Politicians in Papua New Guinea are ratcheting up their support for a new foray into coal mining and power generation, even as neighboring states call for a global reduction in carbon emissions to stave off a catastrophic rise in the sea level.
PNG’s mining minister, Johnson Tuke, recently hailed the prospect of a new coal industry to boost government revenue and public access to electricity, following visits to coal mines and power stations in Australia. PNG has no coal mines or coal-fired power plants; in Australia, 60 percent of grid electricity comes from burning coal.
But the burning of coal is one of the largest contributors to human-driven climate change, setting PNG up on a collision course with smaller Pacific island states, such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, where rising sea levels threaten coastal communities and undermine water and food security. Leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum — which comprises 18 states, including PNG, Australia, Kiribati and Tuvalu, among others — emphasized during their annual summit in Nauru last year that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific.”
“This move by the PNG government is a total negation of the plight that the small island states in the Pacific are facing due to the negative impacts of climate change,” says Tafue Lusama, a climate change activist and leader of the Tuvalu Christian Church. “For one of our own brother countries in the Pacific to turn its back on our struggles is [an issue] that needs serious pleading and dialogue.”
Australian extractive and energy company Mayur Resources has plans to construct a mixed coal power station in the eastern PNG port city of Lae, in the province of Morobe. Mayur, which has a major stake in coal exploration in neighboring Gulf province, signed a memorandum of agreement last October with the Lae city authority and the Morobe government to build an “Enviro Energy Park.” The project, which aims to use solar energy, coal and renewable biomass sourced within the country to generate electricity, has received environmental approval and is backed by Mining Minister Tuke, Energy Minister Sam Basil, and Lae MP John Rosso.
Mayur says coal is needed to help provide cheap, reliable electricity, and will help boost living standards and economic growth.
“We, as a 100 percent PNG industrial minerals and energy-focused business, are passionate about injecting all forms of energy that are cheaper and better environmentally than what PNG currently has, that also generates local industry and displaces imported energy fuels, such as heavy fuel oils and diesel, that drain PNG’s wealth,” Paul Mulder, Mayur Resources’ managing director, tells Mongabay.
Although the country produces and exports natural gas, refined and crude petroleum accounted for 11.2 percent of PNG’s total imports in 2017, costing the country nearly $400 million.
“If PNG ever wants to get to Australia’s level of prosperity, it will need to install 20,000 megawatts,” Mulder says. “PNG is not even managing 100 megawatts being installed per year. PNG political leaders have to somehow explain that it will take PNG 200 years from today to achieve the same living standard as Australia. This does not even cater for the huge population growth over the next two centuries which PNG will have… I am sure there is not one politician, not one business owner or one resident who wants to wait that long.”
PNG has one of the world’s lowest electrification rates: only about 13 percent of its people have access to mains electricity. Rugged forest-covered mountain ranges and scattered islands make grid-based power distribution a logistical challenge. This lack of access to electricity, widespread in rural areas where more than 80 percent of the country’s 8.2 million people live, contributes to the country’s low human development; an estimated 40 percent of people live below the poverty line.
Nevertheless, the PNG government is yet to issue any coal mining licenses and the proposed Enviro Energy Park remains in limbo without a power purchasing contract.
Mayur was invited by state-owned PNG Power Ltd. to submit a proposal in 2015, but the proposal has yet to be assessed by the power company’s board. PNG Power underwent a major restructuring in 2018, and with the new management came new priorities. In February, PNG Power’s acting managing director, Carolyn Blacklock, told the Post Courier newspaper that the utility now plans to increase the use of renewable energy without coal, and that a competitive, public bidding process will be required before any new projects are commissioned.
“It is not a planned activity of PNG Power and is not being considered,’ Blacklock said of Mayur’s 2015 proposal.
“Mayur has been waiting three years since its PPA [power purchasing agreement] submission,” Mulder said. “It could have already built the two 30 MW units of power generation on the Western Tidal Basin in Lae, providing businesses with extremely cheap steam and generating very reliable power with solar, coal and biomass that would already be saving PNG Power tens of millions of kina.”
There could be changes in the country’s power industry with a new National Energy Bill currently being finalized. If passed, this would mandate a National Energy Authority to enforce safety and quality standards in the industry, encourage more power companies to operate, and increase competitive electricity pricing.
But there is still opposition from civil society, even after Mayur arranged for Australian rugby legends Sam Thaiday and Darren Lockyer (who is employed as the company’s business affairs manager), to visit PNG earlier this year and talk up the coal industry. Local environmental group Nogat Coal PNG and landowners in Morobe province’s Markham Valley, the site of a potential biomass energy project, say coal has no place in the country.
The Australian-backed case for coal faces wider opposition. Many leaders across the Pacific view the developed nation’s refusal to transition away from coal and reduce its carbon emissions — which reached a record high of nearly 530 million tonnes in March last year — as contributing to their potential demise due to climate change.
“As I always say in my advocacy works around the globe, and especially to big industrialized countries, your actions and decisions now will catch up with you sooner than later,” Lusama says. “For what we are facing today will only accelerate according to such ignorant decisions, and by the time you feel the wrath of the devastating impacts of climate change, it will be far too late to do anything.”