Challenging the Activist’s Agenda

It’s become very clear that something has to be done.

Anti-mining protesters have developed an unprecedented level of sophistication in their approach to environmental activism.

When Jonathon Moylan succeeded in publishing a spurious ANZ press release to the ASX, causing Whitehaven Coal shares to drop in value by $314 million, the industry knew that activism had entered a new age, one in which economic influence would become the aim of the anti-mining game.

Although the traditional methods with protesters chaining themselves to trees and machinery will always be in vogue – with badges of honour to be won and treasured in the memories of those who were there on the ground – we are now seeing new social waves of protest in the form of the fossil-fuel divestment movement.

In the words of a Fossil Free QUT member: “The primary goal of fossil fuel divestment is the stigmatisation of those shares and companies, which has indirect economic consequences. The divestment movement also seeks to erode the fossil fuel industry's social licence to operate.”

Many scoff at the efforts of the Green movement to persuade investors to steer clear of coal and oil, claiming they’d be happy to snap up those shares once divested, however in May the world watched as Norway announced it would drop coal from its $900 billion Sovereign Wealth Fund, which comprises an impressive holding of one per cent of the world’s stocks and bonds issues.

When ANU chose to divest from seven Australian companies it claimed were poor corporate citizens, one of the ousted companies Sandfire Resources took the ESG investment consultant CAER to court for a formal retraction.

Although Sandfire succeeded in winning the case, it showed how seriously the company regarded the negative impact this divestment could have had on the public perception of their business.

The Minerals Week conference in Canberra, hosted by the Minerals Council of Australia in June, looked at the issue of environmental activism in certain sectors of mining and asked the question of whether the mining industry was effectively addressing the issue, and how it could tackle the problem in the future.

Whitehaven Coal CEO Paul Flynn knows better than most the power of the modern activist, having faced extensive traditional protesting at Maules Creek, as well as the Moylan Hoax.

Flynn discourages miners from engaging too strenuously with activists, to resist becoming drawn into illogical arguments that can simply degenerate into a shouting match.

“You’ve got to choose your battles to be sure that you’re more effective, not just getting lost in the noise,” he said.

However he does advocate for the industry having a stronger voice to tackle those who have adopted positions against mining based on a moral absolutism, rather than any kind of scientific or environmental evidence.

“We can’t be captive to people who are just philosophically opposed to what we do,” he said.

“We know the manifest benefit of what it is that we do…we do need to make our case and state it more firmly than we have in the past.”

According to research conducted by JWS Research, managing director John Scales was able to reveal to MCA members that approximately 10 per cent of a given Australian population is philosophically opposed to fossil fuels or mining, with ideological opposition rather than evidence based reason influencing their viewpoint.

Equally, around 10 per cent of people are staunchly supportive of mining in the same fashion, with a crystallised defensive position that they cannot be swayed from to consider the possibility of green alternatives that can complement the mining industry.

However, Scales suggests that it is with the middle 80 per cent with which miners need to concern themselves: the swinging voters.

These are the people who may or may not think of themselves as anti-mining, people who are capable of seeing the benefits of iron ore, and coal, and copper and precious metals (among many other mined commodities) to our technologically based society.

Green groups are known to have very effective advertising campaigns, which play on the emotions of the public to win sympathy for the environment over the concerns of mining.

In turn, the mining industry needs to think in terms of a ‘velvet hammer’ in order to win the hearts and minds of a generation who can so easily forget where their mobile phones and computers come from.

It’s what Nynggablack MD and former fitter and turner Warren Mundine describes as the “Soft War”.

“The real issue is about how you engage, using the right language,” he said.

“I don’t understand how people can be anti-mining, there’s not one thing in this room that wasn’t created by mining…but these are people that have been brought up working in factories, driving trucks, even they are anti-mining and anti-energy: they’re into climate change.

“You may think that is illogical, and it is illogical, but they’re only getting one message from one side.”

Mundine suggested it is the responsibility of the mining industry to challenge the falsehoods presented by anti-mining idealogues, but in keeping with Flynn’s advice to avoid the potential shouting match, he says it’s important to connect with the public on a more human level.

“It’s not about a massive campaign and embattlement and getting out there and getting political, this is about a soft campaign, this is about talking to people, talking about what energy and mining industries do for my life,” he said.

“We have a stake in the future: we’re not evil people, the mining and energy people do good things.

“That’s the sort of message we need to be talking to people about and trying to get across, that we’re not some kind of evil empire that’s out there to destroy the globe and send us to hell, we’re actually doing these things because we want to do good.”

Toro Energy’s MD Vanessa Guthrie agreed with Mundine on the human interest approach, but took the notion a step further with the claim that scientific reason was not the way to win hearts and minds of the general public.

“Fighting with fact and science doesn’t cut it,” she said.

“Claims can be made about our industries that are not fact based, they are unfounded, which we cannot fight.”

Guthrie argued that we need to fight “with the heart, because people connect to the heart”.

“While moral absolutism is what the ideologues will fight with, connecting to people’s hearts and feelings and their own sense of control [is needed] as opposed to fighting with fact and science.”

The managing director of one of Australia’s most promising future uranium miners is no stranger to the trials of activism, with experiences from more than 30 years of opposition to her industry to draw upon, compared to the relatively new widespread resistance to coal and CSG.

Guthrie’s understanding of activism is, indeed, much more personal than most mining executives can say for themselves, which she candidly admits to when speaking on the subject.

With anecdotes about members of her own family buying into the anti-mining agenda, Guthrie can attest to having her work cut out for her before she even leaves the house.

Not only that, but Guthrie admitted she was an environmental activist during the late 80s as a student at university, a position which gave her “an affinity for how those people feel”.

Now leading one of Australia’s more prominent junior miners, Guthrie speaks from the experience of an environmental activist, now serving as an activist for the mining industry.

Her views convey a sentiment of working for the good of the whole industry, not just for her own company, not even just for the good of her own commodity sector, but for the betterment of the ‘soft war’ that must engage the modern miner if she is to succeed in winning the hearts of the public to the mining cause.

“We need to fight with the heart,” Guthrie said.

“If we passionately believe in the numbers, the economic value we bring to the world, in terms of the resources we deliver that enable people to lift themselves out of poverty, then we should fight it with our hearts.

“A good example of that in the nuclear sector is the shift of the activism around climate change, and I think it is a little like the elephant in the room that we struggle to connect to, and that is as part of the climate change agenda we are seeing activists move towards nuclear as part of the solution.

“That’s fabulous for the uranium and nuclear sectors in Australia, but I also think it’s incumbent on the uranium industry in Australia to say it is also fabulous for the coal sector.

“We are not in competition. Our job is to support each other, and to provide the energy that the world needs in the best way we can with Australian resources.”

The idea of tackling activism with better PR campaigns, to make people understand the necessity of certain projects is certainly a strong theme among those in the mining industry looking to avoid the prospect of opposition to projects, however Rod Campbell of The Australia Institute maintains that ideas of a soft campaign, or calls to state the case more firmly, are missing the point of activist campaigns.

“Mundine, Flynn and Guthrie seem to advocate for more and better spin, not actual engagement with communities or acknowledging legitimate concern,” Campbell said.

“There will be no improvement in community relations while the industry can’t acknowledge the legitimacy of any criticism.”

He also argued that those who suggest activism is driven largely by ideological opposition to mining showed that they “still don’t understand what that problem is”.

“No one is “philosophically opposed” to mining: People object to aspects of some mining projects and usually with pretty good reasons,” he said.

“I know Jono Moylan and I don’t think he’s anti-mining. He’s opposed to mining in an ecologically sensitive area – Leard State Forest… Not wanting a forest destroyed doesn’t mean you’re opposed to all mining.”

“Bulga isn’t anti-mining – some of them work in the mines, but they object to Rio Tinto breaking their signed agreement not to mine a particular ridge.

“People built houses, made investments and planned their lives based on that agreement. They won in court twice, but they still have to fight on.”

“I find it astonishing that Mundine, Flynn and Guthrie don’t want to acknowledge that any of these people even have a point.

“None of these people want mining’s “case stated more firmly” or a “soft war” against them, or to be told that their objections aren’t “fact-based”.

Co-operation in the face of competition- A potential solution (commentary)

Guthrie raised an interesting idea, one which points to a community of co-operation within the industry being essential to moving forward against the incoming tide of anti-mining activism.

But in line with Campbell’s comments, could it be the case that the mining industry needs to rethink the problem and give up on ideas of “working against” activism?

Perhaps there is a more open-minded, softer approach that can lead miners and others affected by activism to a new paradigm, one which opens up new ways of working with those who object to aspects of the mining industry?

The Minerals Council of Australia has for some time been extremely supportive of moves to research and invest in Carbon Capture and Storage technologies that will enable the coal mining industry to continue one day with carbon neutral ability.

But what about other technologies that have previously been regarded as a threat to the business of mining?

Many miners are opposed to renewable energy in exactly the same way that environmentalists are opposed to mining.

There are a top 10 per cent of pro-miners who are equally driven by ideological reasoning rather than science.

But even among those who accept that there is climate change, there are still those who say that renewable energy is not feasible.

It’s not feasible? How can one simply say it is not feasible? The processing of gold tailings was unfeasible for a very long time, but they were not put back into the ground: they were stockpiled for a time when processing would become feasible.

Even now we’re beginning to see the start of a further development again in which e-waste can be ‘urban mined’, crushed and processed for precious metals (a single tonne of mobile phones contains somewhere in the order of 300g of gold), when ten years ago it was considered totally unprofitable to start such an undertaking.

It’s the same that happened with the social integration of the automobile. The road on which the car overtook the horse was rocky to begin with, and faced a great deal of opposition from lobby groups that refused to accept the notion that this technology could actually replace their known methods of horse-powered agriculture and transport. The very marketing of the power of the car had to be measured and reported in terms of how many horses it could match.

There are some interesting new proposals for technologies that are naturally quite threatening to the mining industry. Of course renewables appear in direct competition with the coal industry; they represent a force that could one day end the mining of thermal coal for energy, however unlikely this might seem.

Even if renewables could end the need for coal-fired power, surely nothing could ever replace the need for metallurgical coal, right?

There is something in the pipeline for which the CSIRO is currently seeking funding to continue research into larger scale production.

There are new types of biochar-coke which can be used for steelmaking, and although the notion that it could ever produce the volumes required to become a viable substitute for coke are optimistic, the technology is very real.

Biochar is simply vegetable matter than has been turned into charcoal by artificial means. But rather than waiting millions of years for a forest to turn into coal, researchers are working on a method to turn biomass into biochar-coke in a very short process.

Is this a threat to the coal industry?

You may not think so, but many thought the car would never replace the horse. Perhaps this is one way for coal miners to hedge their bets on the future for a comparatively small investment, with some very positive PR side effects.

Getting back to the words of Vanessa Guthrie, “We are not in competition. Our job is to support each other, and to provide the energy that the world needs in the best way we can with Australian resources.”

The question coal miners need to ask is this: Am I in the business of coal, or am I in the business of energy?

For those simply in the business of coal, it could be a tough road ahead in terms of winning the hearts and minds of the general public in support of your business.

There is no question that the way miners deal with the activist public must be just as innovative, if not more so than those who masterminded the Moylan hoax, than the ideas of those driving the divestment movement.

Guthrie is right in her suggestion that the way to get to the bottom of this is to act from the heart.

Mundine also suggests that the ‘soft war’ can be won by showing people the good that mining does to ensure that people have warm homes and hot meals every day, but the traditional PR battle has not won any new ground, rather it incites further cynicism based on the funding sources for such campaigns.

Not only that, but presuming that activists are not fully aware of the ways that mining benefits their lives borders on insult to the intelligence of those who indeed have properly considered the evidence before them, but remain opposed to specific projects for perfectly sound reasons.

Rather than go head to head, in the attempt to beat the arguments of activists, mining companies need to find another way to appeal to the anti-mining public.

Remember, this is not so much about winning over the hardcore 10 per cent of anti-mining protesters, but rather those ordinary people who hear the messages of anti-mining, and agree in spirit, but continue their lives in full enjoyment of the benefits of mining.

In terms of the divestment movement, key goals for persuasion lie with the mum-and-dad investors whose decisions en masse can affect the bottom line of a company.

Universities have already shown they can be reliant on false information when making decisions about how to manage their investment portfolios, so it’s important to ensure ESG consultants are fully aware of the kinds of activities carried out by miners, especially in their own investment activity.

Not only that, but we are also now seeing a trend in oil producers looking to move towards gas power and renewable energy sources.

In Saudi Arabia there is an increased focus on renewable technology, and the ways that such diversification can keep the oil producers in a position of power in the global energy market.

In May the Saudi oil minister told a conference in Paris: “In Saudi Arabia, we recognise that eventually, one of these days, we are not going to use fossil fuels…I don’t know when, in 2040, 2050 or thereafter”.

These words should be shocking to traditional coal producers, and although many are sceptical about the G7-announced year 2100 target for eliminating fossil fuel powered energy production, companies need to look that far into the future if they expect to succeed then.

Maybe most coal companies really are just in the game of getting coal out of the ground, but in the case of, say, Rio Tinto, there is no reason not to diversify.

It may well be a case of ‘diversify or die’ for traditional energy producers, but there’s a more immediate benefit to portfolio diversification.

In terms of soft strategy for countering divestment recommendations, it would seem that companies could counter the reasoning of divestment proponents by engaging in support of the very projects they say require more investment.

For example, to a supporter of divestment it’s easy to see that they would like to see investment in metallurgical coal shifted to research and development of Biochar.

If a coal mining company were to diversify their portfolio to include coal replacement technologies, not only does that strip away the moral justification for divestment, but it also positions the company to take advantage of any future market shifts caused by disruptive technology.

Mining is a long term business, and if companies can open their scope to include new developments for future capitalisation, so much the better.

By investing in alternative energy technologies that may fall under the purview of conventional businesses, technologies that might even be considered a threat from traditional points of view, then it is impossible to divest from that company without divesting from their operations relating to alternative energy.

This is an example of the kind of thinking that will be required to win the battle for the support of the 80 per cent “swinging” mining supporters.

It is not good enough to simply tell them the ways that mining helps their lives: What is required is a holistic view of energy production, and a preparedness to bring those projects supported by the divestment movements into the fossil fuel miner’s fold, with a view to enhancing those technologies for the benefit of the industry and their own business, rather than to scotch the whole thing to protect traditional concerns.

If the protestors are getting more creative every day, so too must the miners find innovative solutions to ensure their investors stay on board, solutions which will show the general public that indeed such companies are concerned with improving on existing technologies, and developing new ones.

In an industry where efficiency and innovation are catch-cries for successful business, why can’t we bring those philosophies to the “soft war” against activism?

With some lateral thinking miners can certainly win the hearts and minds of the public and outflank the extreme activists, to show up those who continue to insist on their ideological opposition to industries which ensure the continuing success of the modern technological lifestyles we all want to enjoy.

Send this to a friend