The bodies of the Pike River miners haven’t even been recovered yet and the industry PR has begun. Days before John Key’s announcement of a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the disaster, the Chief Executive of the Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce was on National Radio talking up the economic benefits of coal mining for the West Coast. On the same day the Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn was saying that business at Pike River needs to continue. Commendably Pike River Coal itself was more circumspect, saying that the focus for now is the families.
Most New Zealanders would agree. The nation watched alongside the families as the tragedy unfolded. People spoke about it in their lunch rooms and over cups of tea. We waited to hear the outcome, hoping to be able to celebrate some unlikely good news. We felt the shock and sadness of the families at the news of those 29 deaths. Now our thoughts and prayers are with them as they farewell the departed, those they love who have returned to the Oneness of all things.
There are always lessons to be found in death of course - reminders of how short our time is in this life, how unpredictable the end. I feel for those whose last words to their beloved were harsh and angry, an overspill of some small irritation now made completely irrelevant. I think about the personal legacy each man left, unknown to me, but alive in the hearts of friends and family, of times shared together, of gestures of love, friendship, generosity and solidarity. The stuff that really matters once you are gone.
In one sense, though, these men’s deaths are part of the price paid for coal. Coal mining IS dangerous. There are many things that can be done to manage and mitigate risk but we are deluding ourselves if we think we can have coal without some people dying for it. Just as we are deluding ourselves if we think we can sustain our petroleum addiction by drilling in ever more difficult and dangerous places without suffering more marine catastrophes. Fossil fuel addiction, like P addiction, has little regard for its collateral damage.
The real destruction from continued coal mining, though, will be the deaths it causes outside the mines rather than inside them. As the world meets this week in Cancun to have another go at trying to avert a climatic disaster, there is growing concern about feedback loops such as the methane from thawing Siberian permafrost. The other big concern is the impact that coal is having on the climate – especially as the reality of peak oil hits home.
Conventional oil production is already plateauing and will begin to dwindle. At the same time increasing demand will push prices up to record highs (prices will be erratic but the trend will be upwards). One of the likely responses will be an increase in the use of tar sands and coal-to-liquid fuel to fill the gap. In fact New Zealand’s own government owned Solid Energy has just such a plan to convert lignite coal to diesel. The world cannot afford to keep burning coal even at our current rate, never mind increasing its use through these mad schemes. At the same time the coal industry’s great hope of Carbon Capture & Storage is being increasingly discredited.
Let’s be blunt - it is time to end the coal industry. It is important that we properly acknowledge the deaths of the 29 men at Pike River, but in the end there is a bigger question to be decided than mine safety.