the Vinh Tan 2 power station, a shiny new coal plant built by Shanghai Electric. (Shanghai Electric has an Australian connection: in June 2014 an Australian subsidiary of the company was given $25 million by the federal and state government’s towards a new brown coal briquetting plant at AGL’s Loy Yang A Power Station in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.)

The protest had been building for a long time. In January 2014 the first of the plant’s two 622 megawatt (MW) coal units began to generate power. Not long after the plant was switched on, residents in the coastal Vinh Tan commune began to complain that the air pollution from the plant was affecting their health and especially that of their children.

Professor Dr. Nguyen Dinh Tuan, a lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Natural Resources and Environment in Vietnam told the BBC  (Google Translate version) that while the plant had been built with electrostatic precipitators to limit dust and fine particles emissions from the chimney stack, the plant operators didn’t know how to operate the equipment.

Residents’ complaints had some effect, with the Vietnam Environment Administration fining the plant operator approximately A$89,000 in December last year for environmental violations. Then, in January this year, the second unit at the plant began commercial generation, compounding the pollution problems.

In addition to pollution from the smokestack, residents objected to high levels of dust emissions from the uncovered trucks which carried 1500 tonnes a day of coal ash along the highway from the power station to an uncovered landfill.

On April 14, after windy weather that had blown large amounts of dust from the company’s coal ash dump over roads and houses, residents had had enough. Thousands took to the National Highway No 1A and blocked it. Cars were reportedly backed up for 20 kilometres.

On the first night of the protests, a police riot squad tried to remove what had been a peaceful protest. While details of what happened – in English news reports – are sketchy, what is known is that dozens of protesters were injured. While police fired tear gas canisters into the protestors, some in the crowd threw rocks and petrol bombs at the police. After the riot squad withdrew, calm was restored.

After the highway had been blocked for 30 hours, the government brokered a peace deal. The plant owner, the government-owned utility Electricity of Vietnam, agreed to suspend trucking coal ash for ten days while negotiations occurred with residents over solutions to their concerns.  In subsequent negotiations EVN agreed to change the truck route to back roads, to spray the trucks before they left the plant and to use water to suppress dust from the uncovered ash dumps. A provincial official also  wants some local residents relocated.

The magnitude of the protests attracted the attention of the national government too. The Deputy Prime Minister, Hoang Trung Hai, castigated EVN for failing to comply with instructions issued to coal plant operators to avoid pollution. However, his hope that the pollution concerns can be resolved hinges on the prospect that coal ash from the plant will be used in cement production instead of landfilled.

The fallout from a botched plant

The controversy over the Vinh Tan 2 power station follows an all too common pattern. When promises that new coal power stations won’t cause pollution turn out to be hype, public support evaporates.  If regulators do little to protect public health and resources, then protests erupt. The fact that the easily forseeable problem with coal ash disposal is only now being addressed raises questions about what other issues have been ignored by the utility and regulators.

For the residents of the Tuy Phong district, the air pollution problems may well get far far worse as a further three power plants in the Vinh Tan Power Park – with an extra 4355 MW of capacity – are nearing construction or have been approved.

The reaction of the residents to the pollution from the Vinh Tan 2 power station also reflects a growing disquiet in Vietnam about the likely pollution from as much as 60 gigawatts of new coal plants under consideration. As the movement against coal grows, the Vietnamese government is being pushed to investigate alternative options for meeting future electricity growth.

It may well be that the Vietnamese Government – spurred in part by protests and in part by the plummeting costs of solar and wind – looks across the border at the energy transformation being implemented by the Chinese government and rethinks its coal-heavy energy strategy.

As Bryce noted, the construction of big new coal plants in countries like Vietnam usually requires access to finance from taxpayer-supported banks from one or more countries. One of the banks which funded Thai Binh 2 – and is funding the 1200 MW Thai Binh 4 plant – is the controversial Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC), the largest public funder from an OECD country of coal plants around the world.

The experience of the residents of Vin Tanh also poses awkward questions for companies such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Peabody and their happy-clapping supporters. Why is it that when they and their supporters proselytise for new coal power plants, they never mention the serious pollution and health impacts that inevitably go with them?

Bob Burton is a Contributing Editor of CoalSwarm and a Director of the Sunrise Project, a non-profit group promoting a shift away from fossil fuels. With Guy Pearse and David McKnight he co-authored Big Coal: Australia’s Dirtiest Habit. His Twitter feed is here.